Precontact Pottery

Pottery was invented or introduced to the Southeast around 2500 BC. The earliest pottery, called Stallings after Stallings Island, Georgia, where it was first found, was tempered with Spanish moss. Pottery technology spread quickly across the Southeast. New shapes of vessels were created and new kinds of decorations appeared. Indian potters used cord-wrapped sticks, carved wooden paddles, river cane reeds, seashells, corn cobs, and woven fabric to decorate their vessels. Pottery making skills were passed down from mother to daughter, to aunt, to niece. Not all of the objects created from clay were for cooking and food storage. Artisans made clay smoking pipes, special pots shaped like animals and people for religious ceremonies, and large burial urns. Children in particular were buried in these kinds of vessels.

How Are Pots Made?

To make a pot, the potter gathers and cleans the clay to remove sticks, leaves, and small stones. Then they add water and temper to the clay. Water makes the clay easier to work and the temper increases plasticity. The most common tempering agent used in North Carolina was sand, although potters also used shell, limestone, crushed pottery fragments (grog), and grit (crushed stone). The potter kneads the clay, water, and temper together. Then they roll out coils of clay and stack one coil on top of the other to form the vessel. They flatten the coils to meld them together and use a wooden paddle to smooth and shape the pot. They decorate the pot’s surface with a variety of different techniques. The finished pots are air-dried and then fired in open pits to make the surface hard and durable.

They take shells which they grind and reduce to a very fine powder; they mix this very fine dust with the earth which they have provided and moistening the whole with a little water they knead it with the hands and feet, forming a dough of which they make rolls 6 and 7 feet long and of whatever thickness is desired. Should they wish to fashion a dish or vessel they take one of these rolls and holding it down on one end with the thumb of the left hand they turn it around with admirable swiftness and dexterity…from time to time they dip their fingers in water… with the right hand they smooth the inside and outside of the vessel they intend to form…
(Dumont 1753)