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Photo: Joachim Rotteveel

Functional use of sgraffito earthenware

The utilitarian function of a decorated domestic object can be understood both in a practical as well as a symbolic sense. Based on archeologica evidence, coming from late medieval Dutch cities, one can conclude that a certain assortment of everyday pottery with or without any form of decoration has been in use in every late medieval household. Cooking pots, water jugs, mixing bowls, porringers, storage jars and dishes have been produced in large quantities by local and regional potters, which found their way to the households by way of local and regional markets. Luxury earthenwares with characteristic designs and decorations were mostly imported from elsewhere.

Paintings, engravings and miniatures confirm the presence of simple and plain utilitarian pottery. It is quite rare though to find depictions of decorated redware on late medieval images. Important sources for the study of late medieval earthenware, such as archeological finds, museum collections, paintings, engravings and miniatures, can be supplemented by data from written sources, such as probate inventories, books on table manners and cookery books, in which, although rarely, domestic pottery is mentioned. Earthenware by itself did not represent a certain material value, in comparison to pewter, brass, silver or gold. An interdisciplinary approach of the material, visual and written sources is therefore important.

At first sight, the 'primitively' decorated sgraffito earthenwares must have been part of the material culture of the common people. Looking at the possibility that local potters must have been inspired by foreign examples create their own sgraffito, their wares must have been regarded as an attractive and almost exotic product. The question is in what way these Dutch sgraffito wares can be positioned in relation to the local slipwares that was in use in the Netherlands since the 14th century. Based on the rather limited amount of examples of sgraffito-earthenware known sofar, this type of pottery does not seem to have been a mass-produced item. The relatively large size of specially the sgraffito dishes seems to refer to the possibility that these objects were produced for special occasions, partly in commission. Utility marks, such as soot and knife carvings, point to the fact that these objects have been actively in use in the late medieval household. Some dishes show pierced holes through the rim, which were done by the potters, for the owner to hang these plates on the wall. Pierced holes however, can also refer to the manner in which these plates were stored in cupboards. In any case, these objects, as 'drawings in clay' were part of the rich visual culture of the late Middle Ages in the Netherlands, and they must have functioned in a diversity of households in their own way.