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Collections blog

Not just a pipe dream – ramblings about getting into archaeology and the wonderful world of clay pipes

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 20/07/2020 22:14:41

Archaeology is an exciting thing, promising the discovery of rich histories and diverse cultures. More often than not, you’ll actually find yourself stuck in the back end of nowhere, kneeling on painful knees in the pouring rain, sharing a grim Portaloo and only finding the odd fragment of pottery (and yes, I do speak from miserable experience!) Obviously, it’s not always that bad, or museums would be pretty empty spaces, but it is important not to get your hopes up.

Thankfully, you don’t have to grab a high-vis jacket and hard hat to consider yourself an archaeologist. You can do your own investigations just as easily on the shoreline, on your walks or even in your own back garden. Let’s be clear, you can’t wander down to the harbour and begin a full-scale excavation, but you can walk along the water’s edge and discover hidden treasures in the intertidal zone. Neither can you take a mini JCB into the countryside and dig yourself a trench, but you can look at disturbed ground amongst upturned tree roots or in the soil dislodged as mole hills. If you want to do digging in your garden that’s up to you but be aware of water pipes and cabling; you don’t want to be without your Wi-Fi, TV catch-up services or shower!

One thing you’ll come across in no short supply is the evidence of something considered by many today as a dirty habit; smoking! The museum collection has thousands of pipe fragments with a large quantity coming from gardens located in Poole’s Old Town.

The clay tobacco pipe has its origins in the 16th century and stems (pun intended) from the early interactions with cultures native to the Americas that had been utilising tobacco pipes for centuries. The fashion didn’t take off until the 17th century and as time went on clay pipe manufacturing became more widespread and commercial, even finding a small home in Poole. Pipe stem fragments are a commonly found, the bowls less so, highlighting how people would often continue you use the pipe as the stem got shorter and shorter. If you come across a near complete pipe, you’re clearly an eagle eyed expert or a lucky so and so!

One of reasons clay pipes are a great object for taking your first tentative steps into the world of archaeology with, is that they are easy to date or identify without the need for scientific analysis. By simply looking at the shape of the bowl, if you’ve managed to find one, you can easily get an idea of how old the pipe is. As time went on, the bowl became larger and more upright, and the decoration more elaborate. You can see this in the group shot on the left-hand side of the image above. The stubby, bulbous pipe on the top left dates from the early to mid 17th century. The upright pipe on the bottom right is from the mid to late 20th century  - a new ‘Miners Pipe’, still with the red pipe wax.


Individual makers can also be identified by the presence of symbols or initials on the heel, foot, spur or stem. Some examples have the maker’s name and location on the stem, like the ‘Dowdall’ and ‘Poole’ fragment in the examples above. William Dowdall was a pipe maker in Poole in the 1790s and his son, also William, took over the business, operating between 1823 -1880. Their pipes are common across Poole and have also been found elsewhere in Dorset, particularly in Christchurch and Shaftesbury. Pipes with the initials ID on the spur have also been found in Poole and it is believed they may have been made by a yet unidentified relative of William and William.

The ‘Gauntlet pipe’ is widely associated with the Gauntlet family, who operated in the Devizes and Amesbury areas of Wiltshire during the 17th century. The incused symbol of a gauntlet is found on the heel of pipes spanning the 1620s - 1680s. It is unlikely that a single maker was responsible for production during such a long period, but the same symbol was probably used by a range of family members. It is also known that crude imitations were used to piggyback the well-respected business acumen of that family, but the intricate and well-defined mailed gauntlet shown above is likely to be authentic.

The H maker’s mark on the heel of the final example isn’t very informative and is part of a large group of pipes found in the Poole area from unidentified makers. The initials H, IH, RH and WH have been on the heels, feet and spurs of pipes from the mid 17th century to the late 18th century but, in a lot of cases, the date of the pipe does not match makers with suitable initial and date combinations from the Dorset or wider South West.

Even if you can’t identify the date and maker so quickly, the ease in which you can find the fragments and even complete ornate bowls makes clay pipes the perfect starting point for eager mudlarks and soil scavengers alike. Finding broken pipe stems and bowls can start an explorative journey for the whole family, searching for the shape, date and maker of your star find. Your collection might even grow to be so vast you can practice your display skills and you never know, perhaps sometime in the future, you’ll be writing a blog for a museum as a result.

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