A Bit about Porcelain


by Haley HoffmanArchaeological Intern

Porcelain is a fairly common fine ceramic type composed of white ball clay and fired at temperatures above 1300°C (2372°F). The paste, or body, is highly compacted and ranges in color from white to greyish blue depending on where and how it is produced. Porcelain originated in China during the sixth and seventh centuries but was not available to the West until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries through Portuguese and Dutch trade. There are two main types of Porcelain, hard paste and soft paste. It can be difficult to differentiate between some hard and soft paste porcelains.

Hard paste porcelain was originally made by the Chinese and is composed of ball clay and a finely ground feldspartic rock, petuntse. Chinese export hard paste porcelain typically has a blue to grey tint. The paste is highly compact due to high firing temperatures for long periods of time and follows a conchoidal fracture pattern similar to other fine grained materials. The glaze is usually fused to the paste. Many describe the glaze as nearly indistinguishable from the paste.

Soft paste porcelain is composed of a variety of different clays in addition to other ingredients like salt and soapstone. Eighteenth century English soft paste porcelain typically has a whiter body with a glaze that is distinguishable from the paste. The glaze was also made of a variety of different compounds and was a semi-gloss that is often distinct from the body of the ceramic. The paste is less compact, or softer, than hard paste porcelain.


One of the most commonly used porcelain decorative techniques for both Chinese export and English production were blue underglazed painted designs. Typical motifs depicted in this technique included animals, floral design, people, architecture and repetitive patterns. Willow Ware was an extremely popular blue underglaze pattern. The design has a characteristic geometric pattern around the rim and a themed landscape picture in the center.

Porcelain’s popularity, copies and reproductions of previous styles have been produced for centuries, can make dating extremely difficult. Regardless of this setback, scholars are working to identify small distinctions in marks and motifs in designs to help identify them. George Miller is one such scholar who in 2002 published an article on the subject titled, Telling Time for Archaeologist.

Fisher, Stanley William
1969 British Pottery and Porcelain. New edition. June.

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum Website: jefpat.org
2012 Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Porcelain. http://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/ColonialCeramics/Colonial%20Ware%20Descriptions/Porcelain.html

Lang, Gordon
1991 Porcelain. Miller’s Publications, June.

Palmer, Arlene M.
1976 A Winterthur Guide to Chinese Export Porcelain. Crown Publishers, New York.


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
This entry was posted in Artifacts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Bit about Porcelain

  1. Kayla says:

    What a great article! I’ve been having difficulty telling the difference between Chinese Porcelain and 18th century English porcelain.


  2. Pingback: Transfer Printing | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s