Shell-Tempered Pottery on the Central Plains

By Roper, Donna C. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview
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Shell-Tempered Pottery on the Central Plains


Roper, Donna C., Southeastern Archaeology


The Central Plains have not been included in recent coverage of issues related to the use of shell-tempered pottery in eastern North America. It has been known for over a century that this material does appear on the Central Plains. Its spatial and temporal distribution, however, are not well understood, and issues related to its presence and technology have only recently begun to receive needed attention. This paper reviews the status of what we know about the spatial and temporal distribution of shell-tempered pottery on the Central Plains by compiling data from many sources and visually portraying their patterning. Some factors affecting the distribution then are discussed, with particular attention given to firing and raw material properties. Vessel form and function, and decoration and its implications, also are briefly discussed.

The recent literature of the Southeast and adjacent areas attests considerable interest in questions surrounding shell-tempered pottery in the eastern United States. In addition to a number of book chapters and individual journal articles (Feathers 2006, 2009; Galaty 2008; Jenkins and Krause 2009; Livingood 2007; Michelaki 2007; Neff 2008; Peacock and Feathers 2009; Stoltman et al. 2008) is the recent thematic issue of Southeastern Archaeology devoted to shell-tempered pottery in the Eastern Woodlands. Here, after finding that little information was available regarding the spatial and temporal distribution of this material, James Feathers and Evan Peacock (2008:286) brought together eight articles that reviewed the origin and spread of shell-tempered pottery throughout the Southeast and somewhat beyond. Coverage included the Atlantic Coast (Herbert 2008), Gulf Coast (Weinstein and Dumas 2008), lower and central Mississippi Valley (Lafferty 2008; Rafferty and Peacock 2008), central Ozarks (Sabo and Hilliard 2008), and parts of the Ohio River valley or drainage (Cook and Faragher 2008; Pollack et al. 2008) in the Southeast and the upper Mississippi River valley to the north (Boszhardt 2008). Missing, however, was a review of the occurrence of shell-tempered pottery at its northwest limit in the eastern United States, namely, the Central Plains. This paper aspires to provide that missing portion of the coverage.

The Central Plains certainly is not the first place one thinks of as having shell-tempered pottery, but over a century ago, William Hohnes (1903:P1. TV) showed that this material occurred as far west as the west side of the Missouri River valley in northeast Kansas. We now know that it was only the lack to that time of investigations beyond the Missouri River valley and bluffs that kept Holmes from being able to portray shell-tempered pottery as found more widely on the Central Plains, for within a decade or two, shelltempered pottery was being reported from sites to the north along or near the Missouri River valley (Gilder 1926:32 [based on work conducted in the first decade of the century]; Sterns 1915:245; Zimmerman 1918:482483). By the 1930s, at which time investigations were reaching ever farther onto the Central Plains, reports were appearing of shell-tempered pottery west of the immediate Missouri River drainage in Nebraska (Hill and Cooper 1936a, 1936b, 1936c, 1937; Strong 1935), to as far as about 150 miles west of the Missouri River valley in north-central Kansas (Wedel 1934a:225). It has been steadily documented from Central Plains sites ever since.

In this review, I use the term "Central Plains" in the sense of Donald Lehmer's (1971:28) définition of the Central Plains cultural (archaeological) subarea. In this usage, the Central Plains encompasses Nebraska, western Iowa, and northwestern Missouri, but only that part of Kansas north of the Arkansas River drainage. This means that I exclude from consideration the shell-tempered-pottery-using Lower Walnut focus of the Great Bend aspect (ça. cal. A.D. 1350-1700), which is spatially restricted to a portion of southcentral Kansas in the Arkansas River drainage near the Oklahoma border.

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