Fired up about kiln project

Reconstruction: A team of archaeologists aims to re-create a 17th-century clay pipe kiln in London Town.

October 27, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Al Luckenbach, who smokes several Tareytons a day, is within a few days of fulfilling his pipe dream.

He intends to fire up -- at about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit -- a reproduction of a 17th- century clay pipe kiln. If he succeeds, he and his colleagues at Anne Arundel County's "Lost Towns" archaeological project will have effectively re-created the only kiln of its kind known to have been unearthed in the New World.

The kiln remains were discovered in 1991 by Luckenbach and his colleagues on a plot of land that is known as Providence, a Colonial settlement along the Severn River. They have spent the past two weeks re-creating the kiln on a grassy slope in the middle of London Town, a Colonial village in southern Anne Arundel County.

Tobacco and smoking pipes are a rich part of the early history of this continent, Luckenbach said recently at London Town, one of three Colonial villages under excavation by the Lost Towns project.

"Back then, every man, woman and child was smoking tobacco," said Luckenbach between drags of his cigarette. "In the Chesapeake area, the remains of 10-year-olds have been discovered with grooves in their teeth from clenching pipes."

Tobacco pipes, he added, also serve as reliable diagnostic tools for dating material from digs.

"Pipes are kind of like cars," said Luckenbach. "You can tell what decade they're from almost at first glance."

Settled in 1683, London Town was once one of the busiest ports in Maryland. Its remains were discovered nine years ago along with the neighboring Colonial settlements of Providence and Herrington.

Together, the three villages have offered archaeologists and historians a look at life on the Chesapeake Bay in the late 1600s and early 1700s. During that time, London Town boomed as a South River ferry crossing and tobacco port.

It was not until the 1770s, when the Maryland Assembly put restrictions on tobacco exportation, that the village declined. It took exhaustive research for Luckenbach and his co-workers to prove that the pieces of kiln and clay pipes they found on land once owned by farmer Emanuel Drue were the remains of a pipe-making enterprise.

To confirm their finding, Luckenbach called British archaeologist Allan Peacey, an expert on pipes and kilns. In an e-mail exchange of photographs and messages, Peacey confirmed that the artifacts came from a 17th-century kiln, and that to his knowledge, such an object had never before been found in America.

"It was a defining moment for me," said Peacey, standing proudly next to the site of the re-creation. He has spent four decades studying pipes and kilns in England, Holland and Ireland.

Pipes, he said, "fit into the broader picture of archaeology. They help us understand who we were, where we came from."

Recently, with a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, Peacey traveled to London Town to help re-create the kiln. An amateur potter, Peacey used his skills to build the kiln's "muffle," a circular shield that holds the pipes in place while they are being fired. In the center of the muffle, he constructed a "cross-pipe prop" -- a cluster of already-made pipes that supports the ones being fired.

A difficult task

For the past two weeks, archaeologist Tony Lindauer has spent long nights stooped over the kiln, building its base structure. The task has been difficult, Lindauer said, because unlike most builders of his time, Drue did not use bricks for the base.

"He knew how to work cobble and clay," said Luckenbach, meticulously shaping a curve of the base with his clay-caked fingers. "For him, brick would have been child's play."

In its early stage, the kiln resembles a pizza oven made of smooth stones the shape of bread loaves. Before he stacks each stone, Lindauer looks for cracks and other evidence of defects, tossing any stones he thinks will not withstand the kiln's peak temperature of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

In the 17th century, Peacey said, multiyear apprenticeships taught people to light kilns -- a complicated process in which the fire is fed logs gradually over the course of 10 hours, raising the internal temperature by about 100 degrees an hour.

To ensure a safe trial run, London Town's inaugural kiln fire will be witnessed only by the staff.

"We just hope that it won't explode," Luckenbach said with a chuckle. "Any mistake in the tapering of the heat could cause the whole thing to destruct."

Although building a kiln out of brick would have been simpler, Lindauer said doing so would have defeated the purpose of the project. "If we cheat in any way, we won't know exactly how he did things," he said. "And we won't have a product that looks like his did."

Works of art

Compared with many of the crude, unadorned pipes of the 1600s, Drue's creations were works of art, Luckenbach said. Traveling many miles up the Severn River in his boat, Drue sought out every color of clay he could find, molding pipes in swirling patterns and decorating them with intricate patterns, he said.

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