The Inside Story: the Exeter puzzle jug

Across the 18th and 19th century, puzzle jugs were popular types of playful pottery.

An intricate medieval puzzle jug. The colour is mostly cream or beige, with green and yellow accents. Small figurines are set into the neck of the jug, including a woman and man. The spout takes the form of a giraffe or other long necked animal.

RAMM’s puzzle jug is one of the most extraordinary pieces of medieval ceramics to have been discovered in northern Europe, and the earliest puzzle jug discovered in England. It was made in Saintonge, France around 1300 AD. In 1899 (just over thirty years after the museum first opened to the public) it was found in pieces on a building site at the junction of Bear Street and South Street in Exeter. The jug was donated to RAMM and in the 1930s it was sent to the British Museum to be restored to what we see now.

Traditional puzzle jugs were designed to trick an unsuspecting drinker into spilling liquid on themselves, but the Exeter puzzle jug challenges the user to work out how to fill it up and have the liquid reach the spout, despite its holes and hollow centre. Decorated with musicians and dancing girls, as well as naked bishops, this particular piece of pottery was designed with fun in mind. The jug is shaped like a tower and was created with the intention of making light of the medieval clergy, possibly as a symbol of rebellious attitudes towards the church, or of Exeter’s sophisticated European tastes and trading links. It shows how important the church was in everyday life at the time, even as the butt of a joke.

A white puzzle jug with blue decoration and a hollow neck, constructed of interlocking circular patterns. The words 'try how to drink and not to spill to prove the utmost of your skill' are stamped on it
A puzzle jug from the V&A collection, circa 1775

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