On the occasion of the marriage between Elias Markolefas and Iota Vassilopoulou, I explore one particular vessel that brings modernism and archaeology into harmonious cohort. Preferring the aquatic metaphors of wedlock (refrigerated in the hot months of summer), my gift is a cobalt blue Hercules water jug, which I acquired on eBay. Now that it has safely arrived to Athens in one piece, I can write a few words without the threat of jinxing it. When the vessel arrived, it had a distinctive smell, suggesting that it served its las owner as a cigar box, making it additionally appropriate for the smoking room introspection that philosophical Elias continuously accommodates.
Hercules was designed by J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), a fascinating individual of diverse skills and a pioneer in combining modernity with the material past. The first Hercules water jug I ever saw belongs to the
Thorley was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, considered to be the home of England's pottery industry. He studied art in the
Most importantly, Thorley pioneered methods known today as "experimental archaeology." Reviewing Thorley's chapter in W. F. Albright's, The Excavations of Tell Beit Mirsim 3: The Iron Age (New Haven, 1943), Herbert G. May writes, "For the first time we have a definitive analysis of the texture and manufacture of Palestinian pottery, based on experimentation and collaboration between ceramic expert and archaeologist. Other institutions may follow suit" (H. G. May, Journal of Biblical Literature 63:2, (June 1944), p. 194). There is no doubt in my mind that Thorley's direct archaeological experience influenced his design and craft. We know of his early love with archaeology following the discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb; Thorley joined the British Army in World War I with the the hope of making it to Egypt. Thorley's Hall pottery for Westinghouse has streamlined ribs that, on the one had, remind us of machine age aesthetics but, on the one hand, speak of ribbed amphoras from the Late Roman Mediterranean.
As was the case with many archaeologists of the 1920s and the 1930s, the past was usable. The line between archaeological research and modern design was porous. For Thorley, the ancient potter was contemporary, a colleague invested in the challenges of synthetic material. He writes, "We live in a day of synthetics--synthetic rubber, synthetic gasoline, synthetic perfumes, and countless others. The first synthetic to be discovered in mankind was pottery, an artificial stone produced by firing clay shapes to a temperature sufficiently high to change the physical and chemical properties of the original clay into a new substance with many of the characteristics of stones."(Kelso and Thorley, "Palestinian Pottery in Bible Times," Biblical Archaeologist 8:4 (December 1945), pp. 88). Thorley and the ancient potter were engaged in a common agenda, the creation of a synthetic world. The industrial challenges of modernity were historicized with the origins of civilized society. Similarly, free enterprise found its precedents in craft production: "Pottery represented one of the major manufacturing industries of the ancient world and the Israelite potters belonged to what we call today 'up and coming business men'." (Ibid, p. 81).
From the designer's point of view, ceramic vessels are conditioned by common functions. Thorley's Hercules water jug fits snuggly next to the freezer of the Westinghouse refrigerator (ad detail). It stores water, cools it and finally pours it. Its job is related to that of ancient jugs like one described by Albright, Kelso and Thorley: "The spout of this jar is excellent designing. The problem of drip is handled by giving the lower surface of the spout a sharp upward cut back so that the drop cannot follow the contour of the spout and smear up the face of the jar. Furthermore the spout, although a short one and placed high on the jar, reaches beyond the body of the jar and thus prevents any drops smearing the jar ... The flat top of the spout depresses the liquid as it passes through the spout, thus making a better stream for controlled pouring. Furthermore, this almost flat surface gives variety and contrast to the well-rounded three-dimensional volume of the pot--a principle of design used in the best modern teapots." ( "Early-Bronze Pottery from Bab ed-Dra in Moag," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (Oct. 1944), p. 13).From a historiographic point of view, Thorley is all but forgotten. His papers were acquired by the College of William and Mary in 1996 and can be found at the Special Collections of the Earl Gregg Swem Library. The best secondary literature is two articles by John Austin in Ceramics in America (2005 and 2006). I thank my friend and colleague Mike Vatalaro for the inspiration in contemporary ceramics. Mike is Art Department Chair and Professor of Ceramics at Clemson University. Born, raised and educated in Akron, Ohio, he knows all about the Ohio ceramics industries. As an MFA graduate student at Alfred University, moreover, he witnessed the discovery of terra sigilata's material constitution. I wish I could put Mike Vatalaro and Guy Sanders (dir. of Corinth Excavations and world authority on Roman/Byzantine ceramics) in the same room (or kiln) and sit back to watch the sparkles fly.
For more research on Thorley, I offer a preliminary bibliography below.
Mazel tov to Elias and Iota (and an overdue gift)
Albright, William Foxwell. 1943. The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim (Joint Expedition of the Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary and the
Albright, William Foxwell, James Leon Kelso, and J. Palin Thorley. 1944. “Early-Bronze Pottery from Bab ed-Dra’ in
Austin, John C. 2005. “J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), Potter and Designer: Part I,” Ceramics in America 2005, ed. Robert Hunter,
Austin, John C. 2006. “J. Palin Thorley (1892-1987), Potter and Designer: Part 2,
Bowman, Raymond A. 1944. Rev. William Foxwell Albright, The Excavation of Tell Beit Mirsim. Volume III, The Iron Age, in The American Historical Review 49:4 (Jul., 1944), pp. 691-692.
Kelso, James Leon, and J. Palin Thorley. 1945. “Palestinian Pottery in Bible Times,” The Biblical Archaeologist 8:4 (Dec. 1945), pp. 81-93.
Kelso, James Leon, and J. Palin Thorley. 1946. “A Ceramic Analysis of Late-Mycenaean and Other Late-Bronze Vases from Jett in
May, Herbert Godon. 1944. Book review of Albright 1943, Journal of Biblical Literature 63:2 (Jun. 1944), pp. 191-195.
Thorley, J. Palin 1938-1941. “Pottery Fundamentals” in Pottery, Glass and Brass Salesman, starting May 1938 and at least to June 1941.
Thorley, J. Palin 1942. “The Ceramic Designer in Wartime” Crockery and Glass Journal, two part article, June and August.