Puzzle Jugs and Puzzling Jugs

When is a puzzle jug not a puzzle jug ? Amongst folk and country potters from the early 17th century onwards and the makers of delftware and later stonewares in England, the puzzle-jug has been a popular form for gifts and commemorative pieces. Drinking novelties, if ever actually used, they aim to confuse the user and spill drink over their victims. On some, inscriptions dare the drinker on pain of a forfeit. Their complexity varies, the ones from Donyatt in Somerset being the simplest. As special pieces they have survived disproportionately well and they are represented in many museum and private collections.

Puzzle Jug dated 1877. Yorkshire, probably Burton-in-Lonsdale.

Puzzle Jug. Donyatt, Somerset. 1852.

The reader may query my start date for these pieces. Surely the puzzle jug is a much earlier phenomenon. Are there not many medieval examples in museums and amongst archaeological assemblages?

The answer is no. What there are are labels.  There a range of  ceramic objects made in the later Middle Ages and the early modern period that are characterised by the incorporation of tubes in one way or another. These are often attached to the vessel wall and sometimes involve concealment by incorporation into decoration or hollow handles. The function of these pieces puzzled antiquarians and nineteenth century collectors and resulting in a generic classification as puzzle jugs alongside their more familiar cousins. No link was made to posset pots although these too sometimes included tubes. Posset pots were classified as cup forms and their function was not seen as mysterious in any way. The tube (or tubes) simply allowed the user access to the lower part of the contents without disturbing the upper part. A general link was made to drinking and parties.

The best known medieval pot of this kind is the magnificent and exotic late 13th century  Saintonge jug in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Less familiar but still pretty impressive is the Redcliffe jug in Bristol City Museum. Both are catalogued as puzzle jugs but they are actually structurally quite different and represent two distinct vessel types. The common ground is that they are for pouring liquids, they have spouts and handles and their structure incorporates a tube.

The Exeter ‘Puzzle Jug.’ Saintonge, France. 1250-1300AD. Royal Albert Museum Exeter.

The Exeter jug is visually very similar to the familiar post-medieval pots in having a tubular handle linking bottom and top and a pierced neck between shoulder and rim. The neck is an ornate galleried tower whose windows are populated with musicians. There is no doubt that this is a table piece meant to attract attention. As reconstructed, the jug has two chambers, the lower part of the body is fully enclosed with two openings, one from the base of the holow handle and the other into the tubular spout. Above the pierced neck the upper chamber is an open, vertical sided bowl which has a small hole in its lower edge which opens into the top of the hollow handle. The spout, which has a modelled animal head, rises from the lower chamber up to the level of the base of the upper one.

The Redcliffe ‘puzzle Jug’ Redcliffe, Bristol. Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery.


The Bristol jug is large and imposing with three spouts at its rim each modelled as a male head. The two on the flanks of the jug are bridge spouts opening directly into the vessel. Each has a body drawn below it with applied coils. The spout at the front has no opening through the rim but sits at the top of a tube which runs down the front of the vessel to an opening near the base of the interior. Over the tube is modelled a full figure with a head like those on the spouts and gripping a ring between two hands.

Neither jug imcorporates any trick or subtlety to confuse or amuse. The Exeter jug has an open bowl at the top as an access point to fill or with liquid, an enclosed storage chamber at the bottom and a spout to pour with. The Bristol one is a normal jug form with two spouts on the sides of the rim that provide the means to pour from the top and a third at h front supplied by a tube that allows the user to pour from the bottom.

The latter is clearly similar in function to the kinds of objects usually labelled posset pots. These are most commonly seen as tin-glazed earthenware/delftware but there is a long tradition of large lidded pieces in lead-glazed earthenware too with some splendid ones from Wales and the Midlands. The spouts cannot be used to pour but must be sucked. Nonetheless, the basic principle is the same except that the Redcliffe Jug is best suited to serving rather than direct consumption.

The Exeter jug is similarly best suited to a serving role. It is important to remember that this pot comes from Southern France. There is an extensive range of drinking and serving vessels from all around the Mediterranean and the old Ottoman Empire to which this pot seems to me to belong.  In France the gargoulette and in Spain the botijo are enclosed pouring forms that perform both drinking and table functions. There are a lot of variations across the wider area but the essential idea is consistent. In the east particularly a hollow handle is a common feature.

Botijos. Left, late 19th century. Antonio Fernandez, Rambla. Spain. Right, 19th/early 20th century, Spain or Portugal.

The two examples above are different in form to the Exeter jug but very similar in their mechanics and their functions. A filling point is provided by adding a small thrown ring or vessel. The one on the right has a pierced filter. The neck can be lightly plugged with textile to filter the water of whatever else going into it. Both are everted to take a cloth of paper cover tied over them. Opposite is a narrow spout. The main chamber is fully enclosed from the elements. Botijos are generally associated with water or wine but they are can be used to store and pour a variety of things including particularly oils. The Exeter jug is particularly effective as a storage vessel for oils because the two tubes allow only a minimal surface area to oxidise as long as it it kept full. In use the top would ideally be covered as is often the cas with botijos.

There are a range of other puzzling pots in museums and collections worth scrutinising. There are lots of interesting folk/traditional pots across Europe and the Mediterranean for comparison – and of course not just pots. Anyway enough.

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This entry was posted in Archaeology, Folk and Country Pottery, Slipware, Studio Ceramics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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