In small things remembered; the sponge decorated ceramics from Inishark, Galway. With apologies to Jim Deetz.

[This is the text of a paper I gave at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference at Leicester in January 2013. I didn't play this on the day as Ciaran Concannon screened his own material and as a doctrinaire post-punk, I'm relatively agnostic towards diddly-eye (especially when used by academics to jazz-up Powerpoint presentations of the deserving peasantry), but this is worth a listen as you read the following... The Bothies added an element of the attack of punk to the tradition and provide excellent driving music when you want to get from Dublin to Cleggan in under four hours...]

tattiehowkers1Tattie hokers in Merkland Farm, Sorn, Ayrshire (1890s?) (John Clark Maddison)


In April last year I was asked by Ian Kuijt of the University of Notre Dame to visit his excavations on Inishark with a view to looking at the ceramics assemblage. This had been recovered from several cuttings around some of the nineteenth-century houses comprising the village at the southeastern corner of the island. Now I am not by any stretch of the imagination a ceramicist, however, on an initial appraisal, the assemblage appeared to comprise the usual nineteenth-century mass-produced transfer-printed wares along with the usual Rockingham-type teapots (Hughes n.d.). This was all quite ubiquitous stuff and not, it must be said, terribly exciting. For this was an assemblage one would generally encounter from sites of this period in any context, urban or rural, with perhaps fewer examples of coarse earthenware present than one would otherwise expect. And in this respect there is an immediate analogy to be made with the Slievemore assemblage on Achill Island which I’ll return to in a moment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIntact Spongeware bowl from House 8, Inishark

So, from my own perspective, this particular assemblage did not appear to be significantly different from anything I’d seen before in urban contexts, excepting perhaps the percentage of Spongewares coming up in the finds trays. And here, out on Shark, Spongeware comprised perhaps 40% of the entire ceramic assemblage. Indeed, only one site I’d previously excavated — in Dublin’s southwestern inner city — had yielded even a few sherds of Spongeware (Myles 2005). These had come from post-demolition disturbed strata, however up to ten individual pieces were present from the same household in one of the ‘poorest’ parts of the city. On a much larger site at Smithfield across the Liffey, where late nineteenth-century contexts were fully excavated by hand, there was no Spongeware recovered at all, and this was from an assemblage of something over 11,000 refined white-ware sherds (Myles 2002, 2003 and in prep.).

17.2.04 005Spongeware sherds from Ardee Street, Dublin 8

There is little evidence that significant quantities of Spongeware have been deposited with the National Museum of Ireland from excavations elsewhere in the city and indeed throughout the country; there may however be some confusion with Spatterwares, pottery seen more frequently in the United States although not unknown in rural Irish contexts. In fact Charles Orser illustrated several Spatterware sherds from a nineteenth-century settlement in Ballykilcline in northeastern Roscommon (Brighton and Levon White in Orser (ed.) 2006a) and this would appear to be the only exposure the material has received in the Irish literature, whatever of its presence in unpublished excavation reports.

This paper however deals specifically with Spongeware and indeed, no sherds of Spatterware were recovered from Inishark. So, first of all what is Spongeware, and how can we as archaeologists posit a meaningful connection between this material and those who lived on Shark until the evacuation of 1960? What, if anything, can we extrapolate of its significance; what can be said of the meaning this pottery might have had for those who’d acquired it, by whatever means? Is there indeed any meaning to be taken from the Spongeware in Shark at all, beyond a normative acceptance of the fact that islanders were consumers of mass-produced ceramics, one at odds with a still-prevalent notion of a population existing in a crepuscular post-Celtic time warp and all that implies in terms of the acquisition and consumption of material culture from the urban, industrialised United Kingdom.

This morning I’ll be using the presence of Spongewares on Inishark to interrogate concepts of aesthetics from a post-Marxist perspective, questioning the very notion of ‘insularity’ and all of its negative associations in terms of the survival strategies employed by the people of the island in the context of the development of the cash economy.


Once the distinction with Spatterware is made, Spongeware is quite easily defined and identifiable. The ware came from a variety of potteries, mostly in Scotland but from Stoke on Trent and smaller production centres too, with the decoration applied (according to one authority) by unskilled young women on precarious piecework rates (Kelly et al. 2001); Spongeware was by no stretch of the imagination a luxury product (Miller 1980 and 1991 and Cruikshank 1982), but it is undeniably more attractive than the more common transfer-printed wares.

