For our purposes, pottery is clay fired to the point at which the silica it contains goes through a conversion into a new material: a ceramic. This inversion point is reached at 573 degrees celsius- 1060 degrees farenheit. See Rice 1989 or Shepard 1954 for more detailed discussions of the technical aspects of pottery making.

In this segment of the site you will find:

Native Americans in South Carolina did not use kilns, potter's wheels, or glazes. Earlier groups are thought to have used the local clays wherever they might find themselves in their seasonal subsistence round. In fact, although opportunistic use of freshly "found" clay did doubtlessly happen, local clay and lithic sources were probably as embedded in most people's subsistence strategy as any other resource, so as part of their yearly activities they would probably schedule a visit to a known clay source. More settled groups would probably have a constant source near their homes, but ethnographic evidence shows that potters are willing to travel around 5km to obtain clay (see Joe Herbert's book and dissertation, and clay sourcing study for more information).

Some pottery was made by modeling, though that technique is useful mostly for small, open vessels like bowls. Molding, and "slab" building were also used. But primarily vessels were made by coiling. In coiling ropes of clay are rolled out, and vessel walls are built up, with one coil covering the last. These are squeezed together with hands and fingers, and are usually paddled (or "malleated") to insure that the coils meld together. When this is not done correctly vessels will break at these seams, and rounded coil surfaces will be visible on the sherds.

The paddles used to malleate the coils were often wrapped with fabric, cordage, and nets. Others had carved designs. These left distinct impressions that researchers call surface treatments. Sometimes additional adornment was added after the basic vessel was shaped. This is termed "decoration."

After allowing the vessels to dry thoroughly Native American potters would fire them on the ground surface or in shallow pits. No evidence has been found of deep firing pits or even the most rudimentary kiln structures.The pottery under discussion is not glazed, and usually is not fired at a high enough temperature to reach the sintering point (900 degrees celsius) or to vitrify.

Our main interest is in the kinds of things Native American people made for domestic use, for the most part, such as bowls, storage jars, and cooking pots. Societies in the Carolinas are thought to have been fairly egalitarian during much of the time before the arrival of the Mississippian people around AD900. They lived in a relatively bountiful land, yet the uncertainties of living off of the land (periods of drought and fluctuating temperature regimes for instance) caused people to manage risk carefully. Some researchers think this resulted in a great resistance to change, resulting in, for instance, the prevalence of a given surface treatment for a long period (see Coe 1995, for instance).

Pottery making was taught by the elders and passed through the generations. While there are innovators always, and poor learners as well, there are also a good number of people who perform a task a certain way because: “This is the way I was taught, it's the right way to do it, this is how I've always done it and why on earth would anyone want to do it any differently?”

Some of the practices that are reflected in what we call “attributes” were spread by intermarriage between communities as well as by group movement and other factors. A surface treatment like cord marking might spread through the region, gaining and losing its popularity within a “community of practice” as Joe Herbert puts it (Herbert 2009) over a given period of time. Thus when we excavate a site with pottery that has a convergence of attributes we postulate that it dates to the same time period as other dated examples that have the same attributes.


What Can Pottery Tell Us?

Archaeologists are interested in pottery because it holds vital clues about the people of the past. The first area of interest is temporal. Although Native American pottery did not change as quickly and completely - and as often - as European and Domestic pottery in the 18th to 20th centuries it can still give us good landmarks that are both temporal and cultural in nature.

For example, the change from Stallings to Thoms Creek is muddled because the two overlapped for a thousand or more years and the types used the same decorative motifs at times. But when paddle stamped Deptford wares came into use around 500BC they replaced the earlier wares completely, and apparently, quickly (if 500 years or so can be called "quickly"). Deptford was made for a thousand or so years, and eventually was replaced by textile marked wares (Espenshade and Brockington 1989).

