Caribbean Pirates’ Fascination with Fine Pottery

A 2011 article—“New study finds pirates of the Caribbean had fascination with fine pottery”—says that the possession of fine Chinese porcelain were used by pirates “to add an air of respectability and class to their otherwise illegal activities.”

Based in 18th-century Belize, they were real “Pirates of the Caribbean” and now new research by 21st-century archaeologists is telling us what their lives were like. Their findings, detailed in a chapter in a recently published book, suggest that while these pipe-smoking men acted as stereotypical pirates would — drinking, smoking and stealing — they also kept fancy, impractical porcelain in their camps. The fine dinnerware may have been a way to imbue the appearance of upper-class society. [See photos of the pirate loot discovered.]

[. . .] From historical records scientists had known that by 1720 these Caribbean pirates occupied a settlement called the “Barcadares,” a name derived from the Spanish word for “landing place.” Located 15 miles (24 kilometers) up the Belize River, in territory controlled by the Spanish, the site was used as an illegal logwood-cutting operation. The records indicate that a good portion of its occupants were pirates taking a pause from life at sea. Their living conditions were rustic to say the least. There were no houses, and the men slept on raised platforms with a canvas over them to keep the mosquitoes out. They hunted and gathered a good deal of their food. [. . .] Over the past two decades a steady stream of archaeological research has increasingly shed light on the people who lived at the Barcadares. In the 1990s archaeologist Daniel Finamore, now a curator with the Peabody Essex Museum, led a team that rediscovered the Barcadares site. Its precise location had been lost since it was abandoned in the mid-18th century and the team found it with the help of a map drawn by Captain Uring. They excavated it, uncovering decorated pottery fragments known as delftware along with a small amount of authentic Chinese porcelain. They also found tobacco pipes, nails and ceramic bowls, among other items.

More recently, Heather Hatch, an archaeologist who is a doctoral student at Texas A&M University, performed an analysis comparing the artifacts found at the Barcadares site with that of two British colonial sites, sans pirates, on the island of Nevis. “The Barcadares is the only clearly pirate-associated site from this period excavated to date,” Hatch wrote in her report, recently published as a chapter in the book “The Archaeology of Maritime Landscapes”(Springer Science and Business Media, 2011).

[. . .] The differences between the Barcadares and the two non-pirate sites, also occupied during the 18th century, on Nevis are striking. Both British sites were excavated by Marco Meniketti, who is now a professor at San Jose State University. The Ridge Complex site consisted of a sugar mill and related dwellings, while the Port St. George site, on the southern coast of the island, was used to process and transport sugar. One stark difference between the sites was the sheer amount of tobacco use at the Barcadares. [. . .] In addition to finding smokes, Hatch’s analysis revealed differences in ceramics found. The pottery on the two Nevis sites is made from diverse materials, including various types of tough, practical stoneware. However, more than 65 percent of the pirate ceramics is made up of delftware — a soft, decorative material that was finished with a glaze. It is less sturdy than stoneware and not terribly practical for people living in a remote location.

[. . .] Why the pirates would keep such impractical things in their camp is a mystery. Finamore pointed out that there were no legitimate trade routes in fine pottery that would have reached Belize at the time the pirates were living there. [. . .] Finamore believes that the porcelain and delftware would have been prized possessions for the pirates. “They’re sort of copying the appearances of upper class societies such as how the captains would live.” Hatch agrees, “I do think it was a matter of wanting to display that they could have these nice things,” she said. It would have made a point that, even out in Belize, they had “access even to these sorts of fancy pottery types that you might find in the bigger cities in the colonial world.”

For full article, see (article reprinted from

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