TO GLAZE OR NOT TO GLAZE
This installment comes about for two separate but complementary reasons that fit together like a jigsaw. One was reading about glazed pottery in Julian D. Richard’s Viking Age England, a very interesting and informative book dealing with the Norse culture in Britain. The second was an inquiry from friend, Tim Jorgensen, a couple days later that forced me to reread parts of the book before answering him. These two things got me thinking and realizing that I really should try to comment on what Viking Age reenactors should and should not be looking for.
Should pottery used in Viking reenactment have a glaze? That is a very controversial question, since it would appear in artefacts of the time—both Norse and Anglo-Saxon—glazing is found but is not catholic or common. There is pottery that has a glaze and pottery that does not have a glaze. Pottery from some areas—and presumably nations or cultures—is not the same as in other areas, so a universal, generalized statement is of no more validity in this instance than in many others.
Glaze is a layer or coating which covers the pottery and then has been fused to pottery. Glaze can serve to color, to decorate, to strengthen or to waterproof the pottery, and its fusing process involves a certain amount f heat, that was more difficult to attain during the Viking Age because of its technology. On the Regia pottery page, Ben Levick and Roland Williamson note that “Sometimes the pottery was glazed with simple glazes, most often of yellow or olive green (the technique of glazing appears to have been reintroduced from the Byzantine countries through France). Other pottery was decorated with a red paint or slip in the continental style….In the early period the pots were fired in a covered fire pit called a clamp. This did not always reach a very high temperature so the pots often did not fire very well. The fire that was built over the pots excluded most of the oxygen which fired the pottery black or charcoal-grey. By the later period firing was done in a simple kiln which was easier to control, guaranteeing a better and more even firing.” The temperature was still more primitive3 and, therefore less effective, than that easily attained in later times
To a good extent, it appears that the probability of an object being glazed was influence by what the object was. It makes sense that the pottery that was glazed had a specific and dedicated use. For example, Ian Richards in The Viking World, notes that flasks, lamps, spouted pitchers and sprinklers were more likely to be glazed, while cups, mugs and bowls were not.
The colors also appear to be relevant, and they are relevant for both glazed and unglazed pottery. Richards notes in that book notes that “The potters generally selected white-firing clays, enable then to achieve clear yellow, or olive-green colour Experiments in glazing dark reduced wares, such as at Lincoln, tended to be short-lived.” To the list of likely colors, we will add yellow-orange, which was found in York. Therefore, you would not usually find a piece of pottery that was dark, such as dark red, strong, dense colors, though an area such as Stamford seemed to have glazed pottery and painted it red from the beginnings of the industry in the ninth century. Richards notes that “Their sudden appearance suggests that they may have been introduced by foreign potters working in Stamford. These are unlikely to have been Danes, as the idea originated in northern France or the Low Countries.”
Many of the potters with whom I had talked about this do not lave their pottery unglazed—one worker I know glazes the inside but not the outside in some instances—partly for commercial reasons—many clients will not buy unglazed pottery since they feel, perhaps justifiably in some instances, that it is unsafe—and partly because they fear a law against its sale. While it is true that unglazed pottery can be more dangerous—harboring unsafe bacteria or other toxins despite cleaning—I am unaware of any such law—which is not the same as saying that no such law exists anywhere—I am amused by the imagined loopholes that some potters—such as the one above who glazes only the interior of pottery—willingly jump through!
In the end, I can only note that when you accumulating kit for your impression or for the portrayal of your wic, that you consider whether you should have glazed or unglazed pottery, what colors you should have and the forms, designs and markings. When purchasing pottery for use in your kit, it would be best to take a look at designs, styles and forms that have been found in that area during the time you are reenacting. It is my feeling that most pottery in your kit should be unglazed if it is more common and smaller, while glazing should be used on larger, more specialized and more important–-to you if nothing else—pieces. The colors of both the glazed and the unglazed pottery are dependent on the class and the location in which the pottery was created. A compromise—for safety matters—might be involved as well.
I recommend that you have an idea of what you want and that you shop around. And if you do not find what you are looking for, talk to the potters! They may relish the challenge. They might disdain the restrictions of accuracy. And they might be able to direct you to other potters who would be able to give you what you need or to willingly and perhaps profitably debate the matter.
Pottery from the era is readily available—in shards if nothing else—and there have been many studies that reenactors might find educational and engaging. For example, I might note this ebook available for free from the York Archaeological Trust.