Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ceramic Analysis and Sourcing in the Southeast

Rafferty, Janet and Evan Peacock
2008 The Spread of Shell Tempering in the Mississippi Black Prairie Southeastern Archaeology 27(2):253-264

    This article concerns the development of shell-tempered ceramics in northern Mississippi, determined by looking at five separate areas of the Black Prairie province. Although the title refers to it as the Mississippi Black Prairie, the Black Prairie province actually “extends in an arc from south-central Alabama through eastern Mississippi to the Tennessee border” (253). For the purposes of this article, the authors primarily remained within the modern borders of Mississippi, although they did deviate into Alabama in the boundaries of area one.
     In terms of methods used for analyzing the ceramics, frequency seriation proved invaluable in determining where the shell-tempered ceramics first developed. The other primary method that was used by the authors in this area was absolute dating, both through radiocarbon and luminescence. This is particularly useful as there are already a lot of dated artifacts from the area, which allows them to more easily determine when certain areas developed shell-tempered ceramics. The authors mention a certain personal bias toward luminescence dating, as luminescence dating dates when the ceramics were fired, which is also mentioned by James Feathers (Feathers 1997).
    The results of their analysis are divided up into areas. Area 2 was abandoned after the late Woodland, as there is very little evidence of shell-tempered ceramics. Area 3 shows a transition from the ceramics associated with the Woodland period to the shell-tempered ceramics of the Mississippian, indicating that settlements remained here. Area 4 looks to have been abandoned after the late Woodland, right when shell-tempered ceramics showed up, not to be reoccupied until historic times. Area 5, according to Rafferty and Peacock 2008, is similar to Area 3, both geographically and evidentially.
    What is interesting about this article is that it demonstrates how sourcing ceramics can actually show how trends spread across geographic areas. It also can demonstrate when populations rose and fell, based on the ceramics that those populations had.

Works Cited
Feathers, James K.
1997 The Application of Luminescence Dating in American Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 4: 1-66.

Childress, Mitchell R.
1992 Mortuary Vessels and Comparative Ceramic Analysis from the Chucalissa Site Southeastern Archaeology 11(1):31-50

The Chucalissa site is a “late prehistoric” (approximately 1400-1540 CE) site in southwestern Tennessee (Childress 1992). As the title suggests, Childress did a comparative analysis of the ceramics found in this site, an assemblage of “154 whole or substantially complete pots” (31). After doing a quick overview of the stylistic attributes of the ceramics, Childress divides the assemblage into three groups: mortuary, general midden, and surface ceramics, based on where the ceramics were found. However, his primary focus is on the mortuary vessels as the sherds provide the best proportions of decorated pottery over the midden and surface examples.
    Childress measures jar rims and concludes that the mortuary ceramics are of the same style as the standard morphology of the period. He says that this demonstrates that potters of the period had a “firmly established concept of the desired relationship between capacity and access to contents as regulated by diameter orifice” (Childress 1992). Ultimately, this shows that there was trade, or at least contact of another sort, between settlements throughout the Central Mississippi valley.
    Childress says that the results of his study of the mortuary vessels confirms that simply studying the mortuary vessels provides a good example of the ceramics of the entire site as it is more likely for finished vessels to be found in mortuary sites, versus the larger proportions of unfinished vessels found on the midden and surface. Further, the mortuary vessels are complete in a larger proportion than the midden or surface ones, which is no surprise really. Yet, Childress does point out that he did not spend any time determining whether the mortuary vessels were produced specifically to be buried or if they were taken from other areas of life. He does point out though that  some other sites throughout North America have demonstrated that it is increasingly unlikely that mortuary vessels are produced specifically to be buried as the middens do show many ornately decorated sherds (48).

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