Prehistoric Pottery

Series in Ancient Technologies 

Decorated pot

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. 

Archaeologists use specific terms to describe ceramic vessels
Archaeologists 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. 

Bag-shaped, cord-marked pottery is a familiar Middle Woodland form.
Bag-shaped, cord-marked 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 smoothed. 

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. 

Techniques of pottery manufacture
Techniques 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. 

Decorated pottery sherd
Decorated pottery sherd

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 firing—red from an oxidized atmosphere and gray from a reduced atmosphere. 

Cross section of open-fire kiln
Cross section 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 pots—bowls, jars, and water bottles—were made for different functions. Sometimes tiny toy pots were made for or by children. 

Late Woodland cord-decorated pottery
Late Woodland cord-decorated pottery 

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. 

Fabric marking on pottery
Fabric marking on pottery 

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 pottery rim
Great Oasis Incised pottery rim 

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 water jars). 

Mill Creek effigy-handled bowl
Mill Creek effigy-handled bowl 

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). 

Collared rims are one feature of some Glenwood pottery.
Collared rims 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
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.