Clay pipes and the archaeologist

One of the most valuable features of clay pipes, from an archaeological perspective, is the fact that they can be closely dated. Improvements in technology, the rapid growth of the tobacco trade with the New World, bringing down prices, fashion and taste all worked together to bring about progressive developments in the shape and size of the clay pipe bowl. In 1969 David Atkinson and Adrian Oswald published a typology of London clay tobacco pipes, based on the association of dated groups of finds excavated by the Guildhall Museum and identified pipemakers. Changes and variations in form were charted at roughly 30-year intervals, providing an invaluable guide to dating that remains the basis of present clay pipe studies in London.

Pipemaker's initials WR with mullets (stars) stamped in relief on the base of the heel of a pipe dated to c 1660-80.

Pipemaker's initials WR with mullets (stars) stamped in relief on the base of the heel of a pipe dated to c 1660-80.

Since clay pipes were essentially disposable items, universally and easily obtainable and thrown away after only a few smokes, their potential for dating archaeological deposits is considerable. They do, however, have an importance that goes far beyond chronology, throwing light on the role and history of leisure and recreation in daily life, furthering our understanding of the place of smoking in society, and the organisation of the industry across the country. Their study can contribute to the comparison of regional economies within the London area, trade and contact with other regions, as well as with the Continent and North America. For these reasons excavated pipe assemblages from London are recorded in some detail, and not only on form and date. The data are stored in the MoLAS relational database and have been used in the creation of this web page. These routinely record the presence and extent of milling and burnishing, as indicators of quality, as well as decoration, which became increasingly popular from the later 18th century onwards.

From early on in the life of the industry tobacco pipemakers marked their pipes with their initials or with a symbol such as a fleur-de-lys or a wheel. The majority of pipes were not marked, but those that are give valuable clues to date and area of manufacture when they can be related to documented pipemakers. This is by no means always possible, especially with common combinations of initials and with symbols. Nonetheless, many London pipes have been identified as the work of known pipemakers with varying degrees of certainty and a picture of their distribution and the organisation of the industry has begun to emerge.

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