Investigating Backstamps: The Trials and Tribulations

by Isabella Zust-Sullivan, Student Intern, The University of Queensland

When dealing with fragmented plates, saucers and cups, backstamps can be really useful in providing more information about these artefacts. However, with successful investigation also comes the inevitable mystery that arises when cases go unsolved.

A Sea of Ceramic

Over the past couple of weeks, I have worked at Queensland Museum as a University of Queensland intern, processing finds from a recent excavation in Ravenswood, a historic goldmining town in north Queensland. Amongst these finds are an abundance of, usually fragmented and broken, ceramic and pottery pieces. As some of these pieces can be exceptionally ambiguous, backstamps are one of the ways archaeologists can explore where and when the artefact may have been manufactured, and what it might have been used for. Backstamps are the printed motifs on the undersides of plates, saucers and teacups and are prized by archaeologists for the specific information they often contain. Although an exciting find in the moment, backstamps, or what remains of them, often require some research and investigative work to reveal their meaning

© Queensland Museum, Peter Waddington.

The Evolution of Backstamps

Just as brand designs and logos cycle through various motifs and images over time, so too do backstamps and manufacturing marks. This particular broken piece of Wedgewood – as we can identify from the characteristic pattern on one side – has an almost complete mark on the back. By researching the distinct features of this backstamp, with its lion and crown motif in the middle alongside the decipherable text, we are able to conclude that this design was used in 1890-1906 by Wedgewood & Co, England. Many manufacturers also use a lettering system to separate individual years, so what looks to be a ‘C’, visible on the bottom right of the backstamp, can give the exact year of 1900 as its manufacturing date. However, backstamps don’t always come as complete as this one.

Fragmented Wedgewood & Co. Plate

Fragmentary but Full of Gold

This next piece of stoneware I spent far too long attempting to decipher through various internet searches of ‘batter’, only to be informed by our curator that this is a stamp they see often at the site, and reads: “BATTERSEA WORKS, ENGLAND”. Armed with new information, my searches became significantly more successful. I was able to match the artefact with identical designs stamped on the base of mining crucibles – a vessel that can endure treatment under intense heat. The beginnings of a ‘3’ can also be seen on the bottom right of this fragment, indicating the size of the crucible. This aligns with the gold mining uses of the site, as Ravenswood played a significant role in the gold rushes of the 19th and 20th centuries in northern Queensland. Like many of the remaining industrial structures at Ravenswood, these crucibles provide an insight into the gold mining techniques used at the site, in this case, gold assaying, which is a process that involves the heating and reducing of ore samples to check for precious metals.

Battersea Works Crucible

The Mystery Case

Of course, we don’t always have completed marks or knowledgeable curators to assist in the investigating process. A factor which became abundantly clear in the appearance of this next artefact.

Mystery Backstamp

Although arguably the most interesting and intriguing of the marks, this backstamp has been the hardest to identify. The mark itself remains in great detail, however, because the ink has worn off, it is only recognisable when tilted in just the correct lighting – I won’t bore you with the details of the hour-long journey it took to get this photograph! When my initial searches for the dagger motif had no success, I broadened my investigation to include variations of ‘knife’, ‘sword’ and ‘blade’, with my increasing frustration resulting in the urge to type ‘ceramic pointy object in circle’ into the search bar. Many hours, days and internet dives later, I have still yet to come across anything that invokes the detail and uniqueness of the mark above.

Summary

Backstamp investigation remains to be a gamble of success or failure, and it is at this point of the blog where I ask you for your input! If the above stamp sparks any familiarity – you never know, you might have a ceramic plate, or object lying around your house with this very mark – we would love to hear about it! And, in the meantime, have a sift through any backstamps you might be able to find in your own homes, open Google, and delve into the glorious rabbit-hole that is backstamp investigating.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s