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Prehistoric Ceramics


Prehistoric Ceramics in Maryland

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The earliest ceramics produced in the U.S were made in the Southeast around 2500 B.C.  In Maryland, Indians started making unglazed, low-fired pottery a little over 3000 years ago.  Initially, they experimented with different manufacturing techniques.  Their first pots were made from hand-molded slabs of clay, and resembled the flat-based steatite (soapstone) bowls that were already in use at that time.  In fact, these early ceramic vessels were often tempered with crushed fragments of steatite.  (Temper is material – such as stone, shell, or broken pottery -- added to the clay to improve its workability and firing properties).  Other tempering agents were soon being used, and the vessels started to be formed in conoidal shapes from coiled strips of clay.  Before firing, the pots were often malleated (beaten) with cord or net wrapped paddles that left distinctive patterns on their surfaces.  As time went on, decorations became more prevalent on the vessels.  These were made by incising, direct cord impressions, and cord-wrapped stick impressions in a variety of designs.  Punctations were also used as decoration, and sometimes lugs and nodules were added to the vessels.

Archaeologists distinguish pottery types on the basis of tempering agents; how the exterior and interior surfaces were manipulated during construction; the shape and form of the vessel; and styles of decoration.  For the purposes of the pottery definitions presented here, we are using the ware/type format standardized by Robert Stephenson in his analysis of the Accokeek Creek site collection (Stephenson and Ferguson 1963).  He separated wares based on temper, and then subdivided these into types based on surface treatments and decorative techniques.  Stephenson’s work was based on Clifford Evans’ (1955) efforts to categorize the types of ceramics found in Virginia and neighboring areas.  While many of the types we recognize today can be found in the descriptions created by Evans, his ware names are generally no longer used in Maryland due to chronological problems that have been identified by researchers in the succeeding years.  The ware names and descriptions used on this website are derived from published sources, and have been generally adopted by Maryland archaeologists.  The varieties included here are among the most common types found in the region, but other wares have been found in smaller numbers.

Below are links to the time periods to view the ceramic ware descriptions we have for each period.

Thumbnail image of a mended Early Woodland Accokeek pot, when clicked on will take you to the Early Woodland Ceramics section. Thumbnail image of a mended Early Woodland Accokeek pot, when clicked on will take you to the Early Woodland Ceramics section.
Early Woodland (1000 B.C. - A.D. 200):
The appearance of ceramic technology around 1000 B.C. is considered to be the marker for the beginning of the Woodland Period in Maryland. The earliest pottery was a flat-bottomed ware, tempered with crushed steatite. These vessels were oblong or semi- rectangular, with straight walls and lug handles that resembled the carved stone steatite bowls. Soon after and contemporaneous with these bowls, coil-constructed pottery was made. The Early Woodland was a period of ceramic technology experimentation with tempering agents and manufacturing methods.
Thumbnail image of mended sherds from a Middle Woodland Watson pot. Thumbnail image of mended sherds from a Middle Woodland Watson pot.
Middle Woodland (A. D. 200 – A.D. 900)
During the Middle Woodland there was an increase in the range of subsistence economies along the Bay and the major coastal rivers. At the same time, there was a continued expansion of long-distance trade and communication. For example raw materials, such as rhyolite from west of the Monocacy drainage, were used in large quantities in the coastal plain. During this time period crushed rock-tempered ceramics like Watson were made in the Western regions of Maryland, showing growing connections with groups in central Pennsylvania and Western Virginia. On the Coastal Plain, the shell-tempered Mockley ware became dominant pottery.
Thumbnail image of a Late Woodland mended pot from the Rosenstock collection, when clicked on will take you to the Late Woodland Ceramics page. Thumbnail image of a Late Woodland mended pot from the Rosenstock collection, when clicked on will take you to the Late Woodland Ceramics page.
Late Woodland (A. D. 900 – A.D. 1650)
The Late Woodland represents the continuation of economic and social trends of the preceding period. During this time, the farming of corn was introduced, even though it didn’t become a major food source until the few centuries of the Late Woodland. There was an increase in permanent settlements and eventually fortified villages, while the interior uplands continued to be exploited by hunting and foraging groups. Ceramic technology improved during the Late Woodland. Vessels were more thinly potted and fired at hotter temperatures, thus creating more durable wares. Decorative motifs became more complex and extensively used, possibly indicating different cultural affiliations.

Click here to view table of Prehistoric Pottery Types in Maryland.

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