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How to ... date pipes

he dating of a pipe fragment relies on assessing a whole range of variables to do with its fabric, manufacturing techniques, bowl form, style, finish, marks and decoration. The skill and experience of the individual undertaking the work will play a large part in determining how accurate and reliable any assessment of dating is, and specialist advice should certainly be taken when dealing with large assemblages or those where the pipe dating is fundamental to the excavated deposits. But it is certainly possible for a good assessment of date to be made by considering the key characteristics of any given pipe or pipe assemblage, guidelines for which are given below. This can be very useful for ‘spot dating’ deposits, or providing a basic record where the assemblage does not warrant a specialist report.

Stems  Assessing the stems is often a useful first step, since they tend to be the most numerous class of pipe fragment recovered. They can be used to indicate whether a context group is likely to contain residual material, or whether it represents a coherent and potentially tightly dated group. They can also be used to check any dates provided by associated bowl forms, marks or decoration, which can be especially useful for smaller contexts where only a few such pieces are present. There are always exceptions but, in broad terms, stems can usually be allocated to one of three general date ranges by assessing their form, stem bore, fabric and finish. Note that stem bores are still recorded in 64ths of an inch, so as to allow them to be compared with previous records and for the data to be used with stem bore dating techniques developed in the USA (see ‘stem bores’ below).

Seventeenth to Early Eighteenth Century Stems Pipes at this period generally had medium length straight stems (never curved) that were quite thick at the bowl junction. As a result, fragments usually show a clear taper along their length and can be quite chunky if the fragment comes from near the bowl. Stem bores were generally large at this period and so normally range from about 9/65” to 7/64”, with a few pieces of 6/64”. Some pipes were burnished during this period and many areas of the Midlands and northern England exploited local clays, where these were available. A fine sandy fabric was used in the Oxford area and pipes from areas with access to the Coal Measures often employed clays with opaque white gritty inclusions in them. Stems of this period are usually plain and unmarked although occasionally pieces with bands of milled decoration or alternate pinching to create a ‘barley twist’ effect are found. Stem stamps are only rarely found.

Seventeenth and early eighteenth-century stems showing bands of milling (1) and 'barley twist' decoration (2 and 3). Photo D. A. Higgins.

Late Seventeenth to Late Eighteenth Century Stems  ipes during this period normally had quite long stems but were thinner at the bowl junction than previously. As a result, they are generally rather cylindrical in appearance with less evidence of any stem taper. Stem bores are sometimes as large as 7/64” but more typically in the 6/64” to 5/64” range. Burnishing was still used in some areas, but very rarely in the far south west, the south east and East Anglia. Local clays with inclusions were rarely used after about 1710. Stems were straight until the late eighteenth century when curved varieties were introduced. Milled bands of decoration were still occasionally used at the start of this period but maker’s stamps become more common. Initials or full name marks placed across the top of the stem were most frequently employed in central southern England and the West Midlands, while decorative stem borders were most often employed in the Midlands and north. Long line name and place stamps orientated along the top of the stem were used in the North West region during the late eighteenth century.

Late Eighteenth Century and Later Stems  Pipes of this period were all made from fine clays without any obvious inclusions and they typically had stem bores of 5/64” to 4/64”. The stems were normally thinner than previously and varied in length, with nipple type mouthpieces being used on some types after about 1850. Long stems were sometimes rather oval in cross section and could be curved. Burnishing was rarely used, although it continued to be a characteristic of pipes from the Shropshire industry and on some high quality pieces from elsewhere. Stamped marks, now typically orientated along the stem, continued to be used in the West Midlands and North West but died out in other areas in favour of moulded marks. Moulded marks or pattern numbers on the sides of the stem were introduced around the middle of the nineteenth century and became the most widespread and common form of marking thereafter.

Nineteenth-century moulded pattern number on the side of a stem reading No128. Photo D. A. Higgins.

Stem Bores  Note that stem bores are still measured using Imperial 64ths of an inch. The most common method is to use the butt ends of a set of Imperial drill bits, although a finely gradated ruler or other measuring devices can also be used. Retaining this unit of measurement ensures that any new data is comparable with previously published material. It also allows the date of larger assemblages to be calculated using the stem bore dating formulae that have been developed in the USA. Stem bore dating is not, however, generally used by European archaeologists since it requires a large sample and a lot of work to produce a single date, which does not provide a very sensitive means of assessing either the duration of occupation on a given site or fluctuations of finds use/deposition within that span. There are also a number of concerns over how reliable any date arrived at actually is. Stem bores can, however, be used for distributional plots or as bar graphs to show changing site use over time. The divisions provided by 64ths of an inch make convenient units to express this sort of data. The fractions of an inch are always given in 64ths, and not rationalised to larger alternative units (e.g., it is always 4/64” and not 1/16”).

