Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Insights from the Analysis of Angel Mounds Pottery Trowels

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Insights from the Analysis of Angel Mounds Pottery Trowels

Article excerpt

Pottery trowels are mushroom-shaped fired-clay artifacts archaeologists frequently associate with the manufacturing of pottery vessels by various indigenous peoples of the pre-Columbian Southeast and Midwest (Dunn 2011; Kellar 1967; Steponaitis 1983). Though first identified and discussed as an indigenous artifact type in the late nineteenth century (Thruston 1890:161-162), and representing one of the few remaining tools in the archaeological record that was likely used in ceramic production, pottery trowels have not been the subject of thorough scientific analysis or interpretation. Most often, archaeologists note the discovery of pottery trowels in a "ceramic objects" section of research reports, where they may be lumped together with other clay-based miscellanea such as clay doodles or spindle-whorls. However, as an artifact type that spans continents and centuries, pottery trowels may hold important insights into a number of topics of interest to archaeologists, not least of which is craft production and its cultural correlates (Alt 2006; Cobb 2010; Hruby and Fiad 2007; Trubitt 2005).

In this article, I document the occurrence, morphological diversity, and cultural contexts of pottery trowels found at Angel Mounds (12VG1), a late preColumbian Mississippian society in southwestern Indiana (Figure 1). The primary goal of this research was to describe the variability of Angel pottery trowel samples in order to make initial statements on common form and size categories, and likely function(s). A secondary goal was to analyze said variability to address broader questions about craft practices at Angel, specifically those related to chronology and the spatial diversity of pottery trowel forms. I also hoped this research would encourage others to investigate and report on pottery trowels, so that a better understanding can be gained of the significance of pottery trowels in Mississippian and other indigenous societies of North America.

Basic Description and Culture History

Artifacts identified by archaeologists as pottery trowels generally have cylindrical handles, also called the stem, and convex bases, also called the head or bell (Figure 2). Pottery trowels are known to have varied shapes and sizes and archaeologists have excavated examples from many Mississippian period sites, including Angel Mounds (Kellar 1967), Moundville (Knight 2010), and Wickliffe Mounds (Wesler 2001). Pottery trowels were probably not universally used by the indigenous peoples of the Midwest and Southeast, however. Fewkes (1944:80), for example, noted that he did not observe historic Catawba potters of South Carolina using a trowel or anvil.

Thruston (1890:161-162) and Holmes (1903:25, 35-36) were the first to publish descriptions of pottery trowels and the first to associate pottery trowels with the act of making pottery in the pre-Columbian Southeast. They argued that pottery trowels, acting as an anvil or support placed on the interior walls of pottery vessels, allowed pressure to be applied to the exterior surfaces, thus smoothing the coils used to build many preColumbian pottery vessels and providing shape to the pot (see also Steponaitis 1983:22, Figure 3). In his early description of pottery trowels among the Antiquities of Tennessee, Thruston notes:

Fig. 65 represents some of the clay trowels, or smoothers, used in molding and manufacturing vessels of pottery. They are often found with the large ware, and seem especially fitted for this purpose. In fact, it is difficult to assign them to any other duty. Their troweling surfaces are circular and, therefore, unfitted for smoothing skins. They are curved according to size, the smaller trowels being the most curved, to suit the circular sides of the small vessels, and the largest sizes being nearly flat, to fit the curves of the large vessels, boilers or saltpans. The handles are evidently shaped to be held conveniently in the hand in molding. The illustration scarcely does justice to these interesting little implements. …

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