The first collectors of North Carolina slipware may not have known much about their prey when they began snapping up "Moravian" pottery in the late 1800s.
Neither did the museums that pursued it so avidly during the Depression.
But like pioneering Pennsylvania antiques dealer Joe Kindig Jr. — who mined the back roads of North Carolina for these elusive treasures early on — they all knew they were chasing something good.
Skillfully thrown and exuberantly decorated, the eye-catching dishes, bowls and sugar pots from the central piedmont region of the Tarheel state surpassed anything produced in New England or the Mid Atlantic during the late 1700s and early 1800s. They also rivaled and often outshone the celebrated wares made in the 1700s by the Pennsylvania Dutch.
Not until recent years, however, have scholars uncovered evidence showing that this long lumped-together school of ceramic art was nowhere near as monolithic as had been assumed.
Archaeology has played a key role in this turnaround, which has identified several important non-Moravian potteries in addition to the well-known Moravian kilns that operated for decades in and around Salem, N.C.
"Just 5 years ago everybody had it wrong. Everything in North Carolina slipware was being called 'Moravian,'" says Yorktown archaeologist and ceramics scholar Robert Hunter, who co-curated the ground-breaking show of about 100 examples currently on view at Colonial Williamsburg's Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum.
"In reality, there were three or four different groups making this stuff, and museums all over the country are rewriting their labels."
Titled "Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware," the new exhibit sprang from 5 years of cooperation among the Milwaukee-based Chipstone Foundation, Old Salem Museums & Gardens in North Carolina and the Caxambas Foundation of Janesville, Wis.
It also represents years of research led by Williamsburg decorative arts consultant Luke Beckerdite, who — along with Hunter and a dozen other experts in the field — filled two lushly illustrated volumes of the Chipstone Foundation's annual "Ceramics in America" journal with essays based on their studies.
Among their chief discoveries is a multi-generational slipware tradition that developed in what is now Alamance County during the late-1700s and flourished there for 75 years.
Though long attributed to the Moravian potteries at Bethabara and Salem, these distinctive earthenware vessels — with their black grounds and lively polychrome decoration — have since been linked by stylistic, documentary and archaeological evidence to a previously unheralded family of German potters with French Huguenot origins.
Pattern-filled triangles and stylized crosses marked many of these works over the generations. But by the time Solomon Loy took up the family trade in the early 1800s, he was decorating his pots with dripped as well as trailed slip, producing some strikingly abstract, contemporary-looking pieces.
Quaker potters contributed to the so-called Moravian school, too, belying the plainness of their faith with somewhat thinner yet still exuberantly applied floral and geometric designs.
Among the most striking works in the show, in fact, is a large dish decorated with a near-abstract repertoire of dots, squiggles and other marks by William Dennis.
Still, there's no mistaking the continuing shadow cast by pioneering Moravian potter Gottfried Aust and his successors — including the talented Rudolph Christ — in and around the settlement of Salem during the late 1700 and early 1800s.
Many of their most beautiful vessels incorporate handsome floral imagery executed with a fluid, wonderfully calligraphic line. And new research has uncovered a previously unsuspected connection between such motifs as anemones and lilies of the valley with the Christian sect's devout beliefs about life, death and their marriagelike bonds with Jesus.
"This show includes a large percentage of all the masterpieces — at least 80 percent — that we know about," Hunter says.
"And it's the first time they've all been brought together."
Erickson can be reached at email@example.com and 757-247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Art in Clay: Masterworks of North Carolina Earthenware"
Where: Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, inside the Public Hospital of 1773, Francis and Tyler streets, Williamsburg
When: Through July 29, 2012
Cost: $9.95 adults, $4.95 children 6-17