Slipcasting My Footsteps: the Eifel

In the early 1960s, my family moved to a corner of the world called the Eifel where we lived in a little village in Germany called Speicher. It was near the border and I remember our many forays into Belgium and  France. Speicher was a sweet little place and I remember snowy winters, a scary Black Peter in the marktplatz, and a beautiful little pair of square-toed shoes in a shop window. We had lovely landlords named Ottie and Theo. Sometimes Ottie’s mother babysat me and my brothers…I remember her serving fresh-baked bread, warm from the oven, slathered with butter and homemade strawberry jam. She’d sit us down and we’d watch Mickey Mouse in German on her black and white television.

While more than tourists, we had parachuted in, Third Culture style, and were outsiders. We also  moved there in trying times: only 15 years after WWII (Speicher sustained direct hits) and just after the Berlin Wall had risen. Still, we got to know people and in the summer, I helped my friends Hans and Michtilde pick sugar beets in the fields. Many years later, a half a year ago, in fact, I learned that the earth that we worked had once been the grounds of a Roman settlement and an important area for the manufacture of pottery called Speicher-ware. While Rome’s attempt to defeat Germanic peoples failed, the empire succeeded in leaving evidence of its occupation for archaeologists to eventually unearth, just as we dug for sugar beets.

Yesterday, as I pieced together bits and pieces of info to get a better feel of the place, I came across something about the original inhabitants of the area. It turns out they were Celtic peoples:  the Treveri. This surprised me no end, as I had learned about the Treveri a while back and thought they were Germanic. I couldn’t get a geographic fix on them, though, and only knew that they lived to the north of the Rhine River. The famous horses of the Treveri were central to Julius Caesar’s success in the Gallic Wars around 50 BC. The tribe traded with Rome but, at other times, opposed it. The Treveri were subdued by Rome in 1 BC and later taken over by the Franks.

Only 20 miles or 32 kilometers away from Speicher lies Trier. I never had known to link the two, but Trier was the former capital of the Treveri, whose domain encompassed what is now Luxembourg and parts of Germany and Belgium. Trier was also the western capital of the Roman Empire, Augusta Treverorum. As an eight-year-old girl, I remember gazing down at the stacked flat stones in the baths and up at the Porta Nigra, the Black Gate.

Speicher lies along a Roman military route between Trier and Cologne and there were a number of Roman settlements in the area. I learned to swim in one of them…Wittlich. Speicher, it turns out, has been the focus of archaeological research for 150 years and remains of Roman kilns were found there in 1881. “Further excavations over time revealed storerooms, furnaces, and living areas,” states a travel brochure by Tourist-Information Bitburger Land. “Evidence of larger, more complex building units surfaced…in 1950,” it states.

I was curious about what Roman kilns were like and came across a description of one someone built as an experiment in living ancient history. According to Guy de la Bedoyere, in Pottery in Roman Britain, “the basic plan is that an oval shaped area is dug out. Half is formed into the kiln and the other half, the windward half, is the area for the stokers to stand…The wood is put in the stoking hole, slowly and only up to half its area, so that sufficient air can get in and be pulled through the firebox and upwards through the ware.” He continues to explain that the “ware sits on a perforated clay table above the lower area where the hot gases circulate. The upper area of ware is then covered with old crock, turf, etc. It can be closed when 700 or if your lucky 800 degrees have been reached for reduction or left open for oxidation.”

I loved reading this because it brings to life a  Roman pottery operation. De la Bedoyere points out that because Romans didn’t have glaze there was no problem with pieces touching each other in the kiln.

Romans might not have had glaze, but they were masters in the use of terra sigillata, a thin slip made from clay, a deflocculant and water. Terra sigillata made their red or black Samian-ware glossy. It was while I was researching Samian-ware that I found reference to Speicher-ware and was, again, floored. I have yet to find out whether the Treveri were potters along with being horsemen, but Speicher has been known for its pottery at least since Roman times.

Speicher-ware sometimes has a “dark, semi-vitrified surface,” according to Gallia Belgica, by Edith Mary Wightman. Also, specific types of vessels are known to have been made in Speicher for Roman export, among them mortaria, mortars and pessels.  In addition, the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre has catalogued oxidized Speicher-ware from what was then Eastern Gaul, dating between 200 AD and 400 AD.

Bringing it closer to the present, a pottery called the PLEWA-Werk has existed in Speicher for 200 years. Its Jacob Plein-Wagner Pottery Museum and Workshop exhibits Roman, Medieval and Modern Pottery. Early on, PLEWA made “gravestone-ornaments, pitchers and cream-bowls out of domestic clays, ” according to its site. It was, then, located on Jacobstrasse, the very street on which lived in the 60s! Later, the Pleins began working with terra cotta and porcelain. The PLEWA-Werk is still a family business and has been for four generations. Today it makes beer mugs, wine pitchers, wine cups, punch bowls, shot pitchers and plaques, coats of arms, and plates. Some of the pieces PLEWA makes are the traditional salt-glazed variety for which Germany is famous: light gray clay with cobalt decoration. (This blue is used because its color stays true in firing.)

When I came up with the idea of outlining the histories of where I’d lived and their connection to ceramics, I did not know I’d find such rich material. From Fort Walton Beach to Speicher, my footsteps have tread upon lands that once saw many a kiln firing. From here, we go to the the Central United States, where we lived in Kansas and spent time in Oklahoma. I don’t know what I’ll find there, but stay tuned and you will find out.

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About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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