The Ball Clay Tobacco Pipe

by Haley HoffmanArchaeological Field and Lab Technician

One common type of artifact recovered by CART during excavations around the county is the clay pipe. Colonial pipes are typically made of ball clay, a kaolinitic sedimentary clay containing varying amounts of mica and quartz (Old Hickory Clay Co. 2015).

Tobacco has played a very prominent role in Virginia’s history. Before European production of tobacco, Mesoamericans and subsequent North American Indians smoked tobacco for cultural and sacred purposes (Peach State Archaeological Society 2017). Tobacco was introduced in England in the 1570s and was commonplace by the early 1700s. Tobacco farming was introduced to the mainland colonies in the early 17th century by John Rolfe (Hume 1969). To learn more about Virginia and the rise of tobacco, see Tobacco Production & the Town of Colchester.

A pipe can be divided into two main parts, the bowl and the stem. The bowl is where the tobacco is inserted and lit. The bowl can be intricately molded with designs or maker’s marks or left bare. Some pipes were formed with heel or spur underneath the bowl. Recently we found a pipe spur that had the initials “W” one one side and “I” on the other.

Broken Pipe Bowl Spur with “W”

The practice of putting initials on the heels started in the late 17th century and continued into the 19th century (Hume 1969). The stem portion can be varying lengths and includes the bore hole and mouthpiece. Pipe stems are found much more often than pipe bowls on archaeological sites. This is probably due to the fact that stems were fairly long and easily broken .

There are currently three ways to date a pipe with varying accuracy: bore width, bowl form and maker’s marks. Pipe dating by bore width was introduced by J. C. Harrington in 1954. It separates bore sizes into six time spans ranging from 1590 – 1800. The larger bores being older and the smallest being more recent. Although Harrington doubted the accuracy of his methods, they have proven fairly accurate with large sample sizes (Hume 1969). Lewis Binford later modified and improved Harrington’s method using a statistical formula (Cambridge Archaeology Field Group 2012). Dating based off of bowl form and decoration was introduced by archaeologist Adrian Oswold in 1951 (Hume 1969). His chronology gives a general idea of pipe bowl trends starting with simple bowls and becoming more elaborate over time. Exact bowl measurements are not particularly helpful when determining date because each producer had their own distinct molds. Lastly, maker’s marks, if present, can be very helpful in determining pipe dates. In addition to the maker’s mark itself, the location of it on the pipe can also suggest a date range. Marks on the bottom of the heel were common in the first half of the 17th century while marks encircling the stem occurred during the first half of the 18th century (Hume 1969). Maker’s marks on the bowl somewhat particular to pipes from Bristol, like the one found at Old Colchester Park and Preserve. To read more about the pipe pictured below, see Cool Finds from 44FX0704.

Pipe Bowl with "TD" stamped on it

Pipe Bowl with “TD” stamped on it

While pipes can be difficult to date, they are none the less a unique artifact that offers us a personal look into the past.



Cambridge Archaeology Field Group
2012 Evolution of Clay Tobacco Pipes in England.

Ivor Noel Hume
1969 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Old Hickory Clay Co.
2015 Ball Clay. Electronic Document,, accessed June 8, 2017.

Peach State Archaeological Society
2017 The History of Tobacco Pipes and Their Use Among Native Americans. Electronic Document,, accessed June 8, 2017


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 Archaeology, Artifacts. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Ball Clay Tobacco Pipe

  1. John english says:

    I have a pipe that is marked TD on the back of the bowl facing the smoker. I would lime to know if you can provide me some information on its origin and date of manufacture.
    Will inclulde pictures in future emails.


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