Shell Edge

by Colleen Boyle CART Archaeological Technician

Recent excavations by CART have recovered different types of ceramic artifacts, one type being shell edge refined earthenware. These sherds can be identified through their characteristic molded or embossed rims, some of which have a distinctive green or color that can stand out when excavating a feature.

With a fairly large production date range of 1770-1860, shell edge designs were some of the most popular and least expensive colored table wares of their time. This style is seen on refined white earthenware primarily pearlware and were inspired by Rococo designs. The scalloped edges and fine colored feathers vessel rims. The shell edge designs were usually seen on plates and would rarely be seen on other vessel forms (MAC Lab 2015). An easy way for archaeologists to narrow the date is to look at the quality of the decorations, in most cases finer details in the molding and painting means an earlier production date (McAllister 2001).

The molded or embossed edge designs range from a finely cut feathered or geometric patterns, scalloped edges, and sometimes agrarian symbols like wheat or fish scales (McAllister 2001). Color is the other distinct element of this ceramic as the brightly colored rim, is often seen in deep blues and greens and occasionally red. The paint is applied in careful brushstrokes around the rim of the vessel while the rest of the plate remained undecorated. In some instances transfer prints could be added to the mainly uncolored plate but it was more common to leave the center plain. A clear lead glaze would then be applied to the ceramic sealing in the design along the rim.

In the later years of its production, the shell edge design was simplified to a plain rim but still retained the colored edges as well, as the transition from the use of pearlware to the cheaper whiteware.



McAllister, Lisa. 2001. Collector’s Guide to Feather Edge Ware, Identification & Values. Collector Books.

MAC Lab, 2015. “Edged Earthenwares.” Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Accessed July 7 2017.

SMU Department of Anthropology, 2013. “Shell-edged Pearlware.” Saint Mary’s University Department of Anthropology. Accessed July 7 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.
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