Ceramics, Virginia Indian


Indians have made ceramics continuously in Virginia for more than 3,200 years. Pottery manufacture in North America first arose more than 4,200 years ago in the coastal plain of Georgia and spread north from there. Pottery production was a cottage industry, conducted by families with the knowledge of manufacture handed down from mother to daughter. Archaeologists have defined more than sixty Virginia Indian wares, recording the variables in vessel size and shape, temper, surface treatment, and decoration of pottery. This wealth of pottery information provides archaeologists with ways to help date sites and to describe Indian social groups and interpret their interaction and movement.

Origins of Ceramics

Since early in the twentieth century, archaeologists have searched for the earliest ceramics in Virginia, discussed their origin of manufacture, and debated their impact on developing Indian societies. The earliest radiometric-dated pottery from Virginia is Bushnell Ware, defined by archaeologist Greg Waselkov with material excavated from the White Oak Point shell midden (a dump for domestic waste) along the Potomac River in Westmoreland County. Three radiometric samples yielded an average uncorrected date of 3,060 years ago.

Scientists continue to debate the origins of the earliest pottery in Virginia. There are two possible interpretations: 1) the technology evolved locally as an independent invention drawing inspiration from the manufacture of earlier containers such as soapstone bowls; and 2) pottery manufacture evolved elsewhere and was introduced into Virginia.

Soapstone Containers

Archaeologists have noted the close resemblance of early pottery and carved soapstone containers, which may have been manufactured in Virginia by 4,500 years ago. Not only was soapstone fashioned into thick, heavy containers, a few appearing like mortars, but also into rather elegant, thin bowls. Oval and round shapes appear on small-to-large, shallow-to-moderately-deep bowls. Black smudges on soapstone vessels indicate that they were used for cooking. Soapstone vessel manufacture was limited to a few places in Virginia where the stone occurs naturally. Archaeologists have identified quarries in Fairfax, Orange, Madison, Albemarle, Nelson, Amelia, and Brunswick counties. Manufacturing vessels, establishing trade networks, and transporting and repairing soapstone vessels took a great deal of effort. Furthermore, there probably existed competition for vessels, and only a small social segment of the people were able to afford and obtain the containers.

The original demand for soapstone vessels may have created a need for inexpensive durable vessels that could be produced anywhere from local clays and used by everyone. Although the quarries contained an unending supply of soapstone, the production and exchange networks may not have been able to meet the demand. This may in part explain why ceramic production was accepted first in areas far removed from soapstone quarries.

The earliest ceramic vessels are approximately the same size and shape as soapstone vessels and have similar lug handles. Early pottery vessels even contain soapstone, perhaps broken pieces of stone containers, as temper in their paste. This could be interpreted as a symbolic transference of strength and durability from the stone containers to the ceramic vessels.

Oldest Pottery in North America

The oldest pottery tradition in North America consists of fiber-tempered wares which can be traced to the coast of present-day Georgia and northeast Florida. This pottery dates to at least 4,500 radiometric years ago. Shortly thereafter the innovation spread north and south along the Atlantic coast and into the interior. Subregional traditions began to appear after 4,200 years ago. It took a thousand years for ceramic technology to spread more than five hundred miles north and to be accepted by people in Virginia.

There are four major hypotheses for how and why pottery was created. With the first, the architecture hypothesis, the origin of pottery is found in the technology of wattle and daub (which is a building material used for making walls where a woven lattice of wooden strips called wattle is daubed with a sticky material, usually some combination of wet soil, clay, sand, animal dung, and straw) or other architectural traditions, such as prepared clay hearths, where clay and fire come together. This hypothesis discusses solely the origin and not the use of pottery. With the culinary hypothesis, pottery is an adaptation that enables greater productivity by increasing efficiency in food preparation, detoxifying some previously inedible resources, providing softer foods, and increasing the storability of foods. In the resource-intensification hypothesis, abundance or scarcity in specific environments and seasons is the trigger that led to ceramic production. The social/symbolic theory emphasizes that early pottery is found in contexts that cannot be described as strictly utilitarian and in which some of the pottery is quite elaborate. Pottery thus emerges first not as a utilitarian item, as depicted in the other models, but as a ceremonial and prestige technology, the knowledge and use of which may have been controlled by leaders or ritual specialists.

