Quantitative grouping of pipestems

European imported pipe stems of various sizes, ca. 1618-1650

White Ball Clay Pipes

White ball clay pipe stems have become one of the most ubiquitous artifact types found in British colonial sites. Occurring in large numbers across historic settlements in Virginia, their use and discard can be compared to that of the modern cigarette butt. Kaolin pipes were made in England and Holland and shipped throughout the western world in the 1600s and 1700s to meet the demand of a thriving international tobacco market. Using simple measurements and basic math, European clay pipes have served as the primary means of dating historic archaeological sites from the 17th and 18th centuries. By the 19th and 20th centuries, the distinctive white kaolin pipe had largely been replaced with various metal, wooden, and ceramic pipes that were made and used throughout the world.

Imported Pipe Seriation Flowerdew Hundred 44PG64

Pipe histogram for 44Pg64, the Fort, indicating a mean date of 1646, 1984

A Tool for Dating Historic Sites

Archaeologists utilize pipe stems as a tool for dating historic sites by using modern drill bits in gradient measurements of 1/64-inch widths to measure the diameter of the pipe’s bore, and recording the frequency with which the different measurements occur. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, tobacco prices fell, and the shape of pipes changed in response. The stem became longer, the bowl larger, and the diameter of the bore grew progressively smaller. From 1620 to 1800, the bore of a European pipe shrank 1/64 of an inch roughly every 30 to 40 years. By tallying the pipe bore diameter frequencies on a site, archaeologists can calculate a series of date ranges to determine the approximate age of a site and the length of time it was occupied.

Imported Pipe Seriation Flowerdew 44PG65

Pipe histogram for 44Pg65, the Stone House Foundationindicating a mean date of 1646, 1984

A Window into Early Virginia Society

Archaeologists have used European pipes to illuminate many aspects of early Virginia life, including social status and consumer behavior. Given a range of pipe options why did some individuals choose to pay more for pipes imported from England? Some archaeologists have interpreted this behavior as a visible way for colonists to signal their social status and wealth, distinguishing themselves from those who could only afford locally made pipes.

Pipe soil

Test-tube with pipe contents, ca. 1618-1650

Narratives Yet to be Discovered

Archaeological discovery hinges on foresight and imagination. This test tube contains the organic contents of a 17th-century pipe bowl. Archaeologists thought to save this sample, excavated over 30 years ago, in anticipation of technological innovations in analytical methods. Today researchers have the ability to analyze and identify this material because of recent advances in soil chemistry and micro-botany.