Building the concept of Europe
Majolica pottery as a common symbol of European countries in Modern times


The project presented here is focused on the technological characterization of 16th and 17th century majolica pottery from North and Central America, as a traceable symbol of European countries abroad.

The 16th and 17th centuries were a very convulsed period in European history. Unequivocally, during this period Europe was being forged, giving rise to the kingdoms and principalities that shape how we view Europe today. However, this process was often violent due to different national interests, the establishment and maintenance of political boundaries, and varied religious and economic agendas. Often times, these diverse political and economical interests and also religious and cultural conceptions resulted in armed conflicts that had broad-reaching implications across Europe. At that time, a complex net of political alliances existed, if only briefly. The colonization of the Americas by European countries resulted in significant shifts in not only the existing political alliances, but also among existing socioeconomic and religious paradigms. Most notably, the rush to colonize, subjugate, and exploit the resources of the Americas resulted in numerous armed conflicts, not only amongst European powers vying for control, but also between the Europeans and the extant autochthonous civilizations of the Americas, such as the case of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, amongst others.

Majolica ware, also known as loza, faience, or delftware, is the most recognizable European pottery exported to North American colonies during the 16th and 17th centuries. Technologically, majolica is a ceramic manufactured from a buff-light clay body coated that was coated with an opaque white tin-lead glaze. Over this glazed coat, a variety of colored decorations might be applied. This ware served a utilitarian purpose, mostly related to serving meals and domestic storage.

The importance of glazed-pottery production in the Americas is demonstrated by their extensive commercial and geographical diffusion that ultimately resulted in the widespread production of European-style ceramics in the Americas, sometimes also integrating local traditional technological features into their majolica production. This latter aspect reflects the high social impact that the European colonization achieved. Majolica production in the Americas also replaced a significant component of the local ceramic identity, especially as sometimes local pottery attempted to produce ceramics that visually and functionally could compete with European imports. This shift in production strategy was a very important transculturation factor for many local societies throughout the Americas. Therefore, majolica pottery became one of the first globalization icons all over the world.



Archaeological materials exhibit two complementary faces: the cultural and the material sides. The material side represents the ceramic as an object by itself, showing specific properties and technological changes that can be analytically traced. In that sense, the geochemical similarity of a specific ceramic production will be higher among those artifacts made with the same raw materials rather than those ceramics made with materials from other places—assuming that the raw materials used for manufacture originate from a common geologic/geographic area, However, pottery traditionally is classified by archaeologists and historians according to its morphological and decorative features. Although this knowledge is important, it is insufficient when dealing with small shards—shards that sometimes occur without decoration or clear typology.

Only archaeometry goes beyond this limitation because the provenance of the artifacts is established on the basis of the chemical and/or mineralogical composition of the pastes and/or glazes according to geochemical reference groups. According to these assumptions, an archaeological and historical study will enable us to chronologically and culturally contextualize the ceramics.

Analytical Techniques: XRF, NAA, XRD, SEM, LA-ICP-MS, MC-ICP-MS, MP



The main aims of the proposal can be summarized in four points:

1. Archaeometrical identification and definition of the possible reference groups according to the chemical data of pottery glazes. This data will be compared with my own European Medieval and Renaissance pottery data bank (Iñañez 2007, Iñañez et al. 2008) and the Smithsonian Colonial and autochthonous pottery data bank.

2. Technological characterization of the colonial and autochthonous majolica ware, comparing this data with the relevant technological data bank from European production centers (Iñañez 2007, Iñañez et al. 2008).

3. Preliminary methodological development through the monitoring of the different archaeological sites materials. Consequently, the study of the acculturation processes and technological changes through the study of the European style local and colonial pottery technology and their possible changes will be the most important goal of this project.

4. Preliminary conclusions about the leading role played by majolica pottery as a globalization factor in America. Consequently, conclusions achieved from this project about majolica ware will lead to a better understanding of the complex roles played by European countries in the historical formation of America, but also in Modern Europe. Moreover, the very important factor played by majolica pottery in terms of trade and, even more important, culture, will be highlighted.


Results and dissemination

The differentiation of colonial majolica made in the Americas from the majolica produced in Europe is possible through the analysis of their glaze and paste composition. Unequivocally, the different occurrence of geological characteristics for each archaeological site results in unique chemical fingerprint respectively for each production center. Therefore, it is possible to differentiate different ceramics found in the Americas and relating them to their production location according to their chemical fingerprint (Figure 1). Consequently, each production shows specific chemical fingerprints as a result of the usually use of local clays and recipes, which may influent the way the geological materials are treated in order to produce the final ceramic.

Currently, ARCHSYMB project is assessing the leading role played by majolica pottery in the formation of new identities in the Americas after the introduction of European technologies. Although this objective is still under assessment, some important contributions have already been made to the state-of-the-art of the field (see publications above). For instance, the study regarding Romita pottery is a good example of the assessment of transculturation and pottery as a globalization factor in the Americas durint the colonial period. It is now revealed that Romita ware shows a very characteristic technological choice, such is the use of white slips under a thin transparent lead glaze layer. The relation between these ceramics and those of European manufacture clearly exists. The similarities between Romita and majolica ceramics lay on the external appearance of the vessels, which clearly resemble in some of the forms and shinny metallic surface of the latter ones. However, the technological choice of the ancient craftsmen who produced Romita ware ceramics was substantially different than the features present in majolica ceramics. Thus, the choice of non-calcareous clays, as well as the use of slip for achieving white opacification, can be just the continuation of secular potting traditions and the constrain to the availability of local clays and other materials, although in an effort of imitating the new products brought by Europeans colonizers. Therefore, Romita ware ceramics can be interpreted as the successful combination of two different technological choices or traditions that, as a consequence of the new influences, resulted in the birth of a new and different production.



Javier G. Iñañez, Cultura Material i Arqueometria UB, ARQUB, Universitat de Barcelona, CV

Jaume Buxeda i GarrigósCultura Material i Arqueometria UB, ARQUB, Universitat de Barcelona

Robert J. Speakman, Museum Conservation Institute, Museum Support Center, Smithsonian Institution



Javier G. Iñañez

Phone: +34 934 037 529
Fax: +34 934 037 541
E-mail: javiergarcia [ @ ]


Funded by:

Marie Curie Actions European Unioin


Cultura Material i Arqueometria UB

Building the concept of Europe.
Majolica pottery as a common symbol of European countries in Modern times (PIOF-GA-2008-22139)
Summary | Methodology | Objectives | Results and dissemination | Researchers | Contact
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