IMG_7331Spongewares from House 20, Inishark

Spongeware, as identified here, was produced over a generally accepted period of between 1835 and 1935. A variant was produced for a while in Belleek, but this was seemingly only undertaken when orders were slack for their fine-wares and few, if any, stamped examples appear to survive (Degenhardt 1978 and Gordon 1980).

With the expectation that the bulk of production would be exported or distributed locally by travelling peddlers, few if any potteries bothered advertising; one account suggests that some producers may have been embarrassed to be associated with the manufacture of such base wares. Production was, in any event, more than likely directed at the export market. Where Colin Breen recovered quantities of Spongeware from the wreck of The Taymouth Castle, which sank off Antrim in 1867 en route to the Far East (Callaghan, Breen and Ní Loingsigh 2007), the wares produced in Scotland were also being shipped across the Atlantic in some quantities.

The design, once selected, was simply impressed on the piece — usually a less refined white-ware, sometimes described as biscuit — using the root of a sponge cut into the desired shape. The overlap at the beginning and end of the rim design is often disjointed, where the motifs themselves applied to the body often present as charmingly amateurish cut-outs, representing petals, chevrons, flowers and occasionally bows. The colours are vivid with equal amounts of red, green and purple used on earlier pieces, with sometimes two or three colours used together. The covering glaze often appears to be stronger than that of the transfer-printed wares and their ilk, and this is something which may be worth further analytical investigation.

IMG_6845Spongeware saucer from House 8, Inishark

By about 1870, the designs become more complicated and often flowers, birds, animals and insects were represented with a greater variety of colours used again, up to four or occasionally five on the one piece. After the turn of the twentieth century the interior bases of the bowls and the rims of the plates were sometimes printed with mottos; designs became fussier and more of the body of the vessel became covered. There would appear to have been specific market for children’s’ wares but interestingly enough, there are no known later pieces manufactured expressly as location-specific souvenirs.

IMG_6850Spongeware soupbowl from House 8, Inishark

This is perhaps significant when the developing trajectory of mass-tourism is considered, facilitated by the same newly-developed railway infrastructure which threw Scotland to the forefront of potato production in the UK from the 1880s. Indeed, seasonal migration to Scotland became central to the cash economy of Inishark from this period onwards, along with the processing of kelp in the several kilns which await further investigation on the island.

On Inishark there are no examples of these later, more specific trends in Spongeware and it would appear likely that the assemblage here represents a production period somewhere prior to 1870 with perhaps a few individual pieces with thistles, spiral and flower motifs post-dating this cut off point, oft-mentioned in the published literature (see for example Kelly 2001).

IMG_6858Spongeware saucer from House 8, Inishark

It is difficult, if not impossible to identify individual potteries from excavated assemblages; it is hard enough to distinguish individual traits in extant pieces. Few appear to have been marked or stamped, an extra expense when workers were on piecework; it may even be likely that the pieces were decorated in workshops outside of the actual potteries where the basic wares were fired. In any event, designs and colours cross-pollinated and flourished from pottery to pottery and indeed across the Atlantic, where Spongeware happily coexists with Spatterware to this day.

IMG_6861Intact Spongeware bowl from House 8, Inishark

Spongeware is on the whole though mostly associated in the published literature with Scotland and it came in many forms. Where bowls and cups appear to predominate throughout the Inishark assemblage, there are larger plates and milk jugs represented in other collections. And I think that in this case, size is important when we consider how the material may have arrived on the island.

IMG_7989Yup, well the paper was about Spongeware…

Excavated sites

Spongeware sherds have of course been excavated in some quantities along the western seaboard of Ireland and Scotland, so-called congested districts, often treated as marginal places in the social historiography. Indeed they were recovered more locally in some quantities from another island context, from the ‘deserted village’ on Achill, some 40km to the north of Inishark. Here, it’s been demonstrated by Brannon and Horning that up to as much as 80% of all ceramics recovered from two of the houses excavated comprised refined white wares, most of which were Spongewares comprising perhaps some 13% to 16% of the total artefact assemblage (N.F. Brannon pers. comm.).

