"IT'S NOT THE POTS," SAYS DR. THE-resa Singleton, pausing to collect her thoughts. "I don't have an emotional response to the vessels."
Yet in her hands the 39-year-old anthropologist quietly fingerand rolls one of history's unheralded curiosities, a rustic homemade pot called Colonoware by archaeologists. There's almost a reverence to the motion, as she examines a humble earthen jug once used as kitchenware on Maryland's first plantations.
"Africans just brought into slavery in Colonial America used these," explains Dr. Singleton, who works at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. "We find them in archaeological digs in Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas, usually buried near the kitchens or slave quarters on old plantations.
"Interestingly, Native Americans made Colonoware to sell to the Europeans during those first few years of British settlement in America."
Colonoware was a cheaply made and largely unadorned crockery that only the slaves, Indians and poorest of whites used. No one bothered to save any; only now hundreds of years later are historians making an effort to understand Colonoware's place in Colonial American life.
In fact Dr. Singleton has organized the first significant exhibit of Colonoware. The show, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History through April 1, is called "Pitchers, Pots & Pipkins: Clues to Plantation Life."
It's a small, simple display recalling Colonial kitchens of 1700 to 1820, after which Colonoware died out in favor of cheap mass-produced crockery. The exhibit recounts the story of how Africans, Indians and Europeans first began a cultural and culinary entwinement that would last to this very day.
Several fine examples of Colonoware are displayed in the exhibit, which includes big color photographs of the crockery and a video of an archaeological dig for Colonoware at George Washington's plantation at Mount Vernon.
The exhibit's brochure includes a recipe for okra soup from Dr. Singleton's great-great-grandfather, William Mitchell. The former slave was chef at St. Johns Hotel in Charleston, S.C., and his African-inspired soup is thought best prepared in earthenware like Colonoware.
"This year we'll be looking [for Colonoware] at old plantation and farm sites on Maryland's Eastern Shore," Dr. Singleton says. FTC found Colonoware in slave cabins and in plantation mansion kitchens, so we know these pots were used to prepare food for both blacks and rich whites. Now we want to know more about how ordinary white settlers used these dishes."
While looking forward to the Eastern Shore digs, Dr. Singletosays she is concerned about her composure at the sites.
"When I see the pots coming out of the ground, something I can't describe arises within me. I feel such compassion for the men, women and children who once used them -- their suffering and lives and toil.
"To see these, their humblest of possessions, now enshrined in America's most famous museums hundreds of years later," she says, pausing to marvel at the thought, "it just fills my heart."
"Pitchers, Pots & Pipkins: Clues to Plantation Life" will be on display through October at the National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission is free. (202) 357-2700.
RAYMOND M. LANE is a free-lance writer living in Prince George's County.