Pewter Plates–They’re Not Just Breakfast Dishes Anymore!

This post is by Queen Anne's Revenge project Archaeological Technician Terry Williams and Conservation Lab Director and Chief Conservator Sarah Watkins-Kenney. Pewter has been used for ornamental and utilitarian purposes for over 3000 years.  It is a tin alloy which is durable, relatively easily worked, resistant to corrosion and can be similar to dull silver in appearance.  These qualities can result in pewter objects lasting hundreds of year, often in good condition.

The pewter flatware (plates and dishes) assemblage recovered from the wreck between 1997 and 2010 includes a total of thirty-three pieces– both whole and fragmentary pieces. There are twenty plates, with diameters 9-10 inches, of which seventeen are whole and complete, and thirteen dishes with diameters 15-22 inches of which six are whole and complete.  A number of the plates and dishes have completed conservation and can be seen on display at the Maritime Museum in Beaufort and at the Museum of History in Raleigh. Other pieces are in progress of being cleaned at the Queen Anne's Revenge Lab.

The condition of the plates and dishes coming from the Queen Anne’s Revenge site has varied; sometimes they are covered in concretion, or attached by concretion to other objects, for example three are still attached to cannon C16. Others have been recovered from site almost looking like they were eaten off yesterday.  There are a variety of methods to clean plates, which fall into either chemical or mechanical methods.  Pewter plate, QAR 3318.001 was recovered in 2010 and is currently in work. Under a microscope with a scalpel, concretion is being removed to reveal the surface of the object. From an x-radiograph of the plate before cleaning we know that there is a maker’s mark on the back of the plate.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as today, many pewter objects were marked with their makers’ unique mark – or touch-mark - as well as secondary marks (such as the Tudor rose and London) and pseudo hallmarks. Makers were required to register their marks with the guild and this information, still available today, allows researchers to set up a timeline.  Not all the pieces from the site are marked or have legible maker’s marks but marks of four London pewter makers have been identified, John Stile(s) (mark registered c. 1689); George Hammond (c. 1695)  Henry Sewdley (c. 1709) and Timothy Fly (c. 1712) (Cotterrell 1963: 315;225;302;209).

The touch-mark of Henry Sewdley has been uncovered, on plate QAR3318.001, as well as the secondary marks of the Tudor rose and London.  Sewdley plates do at times have pseudo hallmarks, though none have been uncovered as yet on this plate….watch this space!  Other marks preserved in the surfaces of many of the plates and dishes are very fine incised lines made by utensils being used to cut up food on them, indicating that these vessels had been used or were in use at the time of the wreck.  Thus these objects not only assist our underwater archaeologists in dating the wreck but also offering insights into past life ways on the ship. Reference: Cotterrell, Howard Herschel, 1963. Old Pewter and its Makers and Marks.  Tuttle: Rutland, Vermont.

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