The fact that many of the early pottery variants in Virginia were tempered with material other than soapstone and that they are found along the coastal plain of Virginia supports the interpretation that the innovation of pottery manufacture had a southern Atlantic, coastal plain origin. The concept of pottery making probably spread north along the interior coastal plain trails that connected Georgia with Virginia. This early period is noted for the intensification of long-distance travel and exchange. Thus, most archaeologists see the origins of pottery in Virginia not as an independent invention, but as arising out of the early fiber-tempered tradition in the Southeast. The Virginia experimentation of vessel shapes and pastes, however, draws inspiration from local soapstone containers.

Impact of Early Ceramics

For years a debate has existed among archaeologists concerning whether or not the presence of ceramics in a society should reassign an otherwise Archaic stage of cultural development to a Woodland classification. The main question is whether the incorporation of pottery brought about any developmental change in the cultural systems of the societies. Many archaeologists believe that the addition of pottery had little overall affect on Native American societies. They view pottery as just a replacement for stone, woven, or wooden containers. Pottery, therefore, represented little more than a translation of function to a different medium. Fundamental system changes resulting in greater residential stability, elaboration of the socio-political subsystem, and long distance exchange networks had developed before the introduction of pottery.

Other archaeologists think differently. They believe the fragility of ceramic vessels suggests that the people practiced a sedentary lifestyle. There are areas in Virginia where early ceramics existed and sedentism was of a greater intensity than that normally found in the Late Archaic stage of development. In addition, incorporating pottery into the existing system of producing containers from soapstone, wood, and fiber necessitated the addition of new procurement, manufacture, and use technologies. This effected to a lesser extent, other cultural subsystems concerned with symbolic values, trade, environmental exploitation, food preparation, and male and female roles. In Virginia, archaeologists use the earliest pottery as one of the fundamental criteria to mark the beginning of the Woodland stage of development.

Types of Early Pottery

When people in Virginia decided to make pottery, they discontinued the use of soapstone containers. Though pottery vessels were fragile and easily broken, they could be replaced quickly. As superior cooking pots, they also provided drier storage than earlier fiber or skin vessels.

In general, the earliest ceramics were made in the coastal plain of Virginia, in the Piedmont along the Potomac and James rivers, and along the lower Shenandoah River. Ceramics appeared later along the Roanoke River and along the river drainages that flow through the mountainous area of southwestern Virginia. Perhaps the variables of cultural isolation and interaction, distance from soapstone quarries, and degree of sedentism were involved with the differences in the acceptance of pottery.

More than sixty ceramic wares have been defined by archaeologists for use in Virginia and the surrounding states. Indian ceramics represent a three-dimensional puzzle of continuous style development through space and 3,200 years of time. In general, defined ceramic wares conform to the geographical provinces and the river drainages of Virginia. Archaeologists define wares that reflect the variables of manufacture, space, and time. Analytical units of this kind are referred to as historical wares. A ware is a grouping of pottery types of similar manufacture, paste, temper, and vessel form that occur in a particular locality at a particular period of time.

Archaeologists have defined a number of ceramic wares that illustrate the early experimentation with temper and vessel shape. Marcey Creek Ware was first defined by archaeologist Carl Manson at the Marcey Creek site on the Potomac River in Arlington County, Virginia. It was tempered with 25-to-50 percent soapstone. The ware was hand-modeled on a flat base, which often bears impressions of the open-weave mat that the vessel sat on during its creation. The vessels are rectangular or oval shallow bowls with curved to straight sides and lug handles at the ends. The ware is found in small quantities throughout the Virginia coastal plain, along the James and Potomac rivers in the Piedmont, and in the Shenandoah Valley north of Port Republic.

Croaker Landing Ware, defined by archaeologist Keith Egloff from material excavated at Croaker Landing along the York River in James City County, is an early coastal plain ware similar to Marcey Creek Ware. However, it was tempered with clay or a combination of clay and soapstone. The ware is distributed in the southern coastal plain of Virginia. Waterlily Ware, defined by archaeologist Floyd Painter from pottery found in Currituck County, North Carolina, is an early coastal plain ware similar to the other early wares, except that it is tempered with shell.

Later Pottery

Similar early ceramics have not been identified in the upper James, Roanoke, New, or Powell/Clinch/Holston river drainages. People living in these drainage basins were more isolated from the concept of pottery production. However, by 2,500 years ago, pottery was crafted across all of Virginia. By then a wide variety of vessel forms—shallow bowls, cooking jars, and extremely large storage vessels—were manufactured.

The earliest pottery along the Roanoke River, Hyco Ware, is similar to Elk Island Ware, a sandy, friable pottery with plain and cord-marked surfaces, defined by archaeologist Daniel Mouer in Goochland County along the James River. Elk Island Ware was radiometric dated to 2845 BP. In the mountainous region of southwestern Virginia, the earliest identified ceramic is Swannanoa Ware, a crushed-quartz to sand-tempered pottery that was first described by archaeologist Patricia Holden in western North Carolina.

How Pottery Was Made

Archaeologists think that the women of a tribe probably fashioned pottery. The women dug good clay from along a river bank or a bluff and carefully prepared it by adding water and temper (crushed rock or shell) to reduce shrinking and cracking during drying and firing. They did not use a pottery wheel; all pieces were hand built. At first they added clay in pieces to flat bottoms and molded the sides to form low vessels. Soon they learned that they could build up the sides of a vessel higher, faster, and more uniformly by adding coils of clay, one on top of the other. The women pinched the coils of a vessel together and shaped the interior by scraping the walls. The exterior of the vessel was shaped with a paddle wrapped with cord, fabric, or net, or carved with a design. The wrapped or carved paddle cut down on surface cohesion that existed between the smooth wet paddle and damp clay. The patterns left by the paddling provide archaeologists with rare examples of textiles that seldom survive hundreds of years of burial in the earth. Vessels were sometimes decorated with incisions and punctuations. Appendages, such as lugs and strap handles, were occasionally added. The women did not paint or glaze their vessels. Finally, the vessel was thoroughly air dried and placed in an open fire to bake. When cool, the product was a hard and durable container. The conical bottom of the vessel made it tilt to one side. Such a base held advantages over a flat-bottomed one—it was strong, heated the pot’s contents quickly, and could be propped up easily by three rocks.

Recent Pottery

For the last 325 years, members of the Pamunkey Tribe, most commonly women, have been known for their pottery, handcrafted from the clay dug from their reservation along the Pamunkey River. The Pamunkey made plates, cups, pipkins, chamber pots, and jars, both for themselves and for sale to the colonists. They tempered the clay by mixing it with pulverized freshwater mussels. They then shaped the mixture by hand into a vessel, smoothed its surface, and burnished it with a rubbing stone. Archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume in 1962 defined Colono-Indian Ware to describe this type of ware recovered from colonial contexts, beginning in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, in the vicinity of Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown.

By the mid-nineteenth century, railroads began to bring cheap, mass-produced kitchen wares into eastern Virginia, and the demand for the Pamunkey handmade pottery soon decreased. The craft was nearly extinct when, in 1932, a Virginia state official on a visit to the Pamunkey suggested that they try to sell pottery to tourists to supplement their meager income. The state helped establish a program for a pottery school where Pamunkey tribe members learned methods to increase the speed of manufacture of their traditional pottery. The school’s first instructor respected his students’ traditions but also introduced them to the use of the potter’s wheel, molds, paints, and the baking kiln. In recent years, however, some potters have revived the older methods. Today tribal artisans follow both the ancient and modern traditions.

  • Egloff, Keith T. “Development and Impact of Ceramics in Virginia,” in Theodore R. Reinhart and Mary Ellen N. Hodges, eds., Late Archaic and Early Woodland Research in Virginia: A Synthesis. Archeological Society of Virginia Special Publication 23. Richmond, Virginia: Dietz Press, 1991.
  • Egloff, Keith and Deborah Woodward. First People: The Early Indians of Virginia. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
  • Feest, Christian F. The Powhatan Tribes. New York: Chelsea House, 1990.
  • Saunders, Rebecca and Christopher T. Hays. Early Pottery: Technology, Function, Style, and Interaction in the Lower Southeast. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2004.
APA Citation:
Egloff, Keith. Ceramics, Virginia Indian. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/ceramics-virginia-indian.
MLA Citation:
Egloff, Keith. "Ceramics, Virginia Indian" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 04 Mar. 2021
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