“(...) the [pots] of Montemoor o novo (…) are pots that are never old, like the ones from other places (…) and the reason's that they are made of a very scented clay and worked with very small rocks (...)”
Duarte Nunes de Leão - Descripção do Reino de Portugal, 1610
We have documental evidence and archaeological data tracing the pottery activity in Montemor-o-Novo back to the 14th century. However, it was in the 16th century that this pottery center in the region of Alentejo reached its golden age placing it at the same level of other great pottery production centers like Estremoz, Évora or Lisbon. Surpassed in the 18th century by the pottery center of Caldas da Rainha, it began to lose its strength until it completely faded in the middle of the 20th century. As of the technique itself used in Montemor, it is still not possible to trace back its origins. However, we have archaeological evidence that brings it close to the 15th century. This ancient activity, so characteristic of Montemor, would cease in the 18th century.
We are aware of the presence of a potter, in 1387, who would have resided in the intramural village. This made us wonder if his workshop could be found in the same place of residence or not. However, by norm, the pottery masters would establish their industrial activity close to the outskirts of the urban centers due to the pollution they caused when firing their pieces. Therefore, it is known that throughout the 16th century and long after that, potters would have established their workshops on the outskirts, on Rua dos Oleiros (Potter's Street) to be more precise, now called Rua de Santo António, and also on the adjacent street - Rua do Pedrão. It is known that the clay was extracted from very specific areas, particularly from the hillside of the intramural village (the extraction in this area would be prohibited by the town council in 1657, at risk of being fined with 1.000 reis), and the market square Rossio. Montemor-o-Novo gained a large amount of importance as a pottery production center and this allowed potters to rise as a class with a significant economic power in the area. Usually through the ownership of rustic and urban properties. This financial power would generate true “potter dynasties” in Montemor. An example of that is the Álvares and/or Alves family, with documentary proof connecting them throughout two centuries and a half to the pottery activity.
Acclaimed for its freshness, the pottery of Montemor-o-Novo had several distinctive features that conferred its numerous specifications to other pottery centers in the region of Alentejo, such as: the smell, the rough looks and color. Except for the last, the first two specifications were inherently connected with the non-plastic elements of the pottery paste: the fragments of quartz and/or feldspar.
The distinctive freshness and smell that the rocks gave to the water made sure that these pieces had its highest demand during the Summer, considering the weather of the region of Alentejo.
They were also pieces that by their ability of renewing themselves, were never considered old. When the rocks on the surface faded, the pieces were scraped so that the outer layer could return to its original rough, but characteristic, appearance, and the rocks could once again be seen, as described by Duarte Nunes de Leão, in Descripção do Reino de Portugal, em 1610.
However, this traditional industry in Montemor was not only connected to the water. It is also known that pottery was applied in the production of reddish, sometimes rocky, beads, as well as other more peculiar pieces such as the mask (MNCAST[3/05]0195) which was brought to light by our archaeologists.
The local pottery industry was enough to supply both houses and work places, like cellars and wineries, and could also be exported to outside the old village. In fact, during the reign of D. Manuel I, Montemor-o-Novo was considered an important pottery exportation center. Proof of that was the manner in which the king's family held in such high regards the pots of Montemor among their belongings. In 1507, in the city of Beja, the inventory of the wealthy possessions of the late infanta D. Beatriz, mother of D. Manuel I, showed thirty nine pots from Montemor. Another inventory in 1525, this time of the possessions of the daughter of D. Manuel I, the empress D. Isabel, wife of Carlos V of Habsburg and mother of Filipe II of Spain, also showed 17 pots and a large pitcher from Montemor.
Finally, the inventory in 1573 of the possessions of the daughter of D. Isabel, D. Joana de Áustria, the presence of pottery pieces of Montemor is also mentioned. This relationship between the pottery of Montemor-o-Novo and the house of D. Manuel I, almost assures us that it would have opened the gates to some of the European capitals like Madrid. Nationally however, Lisbon proved to be a very important selling spot. Algarve was also very important place in terms of exportation, as is hinted by the presence of pottery of Montemor inside of a late medieval well/cistern excavated in Silves.
Throughout the years, in Montemor-o-Novo, the archaeological excavations that took place within the intramural village and also outside of the walled precincts of Convento de São João de Deus, brought to light some examples of this ancient pottery technique of the region of Montemor. The entire content displayed here, belongs to several archaeological campaigns carried out in the Castle of Montemor-o-Novo in the years 2005, 2007 and 2009. In terms of pottery, the most successful campaign took place in 2009, to be more specific the artifacts found in a silo of which the materials date from somewhere between the 14th and the 15th centuries. The pieces in display that are the result of that excavation are the pitcher and the two small jugs identified with the inventory numbers: MNCAST [7/09] 0117; MNCAST [7/09] 0118; and MNCAST [7/09] 0119.
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FONSECA, Jorge, “Oleiros de Montemor-o-Novo: contributo para o seu estudo”, in Almansor – Revista de Cultura, n.º 4, 2.ª série, Câmara Municipal de Montemor-o-Novo, Montemor-o-Novo, 2005;
GOMES, Mário Varela, GOMES, Rosa Varela, “Cerâmicas Vidradas e Esmaltadas dos Séculos XIV a XVI, do Poço-Cisterna de Silves”, in XELB 3, Câmara Municipal de Silves, Mem Martins, 1996;
PIRATA, Vânia Cristina Rodrigues, “Materiais arqueológicos de um poço do castelo de Montemor-o-Novo”, in Almansor – Revista de Cultura, n.º 7, 2.ªa série, Câmara Municipal de Montemor-o-Novo, Montemor-o-Novo, 2008;
PEREIRA, Manuela, NÓBREGA, Ana, HENRIQUES, Artur, SANTOS, Hermínia, “Silos do Castelo de Montemor – O Espólio Cerâmico”, in Almansor – Revista de Cultura, n.º 4, 2.ª série, Câmara Municipal de Montemor-o-Novo, Montemor-o-Novo, 2005;
PEREIRA, Manuela, “Cerâmicas do Século XVII do Convento de S. João de Deus in Montemor-o-Novo”, in Almansor – Revista de Cultura, n.º 2, 2.ª série, Câmara Municipal de Montemor-o-Novo, Montemor-o-Novo, 2003;
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