The recovery of tea wares on Achill threw a few shots across the bows at what had become and indeed remains a received post-colonial narrative permeating the social sciences in Ireland, one indeed which has yet to catch up with the present crisis in global capitalism. Where it’s certainly reasonable to critique the ‘marginal’ nature of such landscapes by interrogating consumer choices seemingly at odds with received subaltern narratives of poverty and class oppression, it’s perhaps worth considering Norman Emery’s excavations on St. Kilda in the 1970s, where the presence of Spongewares was considered indicative of a choice to buy Scottish, irrespective of the low cost to the consumer relative to other wares [my emphasis] (Emery 1996).

Closer to Inishark other theoretical approaches have been taken, where consumer choice when it comes to pottery acquisition has become almost a political tool in the on-going war against the oppressor (see Horning 2006 and Orser 2006b). Reluctant as I as am to engage here with the theoretical battles fought out in the literature, I’ve been struck recently by accounts from working-class Dublin households during the 1913 Lockout where crockery, or delph as it’s always referred to, figures prominently in nearly all of the texts and newspaper reports. What really comes out is how few individual ceramic pieces existed in the typical household, and indeed, the particular attention paid by the Dublin Metropolitan Police to their destruction (Yeates 2000). This paucity of household ceramics is well illustrated in the hundreds of photographs of the period in the collection of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Corlett 2008) and one can only wonder at what sort of overtime payments the police would have received had they had jurisdiction over the ceramic-rich households of Inishark and Achill.

Poverty is however a notoriously difficult concept in archaeological discourse and I don’t think it’s particularly useful here to make sweeping statements. However, all the archaeological evidence suggests that mass-produced ceramics were more common per capita in working class households on Inishark and Achill than they were in Dublin, at least in the years prior to the First World War. This itself is a remarkable statement to make and one which deserves further research and consideration.

Accepting the obvious absence of evidence from other sites around the country, it is next necessary to ask why the vast majority of Spongeware sherds recovered in the Republic have been found in island contexts. The island locations would possibly dictate against the material being purchased by peddlers or travelling salesmen, but this cannot completely be discounted. So, how did they get to the islands and perhaps more importantly, why were they so popular?

Spongeware on Shark and Bofin

Although present in virtually all of the trenches excavated on Inishark, the incidence of Spongewares was perhaps amplified by the recovery of two almost intact bowls from House 8, where it would appear they were left with other artefacts on a dresser after the house was abandoned. Based on an interpretation of the surviving data, it is possible that a Michael Lavelle lived in this house in 1855 and indeed the structure is depicted on the 1898 edition of the Ordnance Survey 25” mapping. Where the stratigraphical evidence would suggest that the building was simply abandoned and suffered subsequent structural failure, oral histories of the island make no reference to a house at this location. In fact, football was played on the site by island boys in the 1940s.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn situ occupational debris, House 8, Inishark

Well over half the sherds recovered from House 8 were Spongewares representing at least 16 individual pieces including saucers, bowls, a tea cup and a sugar bowl, none of them part of a matching set. Irrespective of the semi-intact pieces recovered, the remaining sherds were generally larger than those sherds recovered from other trenches, suggesting they had fallen from a dresser on the collapse of the house, as opposed to their being discarded after breakage.

Other Spongeware sherds were recovered elsewhere in the topsoil and the layer immediately below, where they may have been re-deposited from nearby middens to build up and fertilise the fields. In any event, the team mostly recovered small sherds with polychrome, cut-sponge designs running around the rims of what were mostly bowls and saucers, with a few non-matching cup fragments present. There were no sets recorded and there are perhaps over 620 individual pieces represented. There was no evidence for the presence of what Dublin children would have called ‘chanies’, broken sherds ground down to a roughly circular shape and used in street games. In fact the only ceramic evidence for a child’s plaything recovered on Shark was the tiny heel of a porcelain doll.

The suggestion of a dresser display in House 8 introduces a second element of this investigation, evident on the shelves of the public bar of Murray’s Hotel on neighbouring Inishbofin. Here, and indeed in several other households on the island, intact Spongeware pieces survive, predominantly tea cups and milk jugs. These are displayed with an array of other types, usually large transfer-printed platters in the usual patterns, which may have been purchased from shops in Westport or Clifden on the mainland. In this regard, Westport had four earthenware dealers listed in the 1846 edition of Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland where Clifden, the less well established ‘capital of Connemara’ had three. Some of the pieces on display in Murray’s have an Inishark provenance, others are Inishbofin hand-me-downs with no further details of their origin given apart from the oft-proffered observation that they’re ‘prettier’ than the more common transfer-printed wares.