Beginning with William Henry Holmes in the 1890s researchers have seen textile marking as a “Northern Tradition” because similar wares were made from North Carolina to Canada (Holmes 1903, Griffin 1954, South 1976). Meanwhile in the Deep South the carved paddle stamped tradition was stronger, so paddle stamping is seen as the “Southern Tradition.” Thus pottery can give us clues about the interaction between groups and individuals from the different locales.

Maize agriculture was introduced in the Southwest by about 700AD and spread across the continent, arriving in North and South Carolina by about 1000AD (Mountjoy 1989:18). This dietary staple, coupled with beans and squash, allowed, and possibly even forced, complex societies to develop. That is, with fields and produce to protect a group would have to post guards, for instance, but first someone would have to be placed in charge of organizing the effort. Humans have always tried to understand nature and the elements, and often try to intercede through prayer, sacrifice and ritual. After agriculture was introduced pottery came to be stamped and incised with complicated designs that may reflect religious beliefs.

When agriculture moved into the state, complicated stamped pottery came with it. In some cases it appears to have completely replaced earlier traditions, as if an invading force had moved in and pushed the previous inhabitants out (Coe 1964, 1995; Oliver 1992). This type of pottery did not extend much further than the present day North Carolina border in its early years, however, and the people there- and presumably in parts of South Carolina as well - continued to make their traditional wares.

So the important temporal landmarks for South Carolina pottery are:

  • the introduction of pottery by about 3000BC;
  • carved paddle stamping at about 500BC;
  • complicated paddle stamping at about 1000AD.

When localities are studied intensively more sensitive temporal markers can be identified, as recent research on Cherokee sites have shown (Rodning 2008; Marcoux 2008). When time can be closely controlled questions of ethnicity and change can be addressed, and more complex anthropological questions can be asked. For example, Sassaman and Rudolfi (2003) and Joe Herbert (2003) have addressed the theory of “Situated Learning” and “Communities of Practice” in the context of pottery making. Marcoux and Rodning looked at changes in settlement and architecture that correlated with changes in pottery. Thus community development is traced over time, and the prehistoric roots of existing or historical groups can be revealed, as David Moore (2002) has done with the Catawba.


Important Sources for Ceramic Concepts and Terminology

Although I have a deep interest in pottery and ceramics, I do not consider myself an expert, and will refer the reader to sources that I have found valuable over the years. One of the biggest problems we face is a tendency to use conflicting terms and vague concepts. This has been addressed by both Anna Shepard (1954) and Prudence Rice (1987).

Pottery analysis is something most archaeologists might learn something about in college, but in actual practice it is often self taught (through reading and handling) or learned from co-workers and supervisors. In the modern CRM world researchers are expected to essentially be “experts” in a variety of subfields that on a given project can range from Paleoindian hunter gatherers to 20th century tenant farmers. Obviously no one can truly be an “expert” in all aspects of human history and culture so we tend to rely on specialists without fully appreciating every last bit of their reasoning and the concepts behind their conclusions. Some of the resources I consulted are posted in Adobe pdf under "References". In the “Previous Research” pages some of the more important sources for pottery research in South Carolina are summarized.

In the glossary section some basic terms that tend to be used locally are defined. The reader is referred to Prudence Rice (1987), Anna Shepard (1954) for the most widely accepted definitions and terms. Rice and Orton et al's books are available for sale, but Shepard can be found online.

While these are technical in nature, a more accessible, even inspirational work about pottery making in general is Michael Cardew's Pioneer Pottery. Cardew was a master potter from England who was asked to set up a pottery training center in Nigeria in the 1940s to encourage local industry. He wrote this book as a guide for setting up and running a pottery shop under primitive conditions. He takes you through all of the steps for starting fresh in a new environment from finding suitable clay, to making bricks for the kiln and building it, making and firing pots, and selling them. His explanations of clay geology, identification and processing are extremely pertinent, and very useful as a general introduction to the nuts and bolts of pottery making. If the reader catches the pottery bug there are numerous sources written by and for potters that can be very helpful. Daniel Rhodes Clay and Glazes for the Potter is a good example.