Woodland Period Pottery Mississippian Period Pottery

Vessel Forms and Decorative Techniques

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 in. to 7 in. 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, opposum, shells, and wildcats. Human 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 smooth on both the interior and exterior. Often, the vessels were hand polished with a stone called burnishing before firing making the pot smoother and more waterproof by sealing the clay. Additional texture or decoration were also often added to the exterior before firing.

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 vessel 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. In all probability, 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 eith conical indicating an awl-like tool, or elongated and rectangular indicating a narrow flat tool.

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.

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. The noding was used also to represent the conch shell which was used extensively for earlier vessels and as trade items. When the supply of conch shells was depleted, they made the vessels with the noding to replace them. These pots were often used in the black drink ceremony where a potent drink was made from the yaupon holly (a shrub which grew wild in the southeast) and used for a purging to cleanse them from all their sins and wrongdoings.

When patterns were created by adding raised designs in clay on the surface of a smoothed vessel, it is termed "applique". Noding might be thought of as a form of applique, 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 the 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 alwayts show telltale scratch marks created by the tool, and are often not even completely cleared of the surface color.

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.