Pottery was important
to ancient Iowans and is an important type of artifact for the archaeologist.
Ceramic pots are breakable but the small fragments, or sherds, are
almost indestructible, even after hundreds of years in the ground.
Pots were tools for cooking, serving, and storing food, and pottery
was also an avenue of artistic expression. Prehistoric potters formed
and decorated their vessels in a variety of ways. Often potters
in one community or region made a few characteristic styles of pots.
Because pots and styles were shared among groups, archaeologists
can often relate sites in time and space because they contain the
same ceramic types.
use specific terms to
describe ceramic vessels.
When ceramics are found at a site,
they usually occur as small, broken sherds. Occasionally, all of
the fragments of the vessel will have survived, and the pot can
be reconstructed, just as you might work a jigsaw puzzle. When only
a portion of a pot is left, archaeologists can rebuild the rest
if enough remains to provide some idea of the original
shape and size.
The first appearance of pottery
during Woodland times approximately 2,800 years ago is significant
because it indicates that people may have become more sedentary.
Earlier peoples used lightweight, portable skin bags or woven containers
made from inner bark of trees or reeds. Nomadic hunters and gatherers
would not have wanted to carry heavy, breakable pots. When people
began to settle in more permanent villages, however, they found
many uses for pottery.
pottery is a familiar Middle Woodland form.
Pottery vessels were made from clays
collected along streams or on hillsides. Sand, crushed stone, ground
mussel shell, crushed fired clay, or plant fibers were added to
prevent shrinkage and cracking during firing and drying.
Prehistoric pots were made by several
methods: coiling, paddling, or pinching and shaping. In coiling,
the potter rolls a lump of clay into a coil and gradually builds
up the vessel wall by adding more coils. Each coiled layer is pinched
to the one beneath and the coils are subsequently thinned by squeezing
between the potter's thumbs and fingers. Coil junctures are then
In the paddling method, a lump of
clay was pounded into shape by holding the clay against a large
stone and paddling it with a wooden paddle. If the paddle was covered
with woven fabric or a cord, the patterned markings appeared on
the clay. The lump of clay might also be pinched and shaped by hand.
of pottery manufacture
After air drying for an hour or
two, the pot could be further thinned and shaped by scraping with
a small piece of sharpened clam shell. After this scraping, a design
could be applied by using fingernails or a tool such as an awl,
stick, or wooden stamp.
Pots must air-dry at least two weeks
before they are ready for firing. Firing was an all-day affair.
An area would be cleared and a small fire built. The pots would
be placed a small distance from the fire, turned every 15_20 minutes,
and gradually moved closer to the fire. After a couple of hours,
the pots would be placed directly on top of the hot coals. Immediately,
wood was piled on until a roaring fire had been built. The fire
was then allowed to burn down naturally. The pots were covered with
ashes while they were cooling slowly. Variation in coloring on the
fired pots is a result of the amount of oxygen present during firingred
from an oxidized atmosphere and gray from a reduced atmosphere.
of open-fire kiln
Styles and decorations changed over
the 2500-year-long history of native pottery in Iowa. Over time,
a greater variety of potsbowls, jars, and water bottleswere
made for different functions. Sometimes tiny toy pots were made
for or by children.
Much Woodland pottery is quite thick
in comparison with pottery made by later cultures. The rims were
often decorated with the edge of a cord-wrapped paddle, producing
a set of vertical or diagonal impressions. The exteriors were cord
marked by slapping the moist clay with the paddle. Complex designs
often were applied through combinations of stamping, punctating,
and incising the surface. Some vessels were decorated with fabric
or cordage by impressing a woven design or geometric patterns into
the moist clay. This makes it possible to study ancient weaving
techniques even though the cloth itself has not survived.
Great Oasis ceramics are grit-tempered,
globular-shaped pots with rounded bases. The smoothed-over cord-marked
bodies were usually undecorated, but jar rims often were decorated
with incised geometric designs.
Great Oasis Incised
Mill Creek potters made a wide variety
of vessels including bowls, flat bottom rectangular pans, seed jars,
wide-necked bottles, hooded water bottles, jars, and ollas (wide-mouthed
Mill Creek effigy-handled
Rim form and decoration make Glenwood
ceramics distinctive. Collared vessels were manufactured by thickening
the rim with the addition of an extra band of clay (collar).
are one feature of some Glenwood pottery.
Classic Oneota pots are globular
shaped with strap handles but made in a variety of sizes. Oneota
pottery is shell tempered rather than grit tempered and is often
decorated with geometric designs.
Wide strap handles
and decorative trailing
are two distinctive Oneota traits.
Indians in Iowa ceased making pottery
in the 1700s as European-made kettles and other containers
replaced the native ceramics.