Woodland Pottery Making Practices at the Widows Creek Site (1JA305)

Ceramics (or pottery) may be defined as intentionally manufactured fire-hardened clay objects. In the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, ceramic artifacts, usually in the form of small fragments of vessels (i.e., potsherds), are often recovered from prehistoric sites by archaeologists. One objective of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Researchís recent Widows Creek Collection Study was to investigate prehistoric ceramic-manufacturing practices at the Widows Creek site (1JA305). Thousands of ceramic specimens dating to the Woodland period (700 B.C. to A.D. 1100) were examined during the research. The study produced a progression of the steps and stages of ceramic vessel production used by Native American potters at Widows Creek.

The first step in the manufacturing process was to collect suitable raw material or clay for making ceramic vessels. Widows Creek potters used clays dug from deposits in the bases of nearby hills or saddles lying between hill tops. The clay was then transported to the production site in skin or fiber containers. There the potters spread the raw clay out on a deer skin or large bark slab to dry and then pounded it, with a wooden club or baton, into b-b to marble-sized fragments. This material was then winnowed using a reasonably large flat-sided or gently dished basket. By winnowing the dry and pounded clay, most of the organic inclusions (twigs, small leaves, grass stems, etc.) were either eliminated by wind or fell at a slower rate than the clay particles with which they were mixed and ended up on the upper surface of the winnowed clay pile. Those that ended up in the clay pile could be relatively easily picked out by hand and discarded. Limestone slabs, or sometimes potsherds, were crushed and ground with the use of a hammerstone, a wood or stone pestle, or a groundstone mano against a metate or flat stone table. The prepared particles (tempering agents) were then stored until used and brought to the production site in a ceramic, fiber, or skin container. Water was next added to the dried and pounded clay to bring it to what the potter judged to be proper plasticity, and previously crushed and ground limestone or potsherd fragments were added to the moistened clay as it was brought to its paste state. Widows Creek potters then thoroughly cleaned, kneaded, and/or wedged the clay mass and selected a proper amount of clay for the desired size before beginning a pot.

Widows Creek potters used two primary methods for building pots: mass modeling and coiling. Mass modeling was accomplished by pulling, pinching, punching, pounding, and scraping a lump of prepared clay into a desired shape and size. This method was used to form the bottoms of pots. Coiling involved the preparation of a clay mass by dividing it into segments, each of which was subsequently rolled into coils. The coils were stacked one upon another and then pinched, pulled, paddled, and scraped to form the upper portions of the pot.

After the vessel was formed, surfaces were sometimes textured by combing, brushing, and stamping. Combing seems to have been accomplished with a rectangular wood or bone tool notched along one short side with the other short side held firmly between the thumb and forefinger and then drawn over the moist clay at a low oblique angle to produce a uniform series of U-shaped flat-bottomed troughs. When the notched edge of the combing tool was serrated rather than having broader square-ended notches, the tool was applied to a drier clay surface. The tool used for brushing seems to have been a bundle of pine straw or grass stems bound together at one end. The brush was drawn over the moist clay to produce a textured surface. Several techniques were used to produce stamped surfaces. Cord-wrapped rod impressing was accomplished by wrapping a two-strand twisted cord around a wooden dowel. The cord-wrapped dowel was pressed down into the clay one horizontal row after the other to produce a texture resembling a woven fabric. Other cord-roughened textures were created by wrapping a double-strand twisted cord about a rectangular bone or wooden slab or paddle and then applying it with moderate force to the potís moist or semi-moist clay surface.
A check-stamped texture was created by applying a grooved square of rectangular wood or bone stamp to the exterior of the vessel body. The grooves in the wooden or bone stamp were cut to produce a waffle-iron pattern that, when applied at a right angle to the semi-moist clay, produced a waffle-like surface. Complicated stamp texturing was applied to vessel surfaces with a carved flat-sided wooden stamp exhibiting intricate design elements made up of curved and parallel lines forming nested diamonds, concentric circles, and other designs.

In addition to texturing, vessel surfaces were sometimes decorated using a blunt-ended circular or oval wooden dowel or hollow reed pressed into the vessel and then withdrawn to be inserted and withdrawn again and again to produce small indentations referred to as punctuations. Other times, blunt-ended, edged, or pointed wood or bone tools were drawn over the vessel surface to produce lines used to form decorative designs. Occasionally, the fingers alone were used to decorate lips of pots. By squeezing the upper lip between thumb and forefinger, the artisan produced a series of pinch marks and by pressing down on the lipís upper surface with a finger tip produced a series of oval depressions sometimes marked on one edge by the end of a fingernail.

After the pots were built and surfaces were textured or decorated, Widows Creek potters thoroughly dried their vessels under cover of a shelter and may have sanded away imperfections on the exterior surface of some of the vessels by rubbing them with a fine-grained stone and then wetting and smoothing the surfaces.

Finally, the potters prepared an oval or circular area for the burn, then stacked the pots to be fired mouth down and, most likely, shoulder to shoulder. Wood, grass, and perhaps bark were then placed over the vessels as fuel. The stack was fired, thus completing the process of making ceramic vessels.

For further reading on the Widows Creek (1JA305) collection study, please click here.


Krause, Richard A.
2011 Toward an Archaeoethnography of Widows Creek Potting Practices. Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Special Investigation 1.