Monday, March 19, 2012

Medalta Potteries, Medicine Hat, Alberta

Craft and Archaeology at Medalta
On the way out of Medicine Hat, Alberta a couple weeks ago, I stopped in to Medalta Potteries for a quick look around.  Its a pretty spectacular site where a large scale historic pottery site is interpreted and opened up for visitors and visiting crafts people.  I was expecting a lot of ceramics and craft, but I wasn't anticipating archaeology to be such a big part of the story.  Medicine Hat is built on rich alluvial clay deposits along the South Saskatchewan River and during the decades around the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century a large brick and ceramic industry grew up in the community.

The large industrial site has be re-envisioned into a historic site, museum, gallery and clay studio for workshops and visiting crafts people

The kilns from the outside
The standing kilns, with their beehive shapes and tall smoke stacks are prominent features on the outside of the rebuilt factory museum.  The archaeological footprint of two more kilns, found buried beneath the floor are even more impressive once you enter the building.  It turns out that I've met the archaeologist who worked on exposing these kilns, Talva Jacobson, when she was living in St. John's and working on her MA in archaeology at Memorial University.

The exposed interior of a kiln found buried beneath the factory floor.

A second, smaller kiln was also exposed.  This one would have been a test kiln for trying out new techniques and forms.

The museum's interior was constructed around the exposed archaeological features.   Its a fantastic example of integrating an archaeological feature into a building designed to interpret an historic site. 

I couldn't help but think of The Rooms built over top of Fort Townsend when I was visiting Medalta.  We do have a remarkably intact Fort lying exposed beneath our Museum, Art Gallery, and Archives - you just can't see it yet. 

Fascinating place to work
The sprawling 150 acre Historic Clay District at Medalta is a combination of museum, art gallery, archaeological site, and ceramic workshop - complete with an artist in residence program.  As you tour through the facility you'll see the work of contemporary potters, examples of classic Medalta ceramics and descend beneath the floor to tour the archaeologically exposed features of the factory below the kilns and turning floor.

Medalta Potteries Limited in Medicine Hat, Alberta. MED,ALTA - get it?
Mural at the Entrance, the sign below is the caption.


When I was there a new exhibit was being installed in the gallery.  I'm not sure who's work this is.

The working part of the pottery studio.  The artist in residence studios are more private - this is the public floor where you can see potters at work.

There are also many static displays that explain the equipment and techniques used in the factory.

Lots of bright, colourful display cases showcasing some of the products to come out of Medalta over the years.

Cowboy Hat Ashtrays from Medalta.

Custom corporate advertising was available.

Not just prairie scenes...

The abundant local clay made this whole industry possible

Lots of durable, functional stoneware crocks were produced here as well.

Beneath the museum floor, you can tour the underground and see more archaeological  interpretations explaining the foundations and equipment that would have been used beneath the factory.  

Archaeological work has been carried out at the site during different times over the past  several decades.

Visiting the underbelly of the factory floor.  The motors that powered the machines on the turning floor above to create the stoneware crocks were mounted down here.  Other features of the kilns and foundations were also found in the excavations.

The big round kilns are no longer used, but they museum has integrated them into the design and interpretation of the facility.

Inside the kilns, you can see more pottery and learn a bit more about how the kilns were used.

Many of these were printed with the names of schools.

Where the smokestack meets the roof inside one of the big kilns.

Inside the kiln, looking out the loading door.
I couldn't leave without bring home a pot for Lori's Birthday.

Photo Credits:
1-28: Tim Rast
29: Lori White


  1. It is really wonderful you made it down to see the site! I am glad you and Lori are well. Say "hi" to everyone for me. Take care,


  2. Hey Talva - its a great site - really impressive work!


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