Origins and Spread of Shell-Tempered Ceramics in the Eastern Woodlands: Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks for Analysis

By Feathers, James K.; Peacock, Evan | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Origins and Spread of Shell-Tempered Ceramics in the Eastern Woodlands: Conceptual and Methodological Frameworks for Analysis


Feathers, James K., Peacock, Evan, Southeastern Archaeology


We briefly review problems in understanding the temporal and spatial distribution of shell-tempered pottery in prehistoric eastern North American, drawing on evidence provided by other papers in this issue of Southeastern Archaeology. Many problems are chronological: When did shell-tempered pottery first appear, when did it rise to high frequencies, and how fast did it replace earlier pottery tempered with other materials? Direct dating of ceramics is required to address these questions. Difficulties with chronology aside, the largest challenge is in understanding why shell-tempered pottery achieved the popularity it did. Both historical and functional explanations are considered: Can migration or diffusion account for its appearance in different areas? Can the selective value of shell-tempered pottery be determined? How has shell's unique firing requirements limited its distribution?

The impetus for the series of papers that appear in this issue of Southeastern Archaeology is an article about shell-tempered pottery recently published by the senior author (Feathers 2006). In doing the research for that article, it became apparent that little information about the spatial and temporal distribution of shell-tempered pottery in Eastern North America was readily available in the published literature; much of what exists is confined to the "gray" literature of cultural mitigation reports or to state newsletters and journals of limited circulation. A major deficiency therefore in the paper's attempt to understand why shell-tempered pottery appears when and where it does was a lack of knowledge about precisely what was to be explained. To begin rectifying this situation, we organized a poster session at the 2007 Society for American Archaeology meetings in Austin, inviting archaeologists who work in the Eastern Woodlands to discuss the origin and spread of shell-tempered pottery in the particular region in which they work. The resulting appreciation for the complexity of the issue should be readily apparent to all who read these papers.

Scholarly interest in shell-tempered pottery began with the first European observers of surviving native potters (Swanton 1946). These early witnesses marveled at the fine pottery that was produced despite what appeared to be relatively low firing temperature (some questioned whether it was fired at all, e.g., Potter 1880). Explanations for the use of shell as temper were published as early as Hohnes (1903), but the realization of the temporal significance of shell-tempered pottery did not materialize until the 1930s when various seriation and stratigraphie works across the Midwest and Southeast placed shell-tempered pottery chronologically late. It was concentrated in the highest stratigraphie levels and often was associated with historic artifacts. Application of the Midwestern Taxonomic System and similar classifications (Deuel 1937; McKern 1939) elevated shell-tempered pottery to the status of diagnostic of the late prehistoric period (roughly after 900 A.D.). It has thus been used as a chronological marker when no other dating has been available. Its apparent association with sedentary maize agriculturalists led to its inclusion as a characteristic trait of what became known as "Mississippian." This early categorization of shell-tempered pottery, however, proved premature. More recent work suggests that shell tempering dates far earlier than the late prehistoric period, and that not all maize agriculturalists used shell tempered pottery nor was all shelltempered pottery made by agriculturalists.

In this essay, we briefly review some of the issues concerning shell-tempered pottery in the Eastern Woodlands, drawing from the evidence provided by the papers in this volume.

Chronological Issues

Three papers document examples of early shelltempered pottery, appearing in the Ozarks by A.D. 500 (Sabo and Hilliard, this issue), in the upper Mississippi River Valley between A.

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