Newsletter Signup | Subscribe to Magazine

Pottery shards


Story + artwork by Michele Roldán-Shaw

When you find a Native American pottery shard, it’s quite astounding to contemplate that it might be hundreds or even thousands of years old. Light, fragile and crumbly, its earthen hue could range from weathered gray to sandy yellow, ruddy clay to mud brown. It may be marked with a simple yet pleasing decorative pattern: checks, dots, crosses, swirls, netting, concentric circles, or even the figure-eight infinity symbol. Something about the ancient mind comes to light in these designs.

I’ve found a few pieces of pottery over the years, mostly while kayaking, as they tend to emerge out of the banks of pluff mud along shorelines. But old-timers have five-gallon buckets of them. I remember Lancy Burn — Daufuskie’s famous artisan who grew up roaming the island in search of artifacts — telling me how he became an accidental potter the day he picked up some clay on the beach, and as he was walking home he unconsciously pitched it into a little pot. He later opened Silver Dew Pottery, where he sold beautiful and highly sought-after ceramics tempered with a bit of Daufuskie sand and sometimes stamped with a piece of local cane in patterns he drew from his ancient relics.

Long ago, Native peoples throughout the Southeast made their pots by coiling up ropes of clay. They then blended the layers together before smoothing and thinning the walls by beating them with a wooden paddle. Sometimes the paddle was carved, wrapped in cord, or covered with fabric so that it left impressions on the wet clay. They also could incise designs with a pointy stick before firing the pots to harden them.

To archeologists these pottery bits are far more than curiosities. As some of the most enduring remnants of ancient times, they have been studied extensively, and they provide clues to the cultural and technological shifts taking place during various archaeological periods. The first pottery seems to have emerged towards the end of the Archaic Period, when people were still living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Production increased during the Woodland Period, approximately 3,500 years ago, when Natives along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia began producing fired clay vessels tempered with Spanish moss. Temper was a material added to the clay to make it stronger so that it would survive the firing process and prove more durable throughout its lifespan. Temper materials used across the Southeast depended on what tribes had at hand, such as sand, grit, pebbles, shell or crushed quartz.

It was during the Woodland Period that people started settling down into semi-permanent villages, another development that pottery gives insight into: heavy, breakable pots are not easy to carry around. By the Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000 to 1600), the trend toward agricultural life was taking hold, and earthenware vessels became even more essential for tasks such as storing seeds produced by all the semi-domesticated wild foods they’d learned to cultivate. Then came the Historic Period (1600 through the present), when Native peoples suffered greatly from the invasion of European colonists and were rapidly decimated by violence, disease, displacement and getting shipped off as slaves to the Caribbean. Yet pottery continued, made either by so-called “settlement Indians” who adopted white ways, or by enslaved Natives on the plantations, or by Creole people emerging from the colorful mix of African, Native and European peoples.

A very late type of potsherd is called Colonoware. This plain, unglazed and low-fired pottery is found so abundantly around plantations that it was long thought to be the handiwork of enslaved people. Several years ago fragments with an unusual honeycomb pattern were unearthed in Charleston and found to have been made using a West African technique called “rouletting,” in which a little carved tool is rolled over the soft clay to get a uniform design. This offered strong evidence to confirm that enslaved Africans were making ceramics, but it also opened up a lot of questions—such as why they didn’t typically incorporate any of the cool designs handed down from the rich legacy of African decorative traditions? Was it another instance of their culture being suppressed?

Questions — that’s what pottery shards produce. Archeologists have spent entire lifetimes looking for answers in swirly, scratchy patterns or in the cross-sections of crumbly fragments under microscopes. Who were these people, and how did they live? What foods did they eat, and where did they source them? What were their migrations patterns and interactions with other tribes? Did the designs reflect spiritual and cosmological beliefs, or did they just look pretty? Or perhaps the little marks were there to provide a non-slip surface for lugging the pots around.

If you want to find ancient pottery shards and speculate for yourself, the best bet is to scour local mud banks at low tide, particularly from a kayak. Happy hunting!