The Ancient Art of Pottery
American Indians made pottery for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in North America. The shapes and designs of the pots give archaeologists clues about when and where the pottery was made. Archaeologists study broken pieces of pottery, called sherds to learn about the types of clays used, where they traveled to find clay, how they made and decorated the pots, how designs changed over time, and about the lives of the people who made them. By experimenting with natural clays and firing techniques and reproduce the designs we can learn a lot about the people who made them.
Pottery made its appearance in Florida about 4,000 years ago. It was first found on the Georgia-Florida border, near the Atlantic and it is not what you’d expect. The clay these early potters worked was very poor quality clay, and in truth, Florida’s clays are often poor quality. Florida clays have a lot of what is called montmorillonite, the smallest clay particle there is. Because of this, the clay retains a lot of water. As it dries, it shrinks, it causes the clay to crack and fall apart. Not good!
In order to stabilize the clay and to reduce shrinkage, those early potters learned to mix plant fibers into the clay. That pottery was heavy and thick walled, but as time went by, they began to experiment with other materials. Tiny pieces of limestone and, then sand were used. Sand worked for them hundreds of years, but sand also produced thick pots. Then suddenly the pottery became thin-walled and beautifully designed.
I carried out an experiment years ago when I had a clay studio. By mixing cattail fuzz into a mixture of clay, I found it did everything needed to make the clay workable. Cattail fuzz is so fine that it is difficult to detect in broken fragments, but under a microscope you can see it along the edge a broken sherd. Some archaeologists claim that sponge was used in clay bodies. Maybe so, but why go to all the bother of diving for sponge, when cattail fuzz was readily available?
This woman uses a pottery paddle to make designs on the surface of the still-wet pot she has just made. A paddle can be nothing more than a corn-cob, a stick with twine wrapped around it, or a beautifully shaped flat paddle with intricate carvings on its flat side. The paddle is slapped against the wet pot leaving the design on the surface before it is fired. Other designs used by these potters were incised and punctated, designed crated by using a sharp stick about the size of a skewer.
The Weeden Island people who lived in the area of today’s St. Petersburg, Florida, produced some of the most extraordinary pottery. The site on Weedon Island where Weeden Island sacred ceramics were first described was excavated by Smithsonian Institution archaeologist J. Walter Fewkes in 1923 and 1924. To the right is an image of a few of the pots excavated.
Unfortunately, because of the beauty of these pots, burial mounds were targeted by pot hunters. It is illegal to dig for pottery in Florida. for a discussion about current laws in Florida, view Artifact Collecting in FLorida
NAGPRA — Changing the Collection of Indian Objects
The law that has perhaps most influenced the market in prehistoric and other important Indian objects is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA. The 1990 law provides a process for having federally funded museums and other federal agencies “repatriate,” or return, certain Native American cultural objects — human remains, objects from burial sites, sacred objects, or other important objects from a tribe’s culture, called “cultural patrimony” — to the Native American groups they came from.
So rather than collect artifacts that could end you up in jail, we recommend seeing what Marty Haythorne has to offer. At his studio in Thomasville, GA, he has been reproducing Florida indigenous pottery for years. His work is available at several museum shops. And we even have some on hand through our Neily Trappman Studio store.