Ceramic Paint Cups and Lids among the Southern Plains Villagers of Western and Central Oklahoma

Article excerpt

There is a long history of Plains societies using paint in stylized and representational artwork. This artwork has been well documented by anthropologists as well as art historians. What is less well documented are the materials used in painting by these groups, especially the means of paint storage. This paper discusses the use of ceramic vessels for paint storage by late prehistoric Plains Villagers in south central and western Oklahoma. Attributes of paint cups and lids are documented. The uses of the paint cups and lids as well as their deposition in the archaeological context are also characterized. Closing comments address contradictions between the ceremonial applications of paint on the Plains and the absence of ritual in the archaeological context of the paint cups and lids.

Keywords: ceramics, Plains Villagers, painting, cups, lids

Painting by native peoples on the Plains has an enduring history. There is extensive documentation that most historic Plains societies painted representational scenes on tepees, bison hides, and shields (Lowie 1982). In other cases, smaller pieces such as arrows, bows, as well as various tools and ceremonial items were decorated. There was also wide use of body painting by most Plains groups (cf. Wissler 1948; Weltfish 1977; Fletcher and La Flesche 1911). Although considerable detail exists on the use of paints and the objects painted, less information is available on how paints were applied. Lowie (1982:130) references use of bone, horn, and wood as well as antelope hair attached to a stick. Fletcher and La Flesche (1911) also note use of cancelleous bone as paint sponges. Receptacles used to hold the paints are sparsely cited. Lowie, one of the few to address this topic, notes that paints were pulverized in stone mortars and mixed with an undefined "gluey material" for adhesion with paints held in hollow stones, shell, or sherds (Lowie 1982:130). We have found no references to use of ceramic vessels for storage of paints in the Plains ethnohistoric record. Evidence of paint storage has also rarely been documented in prehistoric contexts. Thus, it was with some surprise that we identified numerous formally (although expediently) designed ceramic receptacles for paint from late prehistoric Plains Village sites in west central and southwestern Oklahoma.


The first documentation of paint storage vessels is found in Alex Krieger's discussion of the Henrietta complex of north central Texas. Kiieger (1946:139) describes them as thick (% in or 19 mm) and crudely hand molded with exteriors sometimes exhibiting impressions of woven fabric. He goes on to note that there is a light red film that was apparently applied before firing. Another early account is Harold Brighton's 1951 discussion of a paint cup and lid from the Bessie or Boggy Creek site (34WAl) in Washita County, Oklahoma. Brighton describes the specimens as "... small pot, c. 1 ½ inches wide, 2 inches deep. Lid to fit pot with horizontally extended rim and vertical portion that fits inside rim of pot with strap handles on top of lid" (state site files, Oklahoma Archeological Survey). Schmitt and Toldan (1953:155) also present an early description of items from the Brown site, a Washita River phase village in Grady County, Oklahoma. They list two sherds that are thick, sand-tempered, and seem to come from small cylindrical vessels that are three to four inches in diameter. They also note a vessel having a diameter of 50 mm on the interior and 75 to 100 mm on the exterior (Schmitt and Toldan 1953).

Following these early reports are a number of descriptions of "baked clay cups" and "mug-like cylindrical vessels" recovered from Washita River phase site investigations in the 1960s. Pillaert (1962:86) identifies a baked clay cup fragment at Lee II (34GV4). This is described as a crude, untempered rim sherd. The sherd is thick with straight walls and a rounded lip. …