Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

An Alternative Ontology and Experimental Study of Pottery Punctation in Southern Appalachian Region Prehistory

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

An Alternative Ontology and Experimental Study of Pottery Punctation in Southern Appalachian Region Prehistory

Article excerpt


Ceramic artifacts have glowed in the limelight of archaeology because of their aesthetic properties and amenability to artistic and symbolic expression (Rice 1987; Shepard 1968). Plasticity prior to drying and firing provided a medium for shaping, texturing, incising, and impressing representations, abstractions, and symbols. Smooth vessel surfaces provided canvasses for painting, before or after firing. Consequently, durable ceramic artifacts often remain preserved as the sole material archaeological expression of ancient art and iconography. While this is common disciplinary knowledge, certain kinds of ceramic decoration, namely, punctations and incisions, are seldom interpreted beyond the function of decoration. Moreover, we continue to use the empirically uninformed language invented in the early days of type constructions, some of which employs assumptions rather than inferences about the processes and implements involved in pottery decoration. For example, we often encounter in archaeological literature the term "reed punctate," describing circular impressions on pottery sherd exteriors (e.g., Davis et al. 1997; Egloff 1967; Keeler 1971; Sutherland 1974). While the matter may seem trivial at the surface, we must wonder if the resulting punctations were any more significant than the tools, processes, and social contexts that created them. As Tilley (1999:57-59) notes:

In small-scale societies technology is inseparable from ideas of spiritual or ancestral involvement in the production process. . . . The "economic," "social," "ritual," "magical" and "political" dimensions of technological processes cannot be meaningfully separated out and put into discrete boxes. They form part of a process in which metaphors originating in one domain are activated to make sense of another, and vice versa, in continual dialectical interplay.

While at times a potter may indeed have considered any immediately accessible object an appropriate tool, at other times, or perhaps routinely in some societies, tools chosen may have been prescribed by a perceived relationship between the tool or its source and the vessel in production or its intended function (Aguilar 2007; Rice 1987; Stark 2003). Vessels, as a whole, represented other elements of the visible world for some ancient societies (David et al. 1988; Naumov 2008; Pauketat and Emerson 1991; Wells 2009). For many contemporary societies, ceramic vessels are considered representations of the human body or a woman's womb (Asante and Mazama 2009; Lyons 2006; Naumov 2008; Welbourn 1984) and are thus representations of birth and rebirth. Indeed, many languages equate the parts of vessels - mouth, lip, neck, shoulder, and body - with parts of the human body (David et al. 1988; Naumov 2008). For some, decoration of the human body and the clay body involved the same symbols and implements and conveyed the same information, sometimes mnemonic and sometimes apotropaic (David et al. 1988). With this broader ontology, studies of pottery decoration may reveal modes and meanings of ancient communication.

In plain terms, pottery-making tools, their natural sources, and the ways and social contexts in which they were manipulated are inseparable components of the intended symbolism. By assuming the identities of tools that were used to decorate pottery or by describing the resulting impressions with meaningless or erroneous names, we unintentionally blur our vision of the potential symbolism of the entire process of pottery decoration. Even the word "decoration" is preclusive, as it tends to reduce potentially rich symbolism to something that is solely aesthetic.

In this study our goal is to identify, by means of experimental replication, some of the tools used to impart circular punctations commonly seen on the exterior surfaces of late prehistoric ceramic vessels from the Southern Appalachian region. Pottery sherds from two late prehistoric sites, the Ward site (31WT22) and Katie Griffith site (31WT330), in northwestern North Carolina are examined. …

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