A Clay Pipe’s Tale

Sometimes, with a little research, tiny objects recovered from archaeological excavations can tell us amazingly detailed stories. This fairly unremarkable piece of fired clay is a fine example of an object with a tale to tell.

'York 1828'

‘York 1828’

Discovered in July, during our excavation at All Saints, North Street, this fragment of a clay pipe bowl was one of many found over the summer. When it was cleaned, the team were delighted to notice that the object told us not only where it was made – right here in York – but also when, as it was stamped with the year 1828. If all artefacts were so free with their provenance, us archaeologists would quickly be out of a job!

While this level of detail was an unusual and somewhat fortunate find, the story doesn’t end there. Sufficient detail of the stamp is visible to actually relate the object to an individual person and to tell us a tale of a father, a son and a stolen idea.

In 1792, George Mason of York began a seven year apprenticeship in the manufacture of fired clay tobacco pipe under the tutelage of master craftsman Mark Hesp. At the turn of the century, Hesp produced a batch of pipes with a decorative shield motif and the text ‘HESP YORK 1800’. His pipe marking the new century must have proved popular, as numerous examples have been found in excavations across York. By the 1820s, the young apprentice George was in business for himself, producing clay pipes in a premises on Monkgate in central York. In 1828, he produced a batch of clay pipes that have also been found in sites across York. The shield motif featured on the pipe bowls was almost identical to the one created by Hesp 28 years before, although the text now read ‘MASON YORK 1828’. On the opposite side, the York city crest was pictured – clearly indicating a degree of civic pride. An example found in the Hungate Block D excavation in 2007 shows us how the whole pipe would have looked.

The complete pipe bowl.

The complete pipe bowl. Image copyright York Archaeological Trust.

The pipes made by George Mason supported a flourishing business, which would be taken over by his son George Jr. following his death in 1839, aged 63. George Jr. saw no reason to alter his father’s design and created his own batch of York pipes in 1848. The design featured, you guessed it, the familiar shield motif and the text ‘MASON YORK 1848’. Well, if it ain’t broke…

The exact significance of the years 1828 and 1848 remains unknown, but it is nonetheless wonderful to be able to relate a tiny fragment of clay pipe found at All Saints to a Victorian family business that certainly didn’t mind ‘borrowing’ ideas. That, in a nutshell, is the joy of archaeology; extracting the personal stories from the objects that we discover in the ground.

To read more about the clay pipe assemblage from Hungate Block D, head to http://www.dighungate.com/Editor/assets/pdfs/2007-52-blockd.pdf

To learn about how to join us on site and make your own discoveries, head to https://archaeologylive.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/archaeology-live-2015/

The All Saints excavation fires up once more in April, we can’t wait to get back on site and will post regular updates right here.

Onwards and downwards!

– Arran

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