The Typology of China Blackbirds

Now how’s that for a title? A real grabber, I think you’ll agree. But this blog post is really about that second word, ‘typology’ – a term much used, abused and beloved of archaeologists. Essentially (so my Webster’s Dictionary tells me) it refers to the study of ‘types, symbols and symbolism’. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Introductions to archaeology often use the example of early railway carriages and motor cars, which closely resembled horse-drawn vehicles in their early years and then required several decades to produce their own characteristic shapes and identities. The acquisition of the new shapes happened in stages, whose progress can be plotted against time. Using their knowledge of typology, somebody who has studied the process will be able to date a particular model of, say, saloon car, even if they don’t know the details of the manufacturer or model. The same goes for archaeological objects, such as Bronze Age swords or axes, whose development can be quite accurately plotted by studying their typological changes. But in prehistory it can be difficult to relate the changing shape of things to the attitudes and prejudices of society at large. And that, for an archaeologist, is what makes modern typology so fascinating: one gets a glimpse of the sort of social influences that might have affected prehistoric manufacturers and their clients and customers.

In common with most of our archaeological friends, Maisie and I don’t have personal collections, other, of course, than our libraries. We like jig-saw puzzles, but we’re not ‘collectors’ in the London sale-room sense of the term. And there are a few pieces of worked flint knocking around our house, but most of these were picked up casually while out on walks. I certainly wouldn’t call them a collection. And then last week we were sorting-out one of the kitchen cupboards, when Maisie came across her little group of china blackbirds. These four-inch high models of fledgling blackbirds were used to prop-up a pie’s lid, while allowing steam to escape through the hole in the beak. The blackbird shape is, of course, a reference to ‘four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ of the nursery rhyme, ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’. And now to Maisie’s collection, which she bought from time to time in kitchenware shops – they are none of them antiques.

China blackbirds. Approximate date of manufacture (from left to right): 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010.

China blackbirds. Approximate date of manufacture (from left to right): 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010.

China blackbirds top view

I’ve taken two photos of the five blackbirds, to show their colour, modelling and the hole in their beaks. They are arranged in order of time, from left to right. No. 1 (on the left) was bought in the 1970s. It is probably quite a faithful representation of a an earlier 20th Century example, with good modelling and three colours of glaze; note how the glaze around the beak makes an attempt to mimic a real bird, also note the painted claws. The next bird (bought in the 1980s) is cruder than No. 1, but the shape is still recognizably that of a blackbird. The black glaze representing the bird’s feathers is confined to the bird’s body, and does not extend to the feet/perch. Bird 3 was bought in the 1990s and represents the low point of the typological series. The shape is rounded and frog-like and the glaze covers too much. The boundary between beak and neck makes no attempt to look bird-like. It’s tempting to suggest that in the 1990s few people cared much about cooking or baking pies and were heating-up ready-meals in microwaves. Bird No. 4 was bought after 2000 and is a fashionably minimalist representation of the blackbird. On the whole, the shape is well modelled and quite convincing, even if the poor bird looks like it has been fired up the barrel of a gun. The china too, is of better quality. And then we come to No. 5, which was bought after 2010. This blackbird is blue and made from the new wonder kitchen material: non-stick silicone; it has a yellow beak, made from a separate piece of silicone. By now although the material has changed, the modelling has returned to the shape of No. 1, even down to the detail of the gap in the base of the foot, where the steam enters. It’s tempting to suggest that the improved shapes of the last two blackbirds reflects a renewed interest in cooking, albeit as a hobby, or something done at weekends. I think blackbirds No. 2 and 3 say something rather sad about the ‘80s and the ‘90s. Or maybe I am reading too much into things which if I excavated them on site, I would probably interpret as religious offerings: the Cult of the Stiff-Necked Blackbird. How could I possibly know they were strictly utilitarian and owed their strange shape to a nursery rhyme? The frustration! There are times I would happily sell my soul to get inside the minds of prehistoric men and women.

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