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.



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


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.



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

The Science of History: Experimental Archaeology & Colonial Cheese Glue

Archaeologists sometimes recreate technology from the past to understand how people lived. This is called experimental archaeology. When archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm found glue residue on sherds of Mary Washington’s china, they developed ways to recreate this glue. This video explains the glue making process and what recreating the glues revealed about Mary.


Mending Those Humble Sherds

What do archaeologists do with the broken ceramic and glass artifacts after these objects have been excavated, cleaned, and catalogued? They are cool to look at but what do these little pieces actually tell us about the past? How can we use them to understand the lives of those who purchased, used, and eventually discarded them?

One method is by mending the sherds (‘sherd’ is the term we use to describe broken pieces of ceramic and glass) to re-create the vessels. We mend by spreading out all of the fragments on a table and carefully seeing which ones fit together. Then, we use non-damaging tape to join the pieces temporarily. If deemed appropriate, we might decide to carefully glue the sherds together – with removable archival glue, of course!

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington's Ferry Farm

Sherds to be mending in the Archaeology Lab at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

As archaeologists mend and a vessel takes shape, we can determine a number of details about the object we couldn’t when it was just a pile of broken stuff! First, we can figure out what type of vessel it was and what its uses were. Determining the vessel type helps us figure out what activities took place in a given excavation area. Cooking vessels mean the area was used for food preparation. Plates, bowls, and cups show the area was used for dining while crocks indicate a storage area.

Second, we can determine how much a mended vessel was used by the “use-wear” present on it. For instance, a chamber pot kept under a bed and drawn out from its storage place a couple of times a day will start to exhibit wear marks on the base where it is dragged across the floor. These grooves usually run parallel with the handle. The longer the pot is used the more wear it acquires. The same goes for knife-marks on dinner plates or stir-marks in drinking vessels. However, it is difficult to truly examine the use of a chamber pot using just one sherd. It is preferable to have as much of a whole vessel as possible, so we must mend!

Yay! They match!

Yay! They match!

Within the archaeological community, the general opinion is that mending is a fun activity. It definitely is! What is more fun than taking ancient fragments long-ago discarded by their owners and creating tankards, porringers, teapots, jugs, and all manner of other vessels that say something about who used them? It is one thing to show someone a sherd of porcelain and say “George Washington’s mother may have owned this” and quite another to show them a mended teapot and declare “George Washington was served tea from this very pot!” That being said, mending is also frustrating at times. Imagine taking 100 puzzles, mixing them all together, throwing away 90 percent of the pieces, and then trying to work the puzzles! This is basically mending in a nutshell. Some of us stare at the sherds for so long that we see them when we close our eyes or go to sleep! Now, that’s dedication!

It is rare that an entire vessel can be completely reconstructed. When an object is broken, perhaps all of the fragments do not get swept up and deposited in the same place. Areas where people lived sometimes become agricultural fields and are plowed for decades or longer, resulting in fragments of vessels being further broken and scattered about the landscape. Insects and animals move artifacts when burrowing in the soil, a process termed ‘bioturbation’. We do the best we can with the artifacts we’ve recovered.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830.  This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Pearlware waste or ‘slop’ bowl. Hand painted. Made in England between 1795 and 1830. Excavated at Historic Kenmore. This bowl would have been used during the tea ceremony as a receptacle for spent tea leaves or unwanted cold tea before refilling a cup with hot tea.

Still, archaeologists really love when we mend a vessel to near perfection and put it on display for the public along with all the information we’ve learned from it. We’ve actually just finished mending German Westerwald stonewares and we’ll share some of that project’s results in the not-too-distant future. Soon, we’ll be moving onto English white stonewares. On your next visit to Ferry Farm, you’ll likely see a mending project on display in our laboratory and maybe some of our talented staff working hard to unlock the secrets contained within those humble sherds!

Mara Kaktins
Archaeologist/Ceramics and Glass Specialist