Incising is technique for decorating ceramics that involves cutting linear designs into the clay surface. Many Mississippian ceramics are decorated by incising
or engraving. Implements such as sticks, reeds, or bone fragments, were dragged through wet clay to incise it, or they were scratched into the surface of the
dried but as yet unfired pieces to engrave.
Clay was gathered from local deposits-usually creek banks and temper added to counteract the shrinkage from drying. This can cause the vessel's walls to crack. Furthermore, any water left in the clay upon firing would turn into steam and explode. Even more significant is the stickiness of the clay. It would only become easily workable while wet thus compounding the problem. Woodland potters attempted to remedy this by using up to 33%
of coarse sand and/or grog temper. Mississippian Potters greatly improved on this by using burned, freshwater mussel shell particles which made the clay
clump and model easily. Because the calcium carbonate within the shell material acts as a kind of binding agent, with as little as 10-15% shell temper
added the paste becomes lighter, stronger and better able to withstand the drying process without cracking. Moreover the walls could now be thinner,
giving improved heat transfer for a better cooking pot. Because of these benefits, shell tempering rapidly began to spread around 800 CE as settlements
required more maize to feed their growing populations.
Ancient pottery makers never used enclosed kilns. Instead the pottery was fired in a pit or on a mound. Some tribes would dig shallow pits to fire their
pottery. They would line the pits with heat-resistant materials, such as ashes, sand or rocks. The pottery builders would then start a fire in the pit
using a mix of soft and hard woods and place their clay objects directly on top. The time in the fire pit for hardening depended on the size of the object
but generally spanned several hours at temperatures of 1400 degrees or more.
More common to the mound building tribes of the east was a slightly different method. A 3 or 4-foot high earthen mound would be built with draft holes in
the bottom. In the center, the pottery makers would build a fire using wood chips and place their pottery on top. This method required that the pottery bake
for several days, creating a hard black pottery.
The coiling technique has been employed to shape clay for many of thousands of years and was the method by which the ancient pottery makers sculpted
most of the vessel classifications that follow. Using the coiling technique, it is possible to build thicker or taller walled vessels, which may not
have been possible using earlier methods. The technique permits control of the walls as they are built up and allows building on top of the walls to
make the vessel look bigger and bulge outward or narrow inward with less danger of collapsing. Pottery makers would begin by forming their clay into
a long roll. Then, by placing coils on top of another, they could form a variety of shapes. After forming the vessel they would then smooth both the
outer and inner surfaces to remove the gaps between the coils.
The Tempering is with a coarse shell of varying diameter making the paste swirled and contorted when large. The piece is usually decorated with either
swirling bands or geometric zones of red and white using heavy slip-like paint. Slips are simply clay suspended in water and then colored. Galena or
cerussite, sometimes known as white lead ore was used for white, hematite or red iron ore for red, and graphite or coal for black. The form spans from
globular bowls and jars to bottles with a slightly flared rim. Avenue Polychrome appeared near the close of the Late Mississippi Period and is akin to
other classifications such as Carson Red on Buff
, Nodena Red and White
, and Old Town Red
The tempering for the Barton Incised is the same as both Parkin Punctated and Avenue Polychrome. The shell is very coarse with a wide variation in
the diameter, including some particles as large as 7 cm. This creates a coarse surface, often showing open spaces from the poor wedging of clay.
Incision is seemingly careless and made by a pointed tool applied to a moist surface producing a line with a considerable amount of burr. Lines
vary in width from less than .5 to 3 mm and are either parallel, or of a cross hatch, chevron, and in one case, checkerboard design. When parallel
the oblique lines are based on a system of alternating line-filled triangles that slant downward from the lip to the beginning of the shoulder area
and in some cases lower.1
Bell Plain is a catch-all term that refers to any burnished, shell-tempered plain pottery. The burnishing is completed at a late stage of the drying process
in which most pebble tracks are erased by energetic rubbing.1
There are several variations of Bell Plain including Holly
the latter having a finely crushed shell tempering and a straight rim.
Like many others the tempering of this type is one of coarse shell of varying diameter within clay that is predominantly a lighter buff color. Like the Avenue
Polychrome, coloring is accomplished by way of an applied film or slip (clay suspended in water), most frequently containing a hematite agent to render a rich
orange-red tone. The entire buff colored surfaced would be covered in this film as Mississippi potters regarded paint as something for colorizing the entire
vessel rather than a decorative medium.2
Effigy pots were a mainstay of many Mississippian peoples, although they come in
many different varieties. Some come in anthropomorphic shapes, some zoomorphic shapes and others in the shape of mythological creatures associated with the
Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Head pots (pictured) are jars shaped like human heads, typically male, and the figures commonly appear to be deceased. They are
typically 3–8 inches tall, with smaller vessels found in the Arkansas River Valley. They are considered to be the pinnacle of the Mississippian culture ceramics
and are some of the rarest and most unique clay vessels in North America.3
The temper of this classification consists of fine shell particles, very little of which are visible on the surface making the texture very smooth and homogeneous.
The color varies but is similar to Bell Plain. Almost all examples were polished with finer ones having a lustrous, black finish. The incised lines average 2 mm
wide and are rarely more than 1 mm deep. It is thought that they were made with a rounded implement and of a type referred to as trailing
, the commonest
design being a spiral meander. The majority of rims are thickened on the outside, but occasionally on the inside or both and are defined by an incised line.
Mississippian Plain is very common to most Mississippian cultures throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. It was buff colored, contains
large fragments of ground mussel shell as a tempering agent, and is not as smooth and polished as other varieties. The term is often applied to any
unburnished, undecorated, shell-tempered pottery.
The Tempering for Parkin Punctated is very similar to that of Avenue Polychrome with very coarse shell, sometimes as much as 5 to 7 cm in diameter.
Punctation is produced by various shaped tools, resulting in a wide variety of size, shape and arrangement, the common characteristic being that the
instrument is jabbed obliquely into the clay producing a ridge or burr
. Often the shape is oval or semi-lunar which suggests fingernail
marking, albeit the punctations are occasionally round, square, triangular, or u-shaped. They also vary in size and depth with an average width of .5
mm and about .2 mm in depth. Punctations generally are not part of a design and are simply scattered and spaced at random over the entire vessel
surface including the base. However occasionally they have horizontal or vertical rows, or a combination of both. Often a single row or series of
rows form a band around the shoulder of the vessel. In rare cases punctations are aligned vertically so that the burr forms a continuous ridge
effect which is sometimes accentuated by pinching
. In either case a linear arrangement classifies the vessel as linear-punctated
Powell Plain emerged during the Stirling Phase of the Cahokia site. A distinctive trait of this period is the shell temper. Powell Plain exhibits
an especially fine, smooth surface with very thin walls and distinctive tempering, slips and coloring. The cores of the sherds are typically a
range of grays to buffs and creams. Some have slips of liquid clay and pigment with common colors being red, grey, and black and the surfaces polished
to a high sheen.
A curvilinear, Mississippian Plain paste incised pottery type on a coarse shell-tempered ware. The narrow incisions typically vary along the upper
rim, shoulder and/or body of the vessel, and typically form concentric circle, scroll, festoons, and guilloche motifs. The type is dated to the late
Anna and early Foster phases of the Mississippi period and was defined at the Winterville Site. Variations of this classification include
Belzoni, Tunica, and Wailes
1. Mound Excavations at Moundville: Architecture, Elites and Social Order By Vernon James Knight, Jr. University of Alabama Press; 2010. pp. 22.
2. Archaeological survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 By Philip Phillips, James Alfred Ford, James Bennett Griffin, Stephen Williams
University of Alabama Press. pp. 138-9.
3. museumofnativeamericanartifacts.org. Retrieved 2010-07-18.