3. Objectives and Problems

3.1 Objectives

The primary objective of this study is to reach a fuller understanding of the evolution and development of kilns used in the manufacture of tobacco pipes in the British Isles. It is hoped to achieve this through study of archaeological material in public collections together with the evaluation of contemporary descriptions. To this end, it is intended to record, interpret and catalogue all of the relevant archaeological material available within the defined territory. It is further intended to examine, compare and evaluate contemporary encyclopaedia descriptions which occur from the later eighteenth century onwards. These descriptions frequently contain unaccredited material taken directly from previous works; some contain obvious errors of understanding and all must be approached with caution. It is hoped that by comparison of these documents with the archaeological evidence a better understanding can be reached and reasonable projections for the forms of earlier structures be made.

3.2 Problems: Paucity of Material

The study of tobacco pipe kilns is hampered by a paucity of material. There are relatively few kiln sites that have been systematically excavated and which might therefore be expected to produce representative bodies of material. The majority of the reported groups of kiln-associated material consists of random samples kept from building works, some of which represent structural assemblages and others waste dumps. When considered collectively, these highlight a further problem. The material forms chronological clusters with certain periods well represented and others not at all. Those with the greatest survival belong to the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the whole of the nineteenth century. Of this limited corpus, only a very small part has been studied. There is a real need for a systematic analysis of all available material with a view to defining recognisable categories of object and establishing a terminology to be used by future researchers. Reliable identification and use of consistent terminology will enable direct comparisons to be made between groups. This will result in a growing corpus of published material and a greater understanding of the structures, furnishings and associated technology.

3.3 Problems: Variable Terminology

Confusion caused by variable terminology is discussed by Arnold in his report of the Hurst Court kilns, excavated in Manchester (Arnold 1983, 75). This problem is at present limited to descriptions of the inner chamber and, to a lesser degree, to what constitutes a saggar. The confusion stems from various nineteenth-century descriptions which appear in contemporary encyclopaedias. Good, writing in 1813, describes the chamber as a pot or crucible and the kiln itself as a furnace (Good et al 1813, Pipe, no pagination). Rees, in 1819, employs the same terms, though using his own text and illustration. Ure, in 1867, with a description based on Rees and for the most part taken word for word, describes the same chamber as a crucible or large saggar. These references are picked up by Norris who describes the inner chamber of the Lewes kiln as a full-sized saggar or crucible (Norris 1970, 169).

The terms pot, crucible and saggar, have all come to assume more specific meanings and their further use in connection with pipe kiln inner chambers can only prolong the confusion. Modern ceramic terminology does offer a suitable alternative, the term muffle, defined in the Encyclopaedia of Ceramic Industries, in the following manner:

MUFFLE - a chamber, case or box of refractory material, which is built in a furnace, and used to heat articles out of direct contact with flame or other products of combustion. It serves a purpose similar to a SAGGAR, but being larger is more suitable for some purposes (Searle 1930, 336)
. This also establishes the difference between a muffle and a saggar in that the first is constructed in the kiln as a fixture whilst the latter, being portable, can be placed in and subsequently removed from the kiln; both serve to protect the ware from the fire. The word muffle in this application seems to have been adopted from chemistry and metallurgy where it is known from as early as 1644 (Oxford English Dictionary 1987, I, 744). It has been used in the context of ceramics, to describe the inner chamber of enamel kilns since 1742 (Phil Trans 1742, XLII, 188) but appears not to have been applied to pipe kilns until 1906 (Benham 1906).

A greater problem exists in the total lack of an accepted terminology to describe other categories of object. Pipe kiln sites and their dumps produce a wide range of material derived variously from the structure, from repairs and alterations to the structure, from the opening and closing of the entrance to the ware chamber, from the furnishings of the ware chamber and debris from the hearth. Without an established framework around which to structure reports much of this material is frequently omitted. Once categories have been defined their recognition and interpretation will become less of a problem.

3.4 Problems: Unidentifiable Material

There will of course always be material which eludes understanding but this should not preclude its description and inclusion in the record. There are already certain objects which can be recognised but which can not be allocated any certain function. As the corpus grows it is hoped that some of these problems will be resolved. There is also a considerable quantity of fragmentary material which can provide little information other than the composition of its fabric. It is already clear that pipe makers had a considerable inherited knowledge of clay properties and of how these could be adjusted to suit differing needs. Examination of fabrics shows that they were using organic material, crushed pipe fragments and a variety of mixed mineral inclusions to alter the density, conductivity and stability of their clays, in combinations to accord with function. Careful recording of these fabric qualities together with form, surface treatment and subsequent accidental alteration or damage are the means by which to identify the function of the material to hand.

3.5 Problems: Studying Dispersed Collections

One of the major problems of this research is in the distribution of the study material over so wide a geographical area. It is not possible to compare objects one with another; such comparisons have to be made between records of objects. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the records are as comprehensive as is practicable. These records should include notes, drawings and photographs together with tabulations suitable for computer analysis. On completion these records must be condensed into a manageable catalogue. Through this process, material categories will be identified and terminology evolved.

3.6 The Origins of the Industry

The apparent early combination of variety in fabric adjustments, the construction of muffle kilns, the use of two-piece moulds and predilection for white clay begs a series of further questions about the origins of the industry:

There is little evidence of experimentation or gradual evolution. A few apparently hand-made white clay pipes have been attributed to the end of the sixteenth century, though it must be noted that good independently-dated groups from this critical period are scarce. The picture that emerges is of the complete 'package' - white clay, two-piece mould and muffle kiln - all appearing more or less together in the infancy of the industry. For this to be possible, it seems likely that a similar technological 'package' already existed in the context of some other endeavour. The materials employed and the manner of their use places the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes firmly within the broader context of ceramics and yet in English ceramic production of the sixteenth century there is no parallel for the muffle kiln, neither is there any widespread use of white firing clay, nor the two-piece moulding process. It is hoped that, through close examination of the technology via the dual avenues of archaeology and contemporary documents, it will be possible to shed light on these obscure origins.


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Last updated: Wed Oct 9 1996