Monday, February 6, 2012

Plains Ceramics

Mitchell, Mark D.
2008 A Unique Northern Plains Ceramic Vessel in the Museum's Lewis and Clark Collection. Expedition 50(3): 45-47.

    In late October 1804, the explorers Lewis and Clark build a fort near the Mandan and Hidatsa villages at the junction of the Knife and Missouri rivers. In his original instructions, President Thomas Jefferson had asked the captains to garner as much knowledge as possible about the native people of the area. During this winter, Lewis and Clark spent time in the Mandan and Hidatsa villages interviewing political leaders, making observations, participating in community activities and collecting objects (pottery, animal skins, minerals, etc.). In the spring, Lewis and Clark sent six men to return to the United States with the objects they have collected and the notes about the native's culture. One of these items was a double necked pot of Mandan make. Archaeologists have classified this pot as Knife River ware. It has a vertical  rim, reinforced by a narrow piece of clay at the lip called a "brace." The pot is decorated by the artist pressing plant-fiber twine against the wet clay. The strap handles may suggest that a rope was used to carry or suspend the vessel. The parallel grooves on the pot were made by a wooden paddle which was used to thin and shape the walls of the pot
    In 1837 Like-A-Fishhook Village was hit by an epidemic of small pox. This caused tremendous death and, as many scholars believed, a great loss of cultural knowledge. Pottery production, for example, requires many steps that require specific knowledge: raw clay needs to be gathered from a suitable source and mixed with other minerals, special care (gained only through practice) is required to shape a pot, and lastly, firing requires expert knowledge about building a kiln and how much fuel to use. The death of these specialists could have meant the loss of these skills. However the Lewis and Clark pot demonstrates that this technical knowledge survived the epidemic and did not lead to a loss of critical cultural knowledge.

Middleton, Jessica L. Lubinski, Patrick M. Metcalf, Michael D.
2007 Ceramics from the Firehole Basin Site and Firehole Phase in the Wyoming Basin. The Plains Anthropologist 52:29-41.

    The Firehole Basin site is located in the Wyoming Basin which is a series of intermountain basins in the Middle Rocky Mountains. This basin is on the border of two major cultural areas, the Great Plains and the Great Basin. When this site was originally excavated in 1976 and 1977 they found 178 sherd and another 2 from surface collection in 1999, leading to a total of 180 sherds. In the assemblage, all sherds were examined for their portion (rim or body), and analyzed as to their rim form, lip form, maximum thickness, temper, surface treatment, paste color, and decoration. These attributes were chosen to compare to other ceramics in the region. All sherds were tempered with sand-sized particles of variable roundness. Exterior surface texture caused by forming the vessel while wet was identified on all body and rim sherds when possible. The only textures found to be present were fingertip impressions and smooth surfaces. Sherd thickness ranges from 3.6 to 11.2 mm. The vast majority of the sherds were body sherds (167) rather than rim sherds (13). No basal fragments were found so base form is unknown in all cases. No appendages or evidence of appendages were found. The method of manufacture is also unknown. No remains of coils were evident, which could point to paddle and anvil or molded manufacture, although there was no definitive marks for either of these methods. 96% of the body sherds exhibited finger impressed surface manipulations, often in a parallel, diagonal pattern.
    None of the ceramics found in the Firehole Basin fit neatly into any typologies previously defined for nearby areas. In 1983 Metcalf proposed the Firehole phase, named after this site, in his chronology of the Wyoming Basin. The Firehole Basin site was one of the few excavated sites at the time that was dated between 1000 and 300 B.P. Due to the lack of excavated sites in this time range and general dated ceramics in Wyoming, the Firehole Basin assemblage remains an important factor in indicating the material culture during this period of time.


  1. These are some interesting sites. My topic, which is ceramic sourcing and analysis, compliments the findings at the Firehole Basin site. Many of the analytic methods used at this site are the typical ones used for ceramic analysis, including analysis of the temper, thickness and many other sherd measurements. (Hoard 2003) What is interesting to me is how few sherds were found at this site as in the aforementioned Hoard article, nearly 25,000 sherds were found. I wonder what this says for the length of occupation at the Firehole Basin site. It may simply be a matter of geographical differences.

    Hoard, Robert J., Danielle Montague-Judd and Elizabeth J. Miksa
    2003 Ceramic Analysis The Plains Anthropologist 48(188):16-35

  2. When I was doing research for my topic of non-projectile lithics, I came across a few articles that referenced Knife River material, as does your first article. In one of my articles, it was suggested that Knife River flint was chosen specifically for various tools, as Knife River flint had different attributes than other, potentially more local cherts (Michlovic 2005). I find it interesting that your article refers to its use in pottery, while I read almost exclusively about its use in scrapers. Perhaps trade patterns could explain part of this difference—if flint was traded in one direction and clay was traded in another, Knife River wares may have taken off in two different ways.

    Michlovic, Michael G. and Dean T. Sather
    2005 Lithic Artifacts from the Early Archaic Component. The Plains Anthropologist 50(196):135-158.