Jane Webster’s work in the Hebrides, where again specifically Scottish Spongewares are well represented in dresser displays (1999) has brought another approach to the study of ceramics consumption, introducing notions of display and curation. This has picked up and amplified Henry Glassie’s wide-ranging work conducted in south Fermanagh over a slightly earlier period in the 1970s. Glassie encountered Belleek Spongeware in the dressers of Ballymenone and in a few beautifully written paragraphs, he expresses something of how this material transcends its primary function, effectively becoming objects of art to be displayed and indeed curated (Glassie 1982). According to Glassie ‘old delph is preserved for display to be beautiful, to become a memory’.

Tattie howking

So, getting back to how Spongeware got to places like Shark, Bofin and Achill, the most obvious direct connection with the place of production is by means of the seasonal migration of labourers from the islands (and indeed mainland areas of Mayo, Donegal and Tyrone) to the Scottish potato harvest. It is interesting in this regard that the secondary literature suggests Achill as being the southern limit of this activity, and there is little evidence that such seasonal migration occurred from the islands further to the south (O’Dowd 1991). Shark and Bofin did however contribute to the workforce which would travel to Scotland from June to October each year, returning with cash and other perhaps other, more intangible goods to the islands.

irelandLimit of seasonal tattie-howking

If I may be allowed digress for a moment and take you away from Inishark, tattie howkers were generally accommodated together in gangs, moving from harvest to harvest, hardly ever staying at one bothy for more than four weeks. The bothies themselves were invariably briars or barns, with few accounts of temporary structures being utilised. In most accounts these had recently been cleaned out and whitewashed, although there was little attempt make to control rodent infestation. Most accounts have the workers sleeping on upturned seed boxes, with straw stuffed into a grain sack occasionally comprising a mattress. They slept under the thin cover of hessian sacking, with very few references to heating or ventilation within the bothies. This accommodation was provided free by the farmer or the potato company which took the crop. The workers were also provided with as many potatoes as they could eat and one of the gang was usually delegated as the cook.

Something which does not emerge from the secondary literature is the specifically urban location of many of these bothies within the small towns of Ayrshire and right up through the central lowlands and the east coast. The best officially documented of these bothies was on East High Street in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, some 15km to the northeast of Glasgow. In this bothy ten young Achill boys were killed in 16 September 1937 by a fire which swept through the building as they slept. Other accounts of less well known conflagrations also suggest an urban context for these bothies, bringing their inhabitants into the towns and closer to the shops where commodities could be purchased.

bothyEastside, Kirkintilloch

Now, in the midst of this narrative of doom and gloom it is not inconceivable that individual pieces of inexpensive pottery were brought back to the islands as presents for display on dressers or even for use.

Whither insularity?

There are several ways by which the condition of insularity can be negotiated, in either its literal or metaphorical sense, leading us perhaps in a more theoretical direction. As Meagan Conway will doubtless demonstrate when I (eventually) finish, the ultimate survival strategy on Inishark involved emigration to the States, most notably to Clinton MA where an expatriate community was well established by the 1920s. Yet the very insularity of life on Shark was one supported by good grazing, bountiful fishing, a cash crop in the form of kelp processing and indeed the monies brought back from the Scottish harvests. With this came a healthy cultural existence and indeed little conflict with the (Catholic) landlord and indeed the state. The eventual desertion of the island came relatively late in the sequence of other island evacuations along the western seaboard and was prompted by a single traumatic occurrence, one which only pre-dated an emergency helicopter service by eight years.

When considering life on Shark after the Famine, one can appreciate a community adjusting and adapting readily to changing conditions, one indeed considerably better housed and equipped by the first decade of the twentieth century than the urban working classes. There still persists nonetheless the image of the peasant in the cabin as caricatured in the London press, one in possession of a limited material culture where the opportunity of taking decisions based on aesthetic choices alone might be considered an unattainable or even unnecessary luxury.

Ceramic objects of the past fulfilled a role of utilitarian survival and also man’s natural tendency to create and decorate. When the choice of ceramics in common usage on the island is considered, it’s crucial to remember that those who purchased, used and displayed this pottery should not be denied the same sense of aesthetic appreciation we have today.


