Photos: Glue Through a Microscope

While living at Ferry Farm, Mary Washington, mother of George, owned a creamware punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif and cherry accents.  Archaeologists excavated pieces of this bowl from the cellar of the Washington home and subsequently discovered glue residue on the sherds.

PunchBowl

cherry-sherds

interior-glue copy

We’ve written about the importance of the bowl’s discovery here and even showed how we recreated a glue similar to the one used to repair the bowl here.

As part of our continuing efforts to learn as much as we can about the punch bowl and these glue residues, we took the sherds to the archaeology lab at Dovetail Cultural Resource Group here in Fredericksburg, where they took photos using a microscope.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

 

Video: Tricks of the Trade – Archaeology Lab Edition

Sometimes, it can be a challenge to precisely identify an artifact. When faced with this challenge, archaeologists working in the lab put their five senses to work and call upon some interesting ‘tricks of the trade’ to make those difficult identifications.

Learn more about archaeology and being an archaeologist during Archaeology Day at Ferry Farm on Monday, February 15 from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Visit http://www.ferryfarm.org for event details.

Glue: The Coolest Thing I’ve Ever Found

As an archaeologist, I am often asked “What is the coolest thing you’ve ever found?”  The answer is complicated.  Although I’ve unearthed 10,000 year old Paleoindian hearths, elaborate porcelains, coins, long lost jewelry, and ancient stone tools, I say that the coolest thing I’ve ever found is …. glue.  This proclamation always elicits questioning looks from well-meaning folks who expect something a little more glamorous.  Let me tell you why, to date, glue is the “coolest thing I’ve ever found.”

It’s not just the glue itself that is incredible but also the object on which the glue was found.  When I started working at George Washington’s Ferry Farm, my first assignment was to examine creamware associated with Mary Washington, George’s mother, which was excavated from the cellar of the Washington home.  I focused on a lovely punch bowl with beautiful hand-painted enamel depicting a floral motif with cherry accents.  Obviously, we adore cherries at Ferry Farm, being the setting of the fabled chopping down of a certain tree by young George, and we wanted to learn more about it.

PunchBowl

cherry-sherds

The punch bowl was manufactured in the 1760s or early 1770s.  It exhibited a lot of use wear, indicating it was obviously a favorite of Mary’s.  The punch bowl was of a size designed to be passed around at a gathering for each guest to take a sip directly from it.  This was a time before germs were well understood.  Thankfully, for health’s sake, 18th century punch contained a hefty amount of alcohol.  This also meant that punch was not cheap.  Actually, the production and drinking of punch was very much a ceremonial form of conspicuous consumption.  Mary chose this special bowl as much for its beauty as for its function.

After close inspection of the vessel, I noticed a strange substance adhering to many of the edges.  This unsightly brown stuff extended across the many breaks in the bowl and, upon microscopic examination, exhibited suspicious brush marks.  Furthermore, additional ceramics from the same cellar excavation revealed similar residues.  Could it be glue? If it were, this would shed light on a previously unknown behavior taking place in the Washington home – the breaking and subsequent repair of ceramics.  We had to know!  What followed was a multi-year study during which we tested the historic glue residue samples utilizing mass spectrometry courtesy of Eastern Michigan University. We spent months researching historic glues, replicating those glues, and then breaking and mending much thrift store pottery with the aforementioned glue in the name of science.  The conclusion?  We had indeed discovered eighteenth century glues!

interior-glue copy

While this may not seem like a ‘eureka’ moment, it was actually quite significant.  First of all, it’s amazing that 250-year-old glue survived in the ground for so long.  Second, the discovery improves our understanding of Mary Washington, a woman that gave birth to and shaped the young life of our first president.  By replicating period glues and mending modern pottery, we also learned that the vessels Mary had repaired probably were not used for anything other than display after mending.  They could not have held a liquid, which means that after it was broken and mended, the beloved punch bowl was probably relegated to mantle or shelf where the delicate hand-painted flowers and charming cherries could be admired but never used for its intended purpose ever again.

We also concluded that Mary herself would probably not have made and applied the glues personally.  Turns out making eighteenth century glues involved a wide array of bizarre and often stinky ingredients including ox gall, animal hide, bull’s blood, garlic, eggs, cheese, isinglass (extracted from a fish’s swim bladder), and the slime from garden snails (yep). Watch the video below to see how colonial-era glue was made. You can also click here. It was a time consuming and messy endeavor that was likely undertaken by the enslaved people living at Ferry Farm rather than by the mistress of the house.

To date, seven vessels belonging to Mary exhibit glue residue.  Interestingly, even though a professional mender was operating in the town of Fredericksburg just across the river from where she lived, Mary chose to have glue prepared at home with which to repair her ceramics. That, plus the fact that she had these pieces mended even though she could never use them again means Mary was a thrifty woman who saw the value in displaying the objects.  Perhaps demonstrating that she owned these highly fashionable ceramics took precedence over using them?

What makes the glues even more exciting is that nowhere in the historic record does it mention that Mary was repairing ceramics at home.  Our only evidence for this activity is archaeological and it has revealed a previously unknown aspect of her life.  Perhaps now the question is not “Did George chop down the cherry tree?” but rather “Did George break the cherry punch bowl”?

And all that is why glue is the coolest thing I’ve ever found.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Video – Experimental Archaeology: Stone Tool Making

Archaeologists at Ferry Farm regularly find evidence of ‘expedient’ tool making by Native Americans. These quickly-made tools were created for a single, immediate job and, once used, just discarded. In this video, we break off a flake of obsidian and use it to fillet a fish.

See the other videos in our Experimental Archaeology series: glue-making, stoneboiling, and earth oven cooking.