Pottery-making culture spread across our history

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Indigenous pottery uncovered from Currituck County, dating between 200-950 AD. On display at the Museum of the Albemarle.

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By Joan Turmelle
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Despite its broken appearance and incompleteness, this work of indigenous art is imposing in its scale and age. Built of clay and impressed with patterns derived from netting, this large pot is over one-thousand years old, dating to a time long before the English founded Jamestown. Pottery has a long history in the Albemarle, and its near universality among the Native Americans is a testament to the ingenuity of the practice.

Using a coiling technique to create pottery out of clay may be a familiar practice to most: school children are taught to make it at an early age.

First, a piece of clay is flattened and smoothed into a circle to create the base of the pot. Then, bits of clay are rolled into thick strings which are layered one by one over the edges of the base, coiling upward until the desired shape and size are set.

Taking care to seal any holes, the pottery is then heated by fire to retain a permanent shape. These are the basics, but Native Americans also meticulously decorated their pots with impressed designs. Some took cords made of reeds and wrapped them around the pot to make impressions and others covered a wooden paddle with fabric and pressed designs into the clay. The history and unique customs of pottery-making can be traced across the archaeological record.

Coiled pottery was created independently by many societies around the world at different times, but the earliest pottery in the whole of North America (north of Mesoamerica) was developed in the southeastern United States around 2500 BC.

Early sites with pottery include Stallings Island in Georgia and the St. Johns region of Florida where pot shards already show impressed patterns. From there, the practice of pottery-making moved northwards into the interior, including the Carolinas, by 1000 BC. Early pottery in the Albemarle region was tempered with sand, pebbles, and shell fragments, that is, bits of minerals were pressed and baked into the clay to improve their durability. Over time, different cultural traditions developed their own styles of pottery and archaeologists have been able to examine these artifacts to recognize what peoples settled where.

Pots proved to be a valuable tool for cooking food. Prior to the development of pottery Native Americans created baskets out of plant fibers and carved soapstone or wood into bowls, but the only way they could cook their food was to drop heated stones into these vessels. Clay pottery could withstand direct contact with fire and indigenous groups could place their pots over fires to heat their meals. This method proved popular, and the practice of pottery-making managed to spread across the eastern United States, as far as the Great Plains. By the time of contact, most Native Americans used pottery.

The work of archaeologists and historians has helped piece together the story of pottery in the Americas and revealed just how quickly new cultural changes can spread across populations. That pottery spread from a few communities in present-day Georgia and Florida to nearly half of the continental United States demonstrates that the practice was so effective and valuable that peoples who did not even speak the same language could share this knowledge with each other. A very imposing artifact indeed.

Joan Turmelle is a artifact conservation volunteer at Museum of the Albemarle.

Sources: https://www.scuoladarteceramica.com/en/coil-built/; https://www.archaeologicalconservancy.org/acquisition/stallings-island-georgia/; http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00027829/00196/7j; World History Atlas (2005) Jeremy Black; Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina (1999) H. Trawick Ward & R. P. Stephen Davis Jr.; http://www.practicalprimitive.com/tempering.html