Digging up the past

Archaeologists, volunteers search for clues to pottery history

By Henry Culvyhouse

STRASBURG — Archaeologists and volunteers on Tuesday began digging into Strasburg’s pottery past.

The Strasburg Steam Pottery began operation in 1891 on the site of the Strasburg Museum, producing flowerpots, jars, jugs, pans, spittoons, crocks and tile from stone and clay. The company distributed its products as far north as Hagerstown, Maryland, as far south as Lynchburg and as far west as Romney, West Virginia.

After the Southern Railway constructed a depot on the site in 1913, little was left of the plot’s pottery production. Bob Jolley, an archaeologist with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, said he hopes this week’s dig will help people in Strasburg get in touch with their past.

“Each year we try to get the community involved with some archaeological projects so they can get a better understanding of the area’s history,” Jolley said. “We usually work with local volunteers during these digs.”

Jolley said the site workers are not only trying to find pottery, but also materials and tools from the operation as well.

“We’re looking for more mundane artifacts, pieces that could tell us how they loaded the kilns, how they worked, basically,” Jolley said. “Sometimes firings weren’t perfect, so we’re also looking for pottery remains of jugs and pots that could tell us what kind of glazes they used.”

According to Jolley, about half-a-dozen potters operated in Strasburg during the 19th century. Unlike other potters, such as George Mill or John Bell, products from The Strasburg Steam Pottery did not bear any marks signifying their origins.

Jolley said one of the main challenges of the dig is the small area of the site.

“We can only work on this grassy area between the parking lot and the museum, and we can only go thirty feet back,” Jolley said.

During a dig, archaeologists look for undisturbed layers of soil from the era they are investigating. Jolley said much of the soil at the Strasburg museum was disturbed when the railroad company came in the early 20th century.

“We’ve found a couple artifacts in one of the dig sites in a disturbed area. However, we’re hoping to find an undisturbed area once we dig deeper,” Jolley said. “However, we know things are promising here because we found pieces of pottery in the gravel of the parking lot.”

Jolley said the work does not end when the digging stops.

“For every hour on site, I’m looking at three to four hours processing, marking and cataloging artifacts in the office,” Jolley said.

Digging is expected to continue through Thursday.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com