Faience, a common find at French colonial sites in North America, is a refined earthernware with tin added to the lead-based glaze to produce an opaque white surface. French faience potters created different decorative styles, primarily floral and geometric designs, some of which can be attributed to regional pottery centers in France. Archaeologists studying French colonial sites in North America have developed a classification of faience based on decorative style and color. Our study discusses faience types recovered from colonial sites in southwest Alabama.
Between 1994 and 2000, scientists at the Smithsonian Institution's Center for Materials Research and Education conducted a neutron activation analysis of 186 pottery sherds from eight colonial-era archaeological sites on the northern Gulf coast. The pottery types include French faience and coarse earthenwares, Spanish colonial majolicas and coarse earthenwares, and a few specimens of Dutch and English delfts, and English colonial coarse earthenwares.
The neutron activation analysis (accomplished by Jacqueline S. Olin, M. James Blackman, Jared E. Mitchem, and Gregory A. Waselkov) determined very precisely the chemical composition of each sherd. Sherds were then grouped together, based on chemical similarities of potting clays. In some cases, a chemical group coincides with a decorative type. For instance, the Spanish colonial majolicas all fall within a single chemical group because these sherds come from pots made in a single location, in and around Puebla, Mexico. The French faience sherds, on the other hand, differ enormously in chemical make-up, and the faience chemical groups do not correlate very closely with decorative style. This suggests that faience manufacturers mixed together clays from different locations, resulting in complex chemical groups that are not easily attributable to specific production sites in France. Detailed results of this study were published in the journal Historical Archaeology in 2002.