Fires of Prometheus

An assemblage of pottery from my allotment


This mini-study was carried out in 2009 to create part of a portfolio for the module Doing Historical Archaeology in my MA course in Historical Archaeology at the University of Leicester.


An assemblage of ceramic fragmentary ceramics from an allotment garden is examined in detail. It is suggested that if more assemblages of this type were collated the quantitative data might be of use in dating sites where the occupation/activity period is unknown or uncertain.


Whitemoor Allotments are situated in an inner suburb of Nottingham.

The allotments consist of 141 council-owned plots situated on the west bank of the southwards flowing River Leen, partly within its historical floodplain, and separated from it by a railway line (1849) and a tramline (2004). On early Ordnance Survey maps, including 1836, 1899, 1908 and 1913 the area was shown as open fields (Fig. 1), although allotments already existed alongside the adjacent railway line. Housing was established to the west in the early twentieth century.

The nearest known ancient settlement is that of Old Basford, which has been recorded as being settled since Saxon times (Mellors 1914). During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the working-class communities of New Basford and Hyson Green approached from the east. The area was an industrial one, with gas works and lace factories in ecidence, as well as a colliery to the west.

The plots are almost level, and the soil consists of a deep layer of light loam (up to 50cm) above sand. The vegetable gardens have been continuously cultivated since 1919. The pottery in this assemblage has been collected from the soil surface over a period of three years during the process of digging my plot number 45 (Fig. 3).

Digging has occurred in all areas of the plot at irregular intervals, carried out mostly in the autumn and winter. The surface area of the plot is approximately 600 sq yards (549 sq metres).

Associated artefacts

A few clay pipe stems and bowls, none of which bore identification, have been observed and collected. Other finds included two heavily-abraded glass marbles, two bottle screw-stoppers (one labelled Home Brewery Daybrook, the other Taylor & Co. Long Eaton), a single four-faceted worked flint (perhaps a waster), a racing pigeon leg ring (1959) and a single identifiable fragment of green-glass beer bottle bearing the word Notti[ngham] but with an unclear trade mark. The soil contains abundant fragments of window glass, presumably from cloches and greenhouses. There are also many iron and steel nails, none of which have been collected. Two halfpennies were found, dating from 1914 and 1941, a threepenny of 1964 and an Italian 10 centesimi of 1867.


The sherds were collected by the author while turning over the topsoil using a spade or fork, or making a visual survey of the disturbed soil surface. Only sherds bearing obvious decoration were collected. The sherds were measured along the longest side.

The pottery

A total of 137 sherds was collected. The sherds range in size from 14mm to 50mm (Fig. 4). The sherds were sorted into seven categories of decoration listed in Table 1 and shown graphically in Fig. 5.

The Assemblage


Fig. 6 shows examples of blue and white "Willow Pattern" sherds, Fig. 7 examples of other patterns, Fig. 8 some body sherds bearing floral patterns and Fig. 9 examples of what I have called "modern" (i.e. post 1919) vessels. These categories are of necessity crude at this stage, and there are likely to be a few sherds that are mis-categorised, but not enough to affect the overall discussion of the material. It was not possible within the scope of this essay to identify any of the patterns, though this is likely to be possible in a few cases where enough of the pattern is visible. Only a very small number of sherds were found to match or join.

Pictorial patterns:

Two sherds (Figs. 10, 11) appear to be from children's vessels, one (Fig. 10) featuring a ladder ("L for ladder?"), the other (Fig 11) a scene with a bowl and jug. One sherd (Fig. 12) features a castle. Castles are very common in earthenware transfer-printed patterns, and this one could be from the background to a "Jenny Lind" pattern (Fig. 14) or from the "British Scenery" series, perhaps from the background of a "Cottages and Castle" pattern. If so it would have been manufactured before 1880. The fragment of classical steps behind hoop skirted ladies (Fig. 13) could be from an "Italian Scenery" series. It has not been possible within the scope of this essay to take the identification and dating of these fragments further.

A single makers mark was found (Fig. 15). This is almost certainly a Stoke on Trent potter, either Johnson Brothers (Fig. 16) or Charles Meakin, both of Hanley. If so, it dates from between 1883 and 1913.


The small size of the pottery fragments on the plot (all <50mm) is almost certainly due to the effects of intensive cultivation using hand tools including spades, forks and hoes. It is not known whether the area had been ploughed before becoming allotments, or whether mechanical cultivators have been used on the plot in the past. Since the area was previously open fields, with no occupation nearby, it must be assumed that material predating the allotments was brought to the site. City wastes, especially sweepings and ashes, were often spread on fields as fertilisers, often mixed with the contents of privies. Some may have been brought to the site in manure, though the relationship between the types of wares (mostly tea services) and the sources of manure is obscure. A few vessels may have been broken on site, but again the likelihood of tea services being utilised either in open fields or vegetable gardens is unlikely. Vegetable growers commonly maintain compost heaps, and broken crockery may arrive on site in kitchen waste, but the majority of types of wares most common in this soil appear to predate the beginning of vegetable cultivation. Also, is likely that if potsherds arrived on the site in compost and manure (i.e. since 1919) or were utilised by the gardeners, they would be larger than the fragments collected.

The assemblage appears to include a majority of examples of ceramics dating from before the allotments were established. The material exhibits a very small proportion of more exotic "pictorial" patterns, the greater proportion being blue-patterned and "Willow Pattern" wares. Very few fragments can be matched, either by colour or design, indicating that, although the fragments are small, they nevertheless originate from a significant number of vessels. I suggest that the "ordinary-ness" of the majority of types of ceramics collected here indicates that they originated from working-class waste.

It is also interesting that the proportion of light blue wares is higher than of Willow Pattern, when it is generally accepted that the latter was generally more popular. Is this a local anomaly? is it an artefact of class or taste? Were light blue patterns more of less expensive than Willow Pattern? Were light blue patterns applied to vessels that survived the taphonomy of this location better than Willow Pattern vessels?

It would be worth comparing this relatively "young" allotment site to older sites such as those at St Annes in Nottingham, established before 1835 ( as well as even "younger" sites, especially those that have involved the cultivation of previously open fields.

It should be possible to collect similar assemblages of topsoil artefacts from many allotments, given their popularity and the continuous, labour-intensive methods used in their cultivation, by simply requesting that each plot holder takes part in a large-scale survey by collecting decorated sherds and related artefacts over a number of seasons. Assemblages could then be compared over the site and between sites, and potentially related to nearby historic communities.


It is likely that this assemblage represents two sources. Firstly, that which collected in open fields prior to about 1919, and which, given the paucity of high-quality wares, it is suggested originated in the waste of households that were of average or lower income during a period that ranged over the latter half of the C19th. The second period, represented by far fewer vessels, was the period 1919 to present, when rubbish was brought to the allotment either in compost or as complete vessels for use in the garden.

Since allotments are heavily cultivated, they offer a valuable opportunity to collect large numbers of (necessarily small) potsherds that in theory originated close to the site. Despite their diminutive size, many sherds can be identified to a reasonable level. Comparison with other allotment sites, especially those which have been under cultivation for longer periods, or have just begun cultivation, may also begin the creation of a useful corpus of quantitative data that could be of use when extracting information from the undervalued "topsoil" of other sites. Often regarded as "background noise" on archaeological sites, this type of material may nevertheless offer insights into the recent past.

Whitemoor allotments on old OS map Fig. 1: The location of Whitemoor allotments as depicted on the 1913 Ordnance Survey edition.

Location of allotment 45 Fig. 2:The location of Allotment 45.
Fig. 3: Histogram showing range of fragment sizes. Table 1: Decoration types. Fig. 4: Histogram showing relative numbers of different decoration types. Fig. 5: Examples of rims of "Willow Pattern" vessels. Fig. 6: Examples of rims of vessels bearing other patterns. Fig. 7: Examples of body sherds with floral patterns. Fig. 8: Examples of rims of "modern" vessels. Fig. 9: A sherd with a ladder image. Fig. 10: A sherd with an image including a bowl and ewer. Fig. 11: A sherd with a castle view. Fig. 12: A sherd with a classical image. Fig. 13: An example of a castle from a "Jenny Lind" view. Fig. 14: Makers mark.
Fig. 15: An example of a Johnson Bros. makers mark.