Bowl Forms  The bowl form is usually the most accurate way of dating a pipe, since the shapes changed rapidly over time. They were also subject to marked regional variation prior to the nineteenth century, so the shape can also be used to identify which part of the country a pipe comes from. For this reason, it is important to look at specific local typologies as well as the more general national ones. Early pipes dating from before the English Civil War of the 1640s tend to follow London fashions but the disruption of the war appears to have allowed regional forms to develop. These regional fashions continued until the mid-nineteenth century when improved transport networks allowed pipes to be traded over much larger areas, diluting local fashions. There was also a move towards larger manufactories producing a wide range of different shaped pipes which do not follow the earlier typological progression and are more difficult to place into a simple type series.

In broad terms there were always two different styles of pipe in contemporary use; those with heels and those with spurs. A heel is the term used for a flat-based projection underneath the bowl of a pipe, which typically has near vertical sides, or ones that flare out towards its base. A heel is usually broader than it is deep, as opposed to a spur, which is the opposite. A spur is the term used for a projection underneath the bowl that is usually longer than it is broad. It typically tapers to a pointed or rounded base, although later varieties sometimes have the end trimmed off. Pipes without a heel or spur were produced for the export trade from the mid-seventeenth century onwards but only came into general use in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.


Diagram showing the most commonly used terminology for different parts of the pipe.  Drawn by D. A. Higgins.

Heel forms were the earliest style to be introduced in the late sixteenth century and remained the dominant form in most areas for at least the next century. Spur forms first appear in the very early seventeenth century and soon became an alternative style used in lesser numbers in most areas of the country. During the seventeenth century both types generally had rather squat barrel-shaped forms and they almost always have a band of milling at the rim. The London bowl form typology shows this progression well (Atkinson & Oswald 1969, 178).  Seventeenth century bowls tend to tip forward slightly and had quite thick walls. Burnishing was used for better qualities of pipes and almost without exception pipes had bottered rims (i.e., rims smoothed and shaped by twisting a specially shaped former onto the rim during manufacture). The bowl forms stayed quite similar but increased in size during the course of the century as tobacco became cheaper and more readily available and the quantity consumed at any one time increased. This is why the size of the bowl for is very important during this period and it is essential to compare the forms with a life size typology.

Between about 1680 and 1720 there was a ‘transitional’ period when bowl forms tended to become more elongated and forward leaning before adopting a more upright style, with the rims generally almost parallel to the stem (e.g., see Atkinson & Oswald’s 1969 London Typology, bowl types 19-22). The bowl walls became correspondingly thinner and the use of rim milling stopped around 1700 in the south, but lingered on until around 1730 in the midlands and north; its use appears to have been associated with specific bowl styles and it was phased out as new styles emerged. Regional variations are particularly strong during this period and some areas switched preference between heel and spur pipes (or vice versa) during this period.

For much of the eighteenth century pipe bowls were generally upright and with fairly cylindrical bowl forms (e.g., Atkinson & Oswald 1969, bowl type 25).  Regional variation continues to be quite marked with burnishing persisting in some regions but not others.  Rim milling dies out almost completely after about 1730, as does the practice of rim bottering.  Bowl forms become quite large with thin walls and relatively tall bowls.

From the late eighteenth century onwards bowls are generally rather less tall and moulded decoration on the bowl sides or seams becomes very common (see ‘decoration’).  Regional variation becomes less marked and similar forms were used for long-stemmed pipes across the country.  These long pipes continued in use right through into the twentieth century, but in decreasing numbers as a plethora of new shapes and styles came into fashion from around 1850.  The new decorative styles of short-stemmed pipe are hard to categorise into meaningful typologies but should be easily distinguishable from the earlier forms (e.g., the Edward Pollock trade catalogue of c1906 from Manchester).

Bowl forms can be dated by reference to national and local typologies, links to which can be found below. It is important to print these out at life size (check the bar scale when printed) before comparing pipes with them, since size can be crucial, especially for seventeenth century forms. The 1969 London typology is still one of the most useful because of the clean, accurately drawn forms and the widespread influence of London styles. It can be used for many areas of the country, in conjunction with more local typologies, where these exist. The general and regional typologies produced by Oswald suffer from the poor quality of the form drawings, although the underlying dating is still sound. Regional typologies are useful if they exist for the study area, but can be variable in terms of the quality of the bowl form drawings and accuracy of the dates attributed to them.

Bowl Form Typologies  The following links provide access to national and regional bowl form typologies.  It is important to display or print these at life size when comparing new material, since size is often an important factor in determining the date.  The typologies start with Oswald’s simplified general typology (national) but have then been broadly grouped by region, moving across Britain from the north east to the south west.

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