In conclusion, one interesting direction in the work being undertaken by Ian and his various associates has been their following that story of the people of Inishark as they travelled across the Atlantic, settling into specifically urban settings in North America. For we have again become a nation of emigrants, and emigration of course, has a special poignancy of its own. One wonders then if any examples of Spongeware ever made it across to places like Clinton, MA as a family heirloom, a memento or keepsake of the old life on the island.

Looking further backwards in time, Ian and his crew have investigated something of House 25, a hidden structure located on a cliff edge to the southeast of the village, gone prior to the Ordnance Survey in the late 1830s. When I first came to Shark last June I thought, or rather hoped, I’d be looking at lots of Iberian imports, or at least some interesting tin-glazed with the possibility of some late Galway local wares. What I found instead, and I hope you’ll all agree, is a lot more interesting.


Slater’s Commercial Directory of Ireland, 1846

Beaudry. M.C. 2007. ‘Preface: Historical Archaeology with Canon on the Side, Please’, in McAtackney, L., Palus, M. and Piccini, A. (eds) Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory. Papers from the 2003 and 2004 CHAT Conferences. BAR International Series 1677, 1-4, Oxford.

Brighton, S.A. and Levon White, J.M. 2006. ‘Teacups, saucers and dinner plates: English ceramic exports to Ballykilcline’, in C.E. Orser Jr. (ed.) Unearthing Hidden Ireland, 109-139, Bray.

Callaghan, C., Breen, C. and Ní Loingsigh, M. 2007. ‘Investigations of Taymouth Castle, a nineteenth-century composite ship lost off the coast of Northern Ireland’. Historical Archaeology, 41 (3), 25-38.

Corlett, C. 2008. Darkest Dublin. The story of the Church Street disaster and a pictorial account of the slums of Dublin in 1913. Bray.

Cruikshank, G. 1982. Scottish Spongeware. Edinburgh

Degenhardt, R.K. 1978. Belleek: The complete collector’s guide and illustrated reference, Huntington, N.Y.

Emery, N. 1996. Excavations on Hirta 1986-1990. Edinburgh.

Glassie. H. 1982. Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Dublin.

Horning, A. 2006a. ‘Archaeology, conflict, and contemporary identity in the north of Ireland: Implications for theory and practice in Irish historical archaeology’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 183-200.

———— 2006b. ‘Focus found. New directions for Irish historical archaeology’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 211-19.

Hughes, G.B. n.d. English and Scottish Earthenware 1660-1860. London.

Kelly, H.E., Kowalsky, A.A. and Kowalsky, D.E. 2001. Spongeware, 1835-1935: Makers, Marks, and Patterns, Atglen, PA.

Miller, G.L. 1980. ‘Classification and Economic Scaling of 19th Century Ceramics’, Historical Archaeology. 14, 2-39.

———— 1991. ‘A Revised Set of CC Index Values for Classification and Economic Scaling of English Ceramics from 1787 to 1880’. Historical Archaeology, 25, 1-23.

Myles, F. 2002. ‘Smithfield, Dublin 7’, in I. Bennett (ed.) Excavations 2003, No. 578, 155-7, Bray.

———— 2003. ‘Smithfield, Dublin 7’, in I. Bennett (ed.) Excavations 2004, No. 581, 154-5, Bray.

———— 2005. ‘24-26 Ardee Street, Dublin 8’. Unpublished stratigraphical report submitted to National Monuments Service.

———— in prep. Archaeological excavations in Smithfield, Dublin 7.

O’Dowd, A. 1991. Spalpeens and tattie hokers history and folklore of the Irish migratory agricultural worker in Ireland and Britain. Dublin.

Orser, C.E. Jr. (ed.). 2006a. Unearthing Hidden Ireland, Bray.

———— 2006b. ‘On finding focus’. Archaeological Dialogues, 13 (2), 202-5.

Webster, J. 1999. ‘Resisting Traditions: Ceramics, Identity, and Consumer Choice in the Outer Hebrides from 1800 to the Present’. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, 3, 1, 53-73.

Yeates, P. 2000. Lockout. Dublin 1913. Dublin.

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3 responses to “In small things remembered; the sponge decorated ceramics from Inishark, Galway. With apologies to Jim Deetz.

  1. thanks for post as my gggrandfather John Holleran from Shark

  2. Very interesting post and lovely photos. Thanks

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