Sunday, November 1, 2020

Pots from the Past

Recently I witnessed my wife repotting some newly purchased mums for display on the step of our backyard stone wall. Her careful attention to this operation reminded me of the importance that pots commonly play in our daily routine around the home. We use them as planters, food containers, storage vessels for a sundry of things and so on. As with us, most of these functions were likely important to Native Americans who made and used pots in their life pursuits.

Over decades of detailed investigation, archaeologists and materials technologists have been able to understand and experimentally replicate Native American pottery recovered from Late Woodland (ca. 700 – 1500 AD.) camp and village sites in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. As such, we use the topic as a lead-in, with more anticipated submissions planned for future posts on this blog.  

Let’s begin with an overview of three Late Woodland Period pottery types that archaeologists associate with the Susquehanna Valley area of central Pennsylvania: Clemson Island/Owasco, (Figure 2); Shenks Ferry (Figure 4 ); and Quiggle (Figure 6). To be clear, these three names are not Native American names given these pottery types but rather are the names archaeologists attached to them for analytical purposes. These designations are generally based on the locations where the pottery types were first identified.

Map of Susquehanna Valley including North & West Branch to the Wyoming & Upper Delaware Valleys

Clemson Island/Owasco

Clemson Island/Owasco is the compound name for the earliest Late Woodland pottery type of the West Branch and North Branch valleys of the Susquehanna. Clemson Island/Owasco was initially reported from excavations at the Clemson (36Da1) and Book (36Ju1) Mounds and is perhaps the most common pottery in the Susquehanna Valley (Jones 1931; McCann 1971). Radiocarbon dates for pottery of this period bracket a time frame from 850-1150 AD. Characteristically, the type, grit tempered, is identified as clay tempered with crushed rock, usually consisting of a medium to fine chert, quartz or, on the northern-most sites of the Susquehanna, the use of granite or other igneous material dominated. Clemson Island/Owasco vessels are generally large and sub-conical in shape with some examples reaching capacities of several gallons or greater. The pottery is typically embellished by an all-over corded surface with various geometric patterns of cord-impressed designs on the lips and necks of vessels. Examples of the tools for making cord impressions are illustrated in Figure 3. Many of the pots have one or more rows of punctates near the rim, however, the northern sites rarely exhibit this form of decoration. Later in the cultural sequence, say after 1050 AD., vessels have more constricted necks.

Replica cord wrapped paddle

Charred paddle from McFate site. (36Cw1) 

Shenks Ferry Pottery

The next Late Woodland pottery type in the Susquehanna Valley is Shenks Ferry (36La2) named after the type site in the lower valley near Safe Harbor, Pennsylvania excavated by Donald Cadzow (Cadzow 1936). Archaeologists describe six varieties of Shenks Ferry pottery that bracket a time period between 1220-1575 AD. Crushed quartz, chert, gneiss and rarely limestone are the temper materials incorporated into Shenks Ferry pottery (Witthoft 1952). Vessel capacities range from a quart to several gallons depending on their function. Ancestral to all Shenks Ferry pottery is Stewart Incised, a type most common to the West and North branches of the Susquehanna that is found as far south as the water gap at Blue Mountain. Stewart Incised shares the same decorative motifs as Shenks Ferry and based on C-14 dates is in the same culture period.  Below this locale five additional  varieties of this distinct pottery is present in the following chronological order from oldest to youngest, Shenks Ferry Incised, Lancaster Incised, Lime Valley incised, Funk Incised and Grubb Creek Punctate, (Graybill and Herbstritt 2014). Shenks Ferry Cordmarked, as described in the literature is a rarely present variety that is now known to have Potomac Valley origins i.e. Page and Shepard wares that found their ways onto Shenks Ferry sites by the spread of contemporary people and their pottery traditions from those regions of the Piedmont (Herbstritt 2020). 

As with Clemson Island/Owasco pottery, variations also occur in vessel form and decoration. Shenks Ferry pottery exhibits a corded surface treatment that, with a very few exceptions, are collared. Collars, which become taller and more pronounced through time, exhibit broad line incising over the prepared corded surface. Other less apparent decorative traits are distinctive time markers. For example, lip and collar punctates, made with the modified tip of a bird quill, occur near the end of the sequence when the decorative technique seems to mimic Susquehannock collared pottery of the very earliest forms.

Illustration of pottery vessel with Neck, Collar and Shoulder identified (Kinsey,1972)

Quiggle Incised

The third and final pottery type described is Quiggle Incised (Herbstritt 2020). It is one of several ancestral pottery types to Schultz Incised, the earliest form of pottery present within the Susquehannock pottery sequence. Quiggle Incised in its most basic form is found in the West Branch Valley with an outlier presence in the Wyoming and Upper Delaware valleys of northern Pennsylvania and New Jersey where the type spread onto the Glaciated Plateau. The type site for Quiggle Incised pottery is the Thomas Quiggle (36Cn6) site located near the town of McElhattan, Clinton county, Pennsylvania. The radiocarbon dates suggest a 125-150 year chronology period from approximately 1400-1550 AD. The type is exclusively tempered with crushed freshwater mussel shells from the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers and their many tributaries. Most of the pots from this period are typically smaller than Clemson Island/Owasco but are more in keeping with Shenks Ferry varieties that range from a quart to half gallon in capacity. In most examples, collars are generally one quarter the over-all vessel height and decorated with broad line incising bordered by lip and collar base notch punctates. The type is present at other locations as far south as Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1) located on the Juniata River’s Raystown Branch (Witthoft 1959) and on into the Potomac Valley.

The designation of these pottery types is an important tool for archaeologists in identifying culture groups associated with specific sites and in analyzing movement of Native groups across the landscape. The variations in size, function and decoration are key attributes in identifying these types and essential for archaeologists in assigning culture periods to investigated archaeological sites.

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog on Late Woodland Native American pottery. Unlike the mass-produced clay pottery vessels available to us, Native peoples treasured these hand-crafted clay vessels and the essential functions they served in daily life. The task of gathering and tempering the clays, applying design or decoration, and firing the vessel were an important task for women and young girls. Many of these vessels illustrate skilled craftsmanship and pride, as well as functionality.  Do visit our blog again as we present more in the series on “Pots from the Past”.


Cadzow, Donald L.

1936 Archaeological Studies of the Susquehannock Indians of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical Commission.

Graybill, Jeffrey R. and James T. Herbstritt  

2014 Shenks Ferry Tradition Ceramic Seriation. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 84(1):27-45.

Herbstritt, James T. 

2019 Becoming Susquehannock: The West and North Branch Traditions. In: The Susquehannocks: New Perspectives on Settlement and Cultural Identity. Recent Research in Pennsylvania Archaeology Series, edited by Paul A. Raber. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park.

Herbstritt, James T.

2020 The Late Woodland Period in the Susquehanna and Northern Potomac Drainage Basins, Circa AD 1100-1575. In The Archaeology of Native Americans in Pennsylvania. Volume 2, edited by Kurt W. Carr, Christopher A. Bergman, Christina B. Rieth, Bernard K. Means and Roger W. Moeller, Elizabeth Wagner, Associate Editor. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. 

Jones, Robert W.

1931 Excavations in Dauphin and Juniata Counties, 1929. Pennsylvania Historical Commission.

Kinsey, W. Fred III

1972      Archaeology in the Upper Delaware Valley. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission

McCann, Catherine 

1971 Notes on the Pottery of the Clemson and book Mounds. In Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory, edited by Barry C. Kent, Ira F. Smith and Catherine McCann. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg.

Ritchie, William A.

1929 An Early Historic Andaste Camp Site at Pine, Clinton County, Pennsylvania. Unpublished manuscript on file, Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg.

Witthoft, John and Sam S. Farver

1952 Two Shenks Ferry Sites in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 22(1):3-32).

Witthoft, John

1959 Ancestry of the Susquehannocks. In Susquehannock Miscellany., edited by John Witthoft and W. Fred Kinsey. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg,


For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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