Ceramics were introduced in Alabama during the latter part of the Archaic Stage. However, the widespread adoption of pottery is generally viewed as a hallmark of the Woodland Stage. Before ceramic vessels became widely used, early Native American vessels were made out of basketry, stone (such as steatite), or gourds. In fact, some archaeologists think that the first ceramic vessels were made to imitate woven baskets.
Ceramic vessels have distinct characteristics that help archaeologists isolate where and when the vessel was likely to have been made. Some of these differences include various techniques for decorating the vessels, various decorations, themselves, various techniques for firing the clay, and various types of clay and temper. Temper is a term that refers to things that were added to the clay to make a vessel.
Like projectile points, pottery vessels and pottery sherds can be used to set up a relative chronology at a site. This is perhaps the primary reason why archaeologist's spend much of their time studying the ceramic artifacts from a site. That is not to say that pottery is the only means for determining when a site was occupied or who lived in the area, but it is certainly one of the contributing factors to determining that information.
Since ceramic vessels and sherds are important for archaeologists to better interpret the archaeological record of a site, let's check out the process of making pottery.
Step 1. The best clay for making pottery was taken from eroding riverbanks. In the picture to the right the woman is placing her clay in a basket.
Step 2. The moist clay is mixed with a tempering agent such as sand, grog (crushed pottery), shell, etc. This increases the strength of the vessel.
Step 3. Then, the clay is rolled into long strips...
Step 4. Next, those strips are shaped into coils...
Step 5. The coils are then continued to form the shape of the vessel...
Step 6. The coils are smoothed out using a rock and water...
Step 7. The surface of the vessel is then decorated. In this case a wooden paddle was used to stamp a design onto the pot. Other types of surface treatments include pressing fabric and/or rope covered paddles onto the vessel. After the surface treatment is applied, the vessel is set out to dry in the sun.
Step 8. Finally, the pot was baked in a very hot fire. When the firing was complete the Native Americans had a hard and durable container.
Illustrations by Roy S. Dickens, Jr. Reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia.