Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

The Spread of Shell-Tempered Ceramics along the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

The Spread of Shell-Tempered Ceramics along the Northern Coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Article excerpt

Shell-tempered ceramics appeared at different times in various places along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. In some instances, these wares completely replaced local non-shell-tempered wares, while in other instances shell-tempered ceramics formed only a small addition to the non-shell-tempered, local ceramic assemblage. This paper examines the chronological spread and geographical distribution of such shell-tempered wares, the possible causes for their emergence and adoption, and their potential points of origin.


Although shell-tempered ceramics have been recorded at several Early to Middle Woodland period sites along the mid-Atlantic Coast (Gleach 1988; Phelps 1983; Stephenson 1963; see also Herbert, this issue), such tempering generally appears to have been nothing more than a substitute in rock-poor areas for the more common and contemporaneous grit tempering of the region (Stephenson 1963). Likewise, scattered sheU tempering has been documented from Middle Woodland sites in the upper Mississippi River Valley (see Boszhardt, this issue), northern Alabama (Feathers 2008), and northeast Mississippi (Rafferty and Peacock, this issue). However, as pointed out by Feathers (2006) and Feathers and Peacock (this issue), none of these cases led to the continued use or a dramatic rise of sheU-tempered ceramics in their respective regions. It was not until ca. A.D. 800-1200, during Late Woodland and early Mississippi times, when the frequency of shell-tempered pottery increased dramatically across most of eastern North America.

Determining a so-called heartland for this rise and spread of shell tempering has proved somewhat elusive over the years. Initially, sites within the Mississippi River floodplain of northeast Arkansas and southeastern Missouri were thought to have been the loci where shell tempering began (Marshall 1965, 1987; Morse and Morse 1980, 1983:218-222, 1990; Williams 1954). Now, however, sites in the eastern Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri are gaining significant favor as potential earlier sources for such material (Lynott 1982, 1986; Lynott and Price 1989; McNutt 1996:225-227; Price 1986; see also Sabo and Hilliard, this issue, and Lafferty, this issue).

Regardless of the exact origin of shell-tempered pottery, the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico was no exception to this general late expansion, and such ceramics began to appear at sites extending from the panhandle of Florida westward to southwest Louisiana. However, the timing of the introduction of shelltempered wares into this broad region was not consistent from place to place, nor was the apparent intensity of use the same across the whole area.

Accordingly, the following sections of this paper will (1) examine the distribution of shell-tempered ceramics along the northern Gulf Coast, (2) identify potential "hot spots" or site clusters where the use of such tempering appears to have flourished, (3) look at the potential points of origin for these cluster areas, and (4) discuss the possible reasons for the spread of shell tempering into these cluster areas. In order to do this, we rely on existing syntheses of the culture history of different areas of the Gulf Coast (i.e., Aten 1983; Biltz and Mann 2000; Brown 2004; Fuiler 1998, 2003; Kidder 2004; Milanich 1994, 2004; Ricklis and Weinstein 2003), supplemented by more thorough treatments of specific sites for which we have abundant data. In other words, this paper is not meant to be a literature review of shell-tempered pottery in the region, but it will provide an outline of the variable scenarios by which we feel it was adopted and utilized.

At the height of its use, shell-tempered pottery covered much of the southeastern ilnited States (Figure 1). From Kentucky and Tennessee to eastern Oklahoma and Texas, such wares became part of the ceramic repertoire of numerous aboriginal groups. Some, like the Caddo and their prehistoric predecessors, had diverse ceramic assemblages that included wares ranging from purely shell-tempered vessels, to those with a mixture of shell and grog, a mixture of crushed bone and grog, or to those containing only grog. …

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