Sunday, December 27, 2020

Pots from the Past: A Look at some Native American Pottery Types of the Early Contact Period

In our last blog post on “Pots from the Past” (posted 10/23/20), we showcased the Late Woodland pottery types of the Susquehanna Valley. In this blog we describe Susquehannock pottery dating to the period around the time of European contact. The Susquehannocks were an Iroquoian-speaking group who also lived in the Susquehanna Valley but principally established settlements in the Lower Susquehanna of Pennsylvania and the Potomac valleys of northern Maryland and eastern West Virginia after leaving the Upper Susquehanna of northcentral Pennsylvania in the early 1500s (Herbstritt 2019). Their settlements occupied fertile river bottoms where farming, principally comprised of growing corn, beans and squash and the harvesting of many different wild plant foods was economically feasible. Coupled with the harvesting of deer, elk, birds, fish and river mussels, and a modicum of other protein-based foods formed a vital part of their subsistence economy. Unlike their Late Woodland predecessors of the Susquehanna Valley, the Susquehannocks, only lived at these select locations for about 200 years (ca. 1525-1750 AD), until their culture was devastated by foreign diseases, wars with other Iroquoians, assimilation and economic hardship brought about by and through European colonialism.

Enter the potters! Archaeologic, ethnographic and historic evidence point to females as the makers of Native American clay pots. French Jesuits witnessed Iroquois women making cooking pots in Canada and contemporary Native American potters in the south and southwest United States of more recent times are women.

Much of what is known about Susquehannock pottery has been the result of samples recovered from large scale excavations that took place near Washington Boro, Pennsylvania in the 1970’s and 1980’s. These investigations were largely undertaken by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission under the direction of Dr. Barry C. Kent, the Commission’s State Archaeologist (Kent 1984). The research conducted by Dr. Kent and other archaeologists developed a pottery chronology for the Susquehannock occupations that clearly demonstrated a sequence of different pottery types through time. 

The Susquehannock pottery types in chronological order 

We begin our discussion on Susquehannock pottery by presenting these types in chronological order with the earliest defined type and working through to the latest as follows.

Schultz Incised is a high collared shell tempered pottery type largely found at the Schultz site located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Figure 1). This type generally dates between 1525 AD and 1600 AD. The overall surface treatment of this type is cord-marking with pronounced broad line incising decorating the collars which form different geometric patterns that include right triangles, trapezoids and vertical bars. Most often, the areas with these patterns are infilled with dentations that look like they were made with the oval-shaped end of a bone or wooden tool. Schultz pots range in volume from a pint to many gallons indicating utilitarian use and many retain evidence of carbonized residue suggesting that they were used in cooking. 

A Schultz incised pot from the Schultz site (36La7). 

Washington Boro Incised is a low to medium collared shell tempered pottery named after the Washington Boro site also located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Figure 2). It generally dates between 1600 AD and 1635 AD. The type shared some characteristics with Schultz Incised such as an all over cord-marked surface and collars with incised lines. However, the line incising is largely defined by horizontal panels of incising separated by a broadly spaced vertical line. The hallmark of the Washington Boro Incised type is the presence of two to four stylized expressionless human faces located on castellations along the pot’s rim. These are commonly accompanied by one or more V-shaped notches above each face. Full bodied effigies of the human form are present on these pots but rare. Interestingly, full bodied effigies are also found on pots from non-Susquehannock Iroquoian sites in New York where they are also rare. As with its predecessor, Schultz Incised, Washington Boro Incised pots are highly variable in volume capacity – big and small seems to have been the norm and many contain charred cooking residue inside the pot. 

A Washington Boro Incised pot. 

      Strickler Cordmarked, for the most part is a collarless cordmarked pottery type named after the Strickler site, also located in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (Figure 3). It generally dates between 1635 AD and 1680 AD. Some Strickler site potters tempered their pots with shell, other potters did not, as many of the pots exhibit little to no evidence that a tempering agent was added to the clay. Strickler Cordmarked pots departed from earlier Susquehannock