Bundmærker på middelalderligt lertøj i Danmark


  • Else Roesdahl


middelalder, lertøj


Base marks on Danish Medieval pottery

The Baltic pots of Denmark - the flat-bottomed, Slav-inspired vessels, which were common on Zealand, Funen and the islands from the late Viking period and into the 13th century - may like their foreign counterparts be furnished with an embossed stamp on the under surface of the base. These marks were presumably made in various ways (1) and are as a rule simple geometrical figures, most often in the shape of a cross, ring-cross or circles, or with these marks as basic elements. Information on finds of one or more sherds or pots of this type has been collected from 8 localities in Denmark (fig. 11), including Århus with 1 pot which was hardly manufactured there (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Corresponding base marks are found on closely related pottery in Sweden (8), and to the south base marks are known well into East and Central Europe (9).

In the foreign literature it is a subject of controversy whether the marks should be interpreted as magical signs, ownership marks (customer marks) or as manufacturers' trade marks (10). Similar considerations apply to the Danish material and are of particular interest here, since it is hardly possible to tell from the pottery itself whether it was made by professional potters. It is often of excellent quality, but made without use of the rapid potter's wheel, and it has been fired in a primitive manner (11).

There are, however, in Denmark also examples of embossed base marks on the wheel-thrown, kiln-fired and often glazed pottery of the Middle Ages after c. 1225, which is generally in new forms inspired from West Europe and professionally manufactured. The author is aware of nine pots or sherds of this type which are furnished with base marks, although a much reconstructed jug (cat. no. 8) was possibly formed by hand. The devices used as base marks in this group of pottery can be found elsewhere in Medieval symbolism. They are therefore presented here in catalogue form. Both the mark and the pot itself are described and the provenance, museum and accession number are also given. References are also given to the literature, which in particular describes the find context. All the base marks are reproduced photographically and in diagrammatic form; and those pots which are not illustrated here are reproduced elsewhere (13).

It is seen that base marks are found on all commonly employed Medieval pottery types from the period after c. 1225, and all those treated here were presumably made in Denmark.

The funerary pot no. 6 may be accurately dated to 1304, when Queen Agnes died, or the period immediately prior to this. The funerary pot no. 2 must be referred to the period in which funerary vessels were used, which seems to be from just before 1200 to sometime after 1300 (14). Decorated jugs like no. 1 are usually dated to the period c. 1250-1350, and the two sherds from Næsholm, no. 4 and 5, must stem from the period in which the castle was in use, c. 1240- 1340 (15). The remainder can at present hardly be dated more precisely than to the Middle Ages after 1225. It is apparent from this that base marks were in use in Denmark at least as long as in southern Europe (16), that they were employed in the so-called heyday of the Medieval pottery - c. 1250-1350, and finally that they were still in use here after the production of the Baltic pottery of prehistoric character had ceased.

Of the nine recorded marks, six have been found on Zealand, two on Funen and one in Jutland (fig. 10). This distribution corresponds so remarkably to that of Baltic pottery in general that the nine younger Medieval marks must be an expression of some kind of unbroken pottery tradition from the end of the Viking period to well into the Middle Ages, in spite of the fact that pottery shape and method of manufacture may have been radically altered in the course of the period. It is unlikely that many more base marks will be found in Jutland in the future. The Jutland pottery has, as already pointed out elsewhere (17), its own special development and its own special features. In several towns in Jutland considerable amounts of Medieval pottery have been found without the advent of more than the one base mark from Ålborg. Base marks are presumably throughout the Middle Ages a purely East Danish phenomenon, and the Ålborg mark must therefore be regarded as the result of contact between this enterprising trading town and the Danish islands.

Certain morphological groupings within the nine base marks are apparent. The two from Næsholm (no. 4 and 5) are so alike that they may have been stamped with the same matrix, and as far as can be ascertained from the preserved parts, the jugs too were very similar. The type and colour of the body, the colour and disposition of the glaze and the position of the finger impressions on the edge of the base are alike (fig. 4-5). One of the marks from Funen (no. 7) is clearly allied to the Næsholm marks but has been produced with another matrix, and the jug itself differs from the Næsholm jugs. The mark itself must have its origin in a majuscule A, the lower cross-bar of which is in a decorative V-shape instead of straight. Corresponding but less extreme A-forms are known from numerous inscriptions (18). Among the other marks are three -though not identical - five-rayed stars. As far as can be ascertained, the pots themselves, presumably all jugs, were also different. They derive from different finds. The remaining marks are at the moment unique.

Among the interpretations of the significance of the marks, mentioned in the introduction, the "magical" must be considered improbable. Taking a narrow view, the equal-armed cross can naturally receive a religious interpretation, and with background in folklore, the star can be seen as a protective pentacle (19). The significance of single majuscule A's on seals, for example, has been the subject of considerable controversy. It is presumably often double, the A being the first letter of the name of for example a person or town and simultaneously serving as an Ave-Maria monogram (20). But it is difficult to establish a connection with religion and folklore in the case of no. 2, and impossible in the case of no. 8. This has simply the form of the ordinary mark used in and after the Medieval period by owner and producer alike - used everywhere where a name could have been used instead. These marks presumably originated far back in time and are mentioned for the first time in Denmark in Jyske Lov of 1241 (21). Mark no. 8 provides a basis for an understanding of all the marks. Proceeding to single majuscule A's, these are known as principal motif on among other objects coins from the mid-13th to well into the 14th century, including coins issued in Roskilde. From the beginning of the 14th century they are also known from seals and their impressions, and from 16th and 17th century Helsingør a whole series of different A-marks carved in stone, wood, etc., have been published (22). The pentagram is also known from Helsingør in the 17th century and from among other things 13th and 14th century coins. From the 14th century it was used by the aristocratic Skave family of Zealand and is known from its seal and grave-stones for example (23).

Whether or not the pentagram and majuscule A originally had a magical or religious significance is in this connection of lesser interest - the point is that the figures in the Middle Age were in fact employed as marks by persons, families, towns and offices. It is hardly reasonable at the moment to try to link the base marks to definite names, but one can attempt to establish what they generally stand for.

It is unlikely that they are ownership marks in view of the relatively minor variation in form and the rather wide geographical distribution of uniform marks. It is also unlikely that pots were ordered from the potter with a decorative ownership mark, placed out of sight under the base. The marks on the nine Medieval pots from after c. 1225 can be best understood as manufacturers' marks (24), as found on Medieval brass pots, candlesticks, bells, etc. They are hardly true potters' marks - the variation seems too small. They are more likely to be workshop marks like the SP-key marks (St. Peter marks) on the bricks from the Late Medieval and following period, as produced by the St. Peter brick­works at Lübeck (25). Our native Medieval potteries are anonymous, but if they were owned by wealthy nobles, for example, it is possible that the marks have connection with them and were common to several workshops under the same person or institution. At the moment, however, the place of manufacture cannot be established for any of the pots treated here, and in the large piles of wasters from the workshop at Farum Lillevang not one sherd bearing a base mark has so far been found (26).

If all the Danish Medieval base marks are considered together, the similarity of distribution, chronological continuity and common type (embossed) strongly suggest a common significance, whether they are found on the Early Medieval pots of Baltic type or on, for example, glazed jugs of the later Medieval group. The marks on the Baltic pottery suggest therefore that this pottery was already produced by artisans, and the marks themselves would then be the oldest native examples of the marking of products made by professional craftsmen.

While this article was in print, Assistant Curator Knud Liebgott drew my attention to another potsherd bearing a base mark, found in the ruins of Æbelholt Kloster (Tjæreby sogn, gl. Frederiksborg amt, Nationalmuseets 2. Afdeling nr. Æ 155). The sherd was not immediately accessible, but the description reads: "Base sherd of Late Medieval jug of reddish-grey fired clay with yellow-brown glaze on one side. On the other side the remains of a mark in the form of a five­rayed star. Size 4.5 X 3.6 cm". The description is accompanied by a sketch of the mark – a pentagram.

This brings the number of examples of this type of base mark up to ten, four of which are pentagrams. The provenance supplements nicely the distribution map fig. 10.

Else Roesdahl





Roesdahl, E. (1973). Bundmærker på middelalderligt lertøj i Danmark. Kuml, 23(23), 215–230. Hentet fra https://tidsskrift.dk/kuml/article/view/97025