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Clay Pottery Sherds

These are pot sherds, or broken pieces of pottery found in Rhode Island.  It is unknown where the sherds were found.  It is rare for archaeologists to find a complete ceramic vessel, especially in Rhode Island’s acidic and moist soils and seasonal climate of the area. “n.d.” in an object citation means “no date.” It is difficult to know the date of archaeological materials when people collect artifacts without documenting where they were found or what other archaeological material was nearby.

Early Native Pottery in Southern New England

Essay by Rebecca Marisseau, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University

 Native peoples in southern New England began making clay pottery for cooking and storing food about 3000 years before the present day.[1] Originally, people used soapstone bowls, but they eventually preferred pottery because clay pots are easier to make and are lighter to carry.[2] Archeologists do not usually find whole clay pots because they are easy to break. Instead, they find pottery fragments or sherds, and sometimes archaeologists can try to piece these fragments together like a puzzle to learn what the pot looked like.

Plan view of the remains of a stone fire pit found at an archaeological site. The pit could have been used for cooking or firing pottery. Plan view means we are looking down at a feature from above. Photo courtesy of the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc.

How did these early pottery makers make their pots? They began with natural clay, which in New England can be found near water sources, like river banks or ponds. Then, they added what is called a temper, which is a material that is added to the clay to make it stronger. New England pottery makers used crushed rocks and shells for temper.[3] Next, they formed the clay-and-temper mix into pots. Early New England potters often patted the clay into shape, or they made the pot out of clay coils.[4] The coil method is one you can try yourself: take a clump of clay, and roll it quickly back-and-forth between your hands or against a flat surface. Eventually, the clay forms one long roll. Pottery makers formed these coils into circles and stacked them in order to build the shape of their pots. Then, they smoothed over the coils. Finally, after drying out the clay a bit, the pots were placed into a fire to make them strong and durable. According to early written sources by Europeans, it appears that women were in charge of making pottery in Native New England communities.[5]

The technique of clay pottery making did not originate in Southern New England. Archaeological investigation tells us that pottery making was learned from other Native peoples to the south and west.[6] However, over the centuries, pottery makers in Southern New England developed their own unique preferences and styles.[7] They made round egg- and globe-shaped pots, and they sometimes decorated their pots by carving or stamping lines to form patterns.[8] One of the earliest patterns consisted of small, evenly spaced squares or rectangles stamped near the top of the pot.[9]

Profile view of the stone fire pit. A profile is an image from the side. An archaeologist cut into the fire pit when excavating in order to be able to see its depth. Photo courtesy of the Public Archaeology Laboratory, Inc.

How did early potters decorate their pots? One way to find out is through experimental archaeology where archaeologiststry to recreate the process using materials that were probably available to these early potters.[10] For example, based on experiments, archaeologists guess that early potters used plants, animal hair, or porcupine quills to make brush-like decorations.[11] Another way to learn how early potters decorated their pots is through traditional knowledge. Descendants of these early potters still use some of these techniques and use some of these tools. Other tools that potters may have used to make other decorations include a cord-wrapped paddle, pointed sticks, their fingers and thumb, antlers, shells, and nets.[12]

Over time, certain decorations came in and out of style and potters developed new techniques. In later periods, it became more popular to use crushed shell rather than crushed rocks as temper.[13] In general, as the centuries progressed, early potters made the walls of their pots thinner.[14] All of this information is very useful to archaeologists who want to use objects to figure out when people lived in a certain place. As an example, if they find egg-shaped pottery with a shell temper and with shell-stamped decorations near the rim, then they can infer that people lived at that site when it was popular to make that style of ceramic, which in this case was from 1300-450 years before present. [15]



Sherd: a fragment of pottery

Temper: a material, such as crushed rock or shell, that is added to clay in order to make the clay stronger

Experimental archaeology: a process in which archaeologists replicate how they think ancient cultures did something using the tools they had available in their time in order to learn about how an older technology worked

Traditional knowledge: skills, practices, and knowledge passed down from one generation to the next, usually within a community

Infer: to draw a conclusion from close examination of the evidence, or to make an educated guess



How did Native New England potters make their pots?

Why do archaeologists find it useful to know when early potters used certain decorations and pottery-making techniques?

Think like an archaeologist: what other kinds of information might someone learn about early Native life by studying pottery? (Hint: what might the shape of early pots tell you about their use?)

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1. Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, (E.A. Johnson Company: 2002), 13.
2. Ibid., 14.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 17.
6. Jonathan Michael Lizee, “Prehistoric ceramic sequences and patterning in southern New England: The Windsor Tradition” (PhD diss., University of Connecticut, 1994), 7.
7. Ibid., 7, 23. Archaeologists call the pottery tradition that is local to southern New England the “Windsor Tradition.”
8. Ibid., 24
9. Ibid., 65
10. Ibid., 84.
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid., 39.
13. David J. Bernstein, Prehistoric Subsistence on the Southern New England Coast: The Record from Narragansett Bay (San Diego: Academic Press, Inc., 1993), 25.
14. Ibid., 26.
15. Lizee, “Prehistoric ceramic sequences and patterning in southern New England: The Windsor Tradition,” 114-118. Archaeologists call this style “Sebonac Stamped.”
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