ClayHound Web - Woodland - Mississippian Pottery

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Woodland and Mississippian TRADITION
see Woodland and Mississippian VESSEL FORMS & TECHNIQUES below)



The Woodland Tradition is generally distinguished from the earlier Archaic Tradition by the construction of burial mounds, the advent of rudimentary cultivation, and by the presence of cord and fabric marked pottery types. This began around 700 BCE and reached its climax about 100 BCE. Remnants of the Woodland tradition lasted into the modern era. 

The Woodland Tradition is divided into two periods. The first, Burial Mound I, dates from 700-300 BCE, and is best represented by the Adena culture of the Ohio Valley. Sites are marked by burial mounds and/or earthworks. A cult of the dead seems to have been a major part of Adena life. Away from the burial centers, small villages of three to five houses prevailed. Ceramics were simple in form, with cord or fabric marking and occasionally incised decoration. 

The second period, Burial Mound II, spanned from around 300 BCE to 700 CE. This period saw the rise of the Hopewell culture, which was little more than an elaboration of the earlier Adena culture, and the dividing line between them is not very clear. Earthworks were larger and more complex, burial mounds were larger, and ceramics forms more sophisticated and varied. Specialty vessels were developed specifically for ceremonial use. Hopewell culture was carried throughout the Upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys.


Mississippian Cultures




The Hopewell culture began to fade near the end of the Burial Mound II period. Around 700 CE a new tradition known as the Mississippian was forming in the area of northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. For the purposes of this exhibition, this region will be referred to as the "core area". There were substantial differences between Mississippian sites and their Woodland predecessors. Sites were marked by flat-topped mounds upon which temples and important buildings were constructed. As such, the Mississippian Tradition is divided into Temple Mound I and Temple Mound II periods. In contrast to the Hopewell sites, burial mounds became far less significant. Agriculture intensified considerably with the introduction of better strains of maize, which resulted in a far more sedentary lifestyle. New vessel forms arose along with new types of decoration. Shell tempering became the norm.  Many of these characteristic features clearly indicate Mesoamerican influence. The relatively smooth and slow transition from Woodland to Mississippian traditions indicates that this influence was not direct, but absorbed gradually over time. 

The Mississippian tradition is best represented by the site at Cahokia, in southern Illinois. The Temple Mound I phase is not well understood, but it appears to have been the continuation of a trend towards nucleation into large centers, but now these centers  took on a form more like their Mesoamerican counterparts. From Cahokia other sites were "colonized" in outlying areas,  such as Aztalan in Wisconsin, Obion in western Tennessee and Hiwassee Island in eastern Tennessee, and Macon, Georgia. Contemporary developments were occurring in the Lower Mississippi Valley, with the Coles Creek cultures of Louisiana and Mississippi. These were similar to the Cahokia types, and exerted influences eastward into Florida and Georgia and westward up into the Caddoan regions along the Red River. 

The Mississippian Tradition reached its zenith between 1200 and 1500 CE. Areas which had at one time been a mix of Mississippian and Woodland traditions now became predominantly Mississippian, yet they retained the differentiation created by their varying  Woodland heritages. Cahokia continued to expand, and larger sites proliferated in the core area of southeastern Missouri and north- eastern Arkansas. In the Ohio Valley, Hopewell lifestyles gave way to a more sedentary, Fort Ancient variant of the Mississippian. The influence of Mississippian culture can also be found to the northwest, in the Oneota culture which fused earlier Woodland traditions with the new imports. Ceramics forms continued to expand and now included far more sophisticated forms, such as effigy vessels, and various types of painted decoration. 

The development of the Woodland and Mississippian Traditions can best be traced in the evolution of pottery forms through time. By measuring changes in vessel forms and decorative techniques, it is possible to understand just how the peoples of each region combined the elements of these two traditions into their own local variants.


    Excellent information from the Logan Museum of Anthropology on line from Beloit, Wisconsin

All text and images are used courtesy of the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College
All objects illustrated are in the permanent collection of the Logan Museum.

Woodland and Mississippian VESSEL FORMS  
Ceramic production was a relatively new concept during the Woodland Period, and there was not a tremendous variety of vessel forms. In fact, bowls were often carved from soapstone rather than being ceramic, and those which were ceramic were of the simplest types.  
Jars were by far the most common vessel form during the early period. Some had flat bottoms or were provided with four short legs. The most common type, however, was the "conoidal-based" pot, seen at left. This form is an indicator of the Woodland Period, as later it was rather uncommon. 

A far greater variety of vessel forms existed during the Mississippian Period. Bowls were made from clay rather than stone. Forms ranged from wide, shallow types to globular bowls with slightly incurving rims. The rims of most bowls were either beveled or provided with simple filleted decoration. Some bowls also had flared rims which were decorated in some manner along the exterior of the rim.  

A jar is distinguished from a globular bowl in that its opening is more constricted, and may also have a short neck. The globular jar seems to have been the most prevalent type, generally provided with a short rim or neck. Lugs, which are loops added to the rim through which a cord might be run to suspend the pot, were common features. Jars with necks tend not to have lugs, as they could usually be grasped by the neck. The deep jar, similar to the conoidal-based jars of the Woodland Period, remained, but now usually had the characteristic rim and slightly flattened bottom.  
Bottles differ from jars in that they have much longer and narrower necks. They were used to store water, and were most often utilitarian and undecorated. Those which were used for ceremonial purposes, however, were provided with painted or incised decoration. 
The hooded "bottle" is really more like a globular jar, but the very constricted opening, provided in the back of the "head" of the vessel, places it in the bottle category. Hooded bottles are invariably small - about 4" to 7" tall - and are nearly always in the form of some animal or human. 
One of the unique features of Mississippian pottery, as compared with earlier Woodland types, is the prevalence of effigy vessels, that is, pottery which is made in the form of an animal or human. Common subjects are those found in the everyday life of river peoples - fish, beaver, opossum, shells and wildcats.  
Humans effigies were also very popular, often only distinguishable by a face. The most peculiar effigy type is the hunchback. This deformity must have been fairly common, and those afflicted were often revered as shamans. 

The tremendous variety of vessel forms was matched by an equal variety of techniques employed in their decoration...

Mississippian vessels were generally constructed using the coiling method. Hand-rolled coils of clay were built up from the base to create the general form of the vessel. The vessel was then smoothed on both the interior and exterior. Often additional texture or decoration were added to the exterior before firing. Once fired, the pot might be further polished using a clay polisher like those depicted at left. I have seen them referred to as "trowels" and "polishers", indicating that scholars are unclear as to whether they were used to help fuse together the coils during construction, to brighten up the finish of a fired pot, or perhaps both. 
All ceramic vessels are created with clay to which some binding agent, called temper, has been added. This gives the vessel far greater strength. The earliest vessels in the Southeast were tempered with fibers of grass or roots. By the Woodland Period, mineral tempers became the norm. Grit, crushed rock, sand or ground ceramic sherds were the most common types.  
Fabric Marked vessels have a rough surface whose texture resembles that of a textile. This is because the vessels were smoothed before firing with a wooden paddle wrapped in fabric. Once smoothed, the paddle was pressed against the vessel to provide the characteristic texture. 
Cord Marked vessels were prepared in the same manner as Fabric Marked pottery, except that the wooden paddle was wrapped with cord rather than fabric. This resulted in a finish which resembled incising, except that the lines are usually curved and very closely spaced, and their ends nearly always overlap. 
Sometimes paddles were carved with some sort of curvilinear pattern, which created a surface which was far more decorative. This decorative technique was particularly popular in the Swift Creek area of central Georgia. I suspect these textured types of "decoration" were in fact an effort to increase the handleability of the vessel, as they usually occur on pots without handles. 
Rocker Stamped vessels have patterns created by rolling curved "rocker stamps" over the surface of the vessel. Rocker Stamps usually create the appearance of regularized pinpricked decoration, and are often applied in linear or curvilinear patterns. 
One of the major distinguishing features of the ceramics of most Mississippian cultures was the wholesale adoption of shell tempering. The use of crushed shells apparently had a number of advantages over mineral tempers. Chemical reactions created during the firing process made the vessels even stronger than before. The shell also aided in heat transfer, making cooking vessels far more functional. Shell temper is often visible on the exterior, making it an easy indicator. 
Punctated designs are those which were punched into the surface using some sort of sharp tool or even the fingernail. Usually the indentations are not very deep and are either conical indicating an awl-like tool, or elongated and rectangular indicating a narrow flat tool. The example at left is somewhat unusual in this regard. 
Incised decoration was created by drawing linear or curvilinear patterns on the unfired clay. Incised decoration is distinguishable from engraved decoration by the buildup of excess material along the edges of the incised lines. This is visible in the example at left. 
The use of noding was limited to a fairly small area in the core region of Mississippian culture. Nodes are small balls of clay which have been added to the surface of the smoothed pot. Two varieties are found, the first having nodes situated in an allover pattern, the second having one or two distinct rows of nodes placed near the rim.  
When patterns were created by adding raised designs in clay to the surface of a smoothed vessel, it is termed "appliqué". Noding might be thought of as a form of appliqué, but the typical form creates some variety of linear patterning. Zigzag is common, especially along rims, and beaded rims are also considered to be of this type. 
Engraved decoration was created by scratching away at the surface of a vessel which had already been fired, revealing the natural color of the clay below. This must be done with a very sharp tool, and as such, solid areas of engraved design always show telltale scratch marks created by the tool, and are often not even completely cleared of the surface color, as seen at left. 
All of the previously mentioned decorative techniques have been "plastic", meaning that they were modifications to the actual clay of the vessel. Painting is a surface decoration, and was usually added to the vessel after it had dried, but before it was fired. Red and white were the most popular colors, black being a late addition. 
Negative painting involved painting the majority of the vessel some background color, usually black, but leaving the linear design unpainted. After the vessel was fired, the natural clay color remained light, showing through as the pattern color. This was often enhanced with the addition of a third color, usually red, to complete the design. 
  With this background in the traditions of the early peoples of eastern North America and their techniques ceramic production behind us, we can now better appreciate the artifacts themselves...