By: Lauren Rossi
The vivid cobalt accents against the tan covered surface highlight the incisions carved into the mug. Although only a section of the mug has been recovered, it still reveals a great deal of information regarding where it came from and when it was made. The dimpled surface suggests a salt-glaze, the combination of a buff clay body and blue design aligns with a certain ceramic style, and the fact that it was found in North Eastern New Jersey all begin to piece together the history of the object itself, along with the people who came into contact with it.
In winter of 1978, an archaeological team uncovered evidence of Raritan Landing—a town that had previously only been heard of, but not seen in over a hundred years, since the development of Johnson Park on top of it. It was not until construction was being finished on a federal sewage project that archaeologists found house foundations, ceramics, and other sources of evidence indicative of past use. Due to the fact that construction was nearly completed for the sewage line, archaeologists had to work quickly, excavating the site in eleven weeks in freezing conditions. This limited time frame and difficult environment caused the investigation to use newer forms of technology for analyzing the landscape.
These new methods in archaeology allowed excavations and analyses to become more scientific and exact in nature. The Raritan Landing investigation is an example of this, as archaeologists limited their time digging up the land to gather data, and instead utilized devices that could measure the layers of soil and detect objects below without even breaking the soil. This included ground penetrating radar and gradiometers. Ground penetrating radar played a major role in observing what was below the layers of fill, and revealed traces of a variety of artifacts, which made mitigation between construction and archaeology possible.
In order to protect the surrounding area and any remaining objects, it was decided that the diameter of the hole for the remaining pipe would decrease by fifty percent, and be covered in steel and wood. These materials would act as a barrier between the sewage pipe and the land next to it, leaving the archaeological deposits intact. The archaeologists could then focus on excavating the parts of the site that would be directly impacted, so that the data could be saved before being erased by the pipeline. These objects would create a more complete image of what life at Raritan Landing was like.
As part of a diverse region in Piscataway New Jersey, the town was home to European immigrants as well as American colonists. Throughout the 1700’s, the site housed warehouses, buildings, and residences. It is believed that fifty-seven families inhabited the town of Raritan Landing, and two mills were present as part of their agricultural ventures. The success and growth of the area was hindered once the Revolutionary War broke out, as British troops set up camp in the town. With enemy occupation came pillage, fire, and destruction, which left the area abandoned for years even after the war ended. People began to move back into the area around 1780, but only stayed briefly, as it was being outcompeted by New Brunswick, which had better access to other towns and stronger trade connections. This led to the site essentially being abandoned, and covered with fill over time, until archaeologists found remnants of its past.
Prior to its fall, Raritan Landing operated as a far inland port for the Raritan River. Its placement by the coast offered both agricultural and economic benefits, which can be viewed through the artifacts that were recovered. One object in particular, was a salt-glazed Rhenish Westerwald stoneware mug, dating to the 18th century. This type of stoneware originates from the area surrounding the Westerwald mountain range, located in the Rhine area of Western Germany, and was a sought after ceramic during Raritan Landing’s period of occupation. It was quickly replacing the brown bodied Frechen pottery due to its less coarse body and different color. Westerwald was an ideal utilitarian vessel because it was both durable and decorative. Due to its functionality, it is unsurprising that the mug was found in the debris of a pre-revolutionary war building that had at one time stood at Raritan Landing. Archaeologists were able to make this determination of the mug’s probable location by examining the soil and rubble deposits, along with the stone foundations that were left behind.
The types of materials and process for making this type of stoneware is what made it optimal for certain uses, such as tankards, storage, or chamber pots. Westerwald uses clay that is impermeable, which makes it adept for holding liquids. The clay is also typically gray or buff in color, and maintains that shade through firing. In order to shape the clay, it was wheel thrown and then templates were used to get it into the desired vessel form. Once this was completed, the piece would then be fired at approximately 1200 degrees Celsius. What makes this particular ceramic unique is the salt-glaze. Towards the end of firing, salt is thrown into the kiln with the clay, and vaporizes from the heat, creating a clear, glossy surface with a texture similar to an orange peel. Another typical addition during firing is the chemical compound cobalt, since it can withstand the high temperatures required, and add a blue hue to the ceramic.
Aside from using color to enhance the ceramic, some potters also incorporated incisions in the clay, cording, or a special seal or mark. The mug being examined from Raritan Landing had designs incised on it, leaving imprints in the clay as a design, some of which were filled with cobalt to add color to it as well. This design was accomplished by using a rake-like tool to cut into the clay, and could either create simple lines, or be more advanced and depict floral patterns. Others, however, would have a potter’s mark to indicate who created the vessel and show ownership over the work. Or, a potter might be tasked with decorating the ceramic with a family seal of the buyer, in which case, an applique would most likely be applied. It is possible that this mug may have had a symbol to indicate the potter or family who owned it, but with only pieces of the vessel, there can be no certainty in who exactly made or used it.
Individuals of Raritan Landing would have received the Rhenish Westerwald ceramics through trade during the 18th century. The economy of the area was based on their agricultural products, which would then be exchanged for goods, such as the mug that was uncovered. Archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, who was involved in the excavation process, describes the site as a “new kind of community that is fundamentally dedicated to trade” (Route 18 Raritan Landing: A Road to the Past). During this time, the colonies were still under England’s control, and relied on this connection to obtain items not readily available amongst the colonists. England would gather the ceramics from Germany, and then sell them at the colonial ports in New York or Philadelphia, rather than the ones found at Raritan Landing or nearby New Brunswick. This was because of the larger size of the ports, as well as the type of goods they had to offer. Due to this, the people at Raritan Landing would trade livestock and crops to these middle men in exchange for the European products. The Rhenish Westerwald was at the height of its popularity during this time, so it is unsurprising that its sherds were found at the site.
Eventually, Westerwald ceramics became less desired over time as other areas outside of Germany were capable of making them. This replication of techniques and materials is present in New Jersey by the late 18th century. Cheesequake, was the first area to start creating stoneware in New Jersey, and was able to do so because of a nearby creek with the quality of clay necessary for this type of ceramic.
This production of ceramics advanced further, once some manufacturers in New Jersey focused solely on stoneware. Two of the most well-known ones being Morgan and Warn & Letts, who would ship salt-glazed stoneware pieces to other colonies. The people in the colonies were able to replicate the products from Germany by being taught by German immigrants who specialized in the craft. Over time, the process for creating the ceramics became more mechanized, leading to faster production and more uniformity. Even with these innovations, the need for stoneware continued to decrease, and the manufacturers closed, as the desire for other ceramics grew.
Although Raritan Landing remained hidden for many years, its stories and history are now readily available to the public. A permanent exhibit of the artifacts uncovered from the site are on display at the Runyon House, part of East Jersey Olde Town Village in Piscataway. The exhibit discusses the archaeological process, who was involved, and how the town was set up. Additionally, many publications have interpreted and expressed the information surrounding Raritan Landing to be made more accessible to children, teens, and young adults. Some portray fictional first person accounts of life at the site, others focus more on the excavations, but all enable the history of the region to connect to our lives today.
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Route 18 Raritan Landing: A Road to the Past. Dir. Eric Leslie. Vimeo. Vimeo, 2012. Web. 15 July 2017.
“The Morgan Pottery.” Cultural Resources Digest (2008): 1-8. The State of New Jersey. New Jersey Department of Transportation, Jan. 2008. Web. 27 June 2017.
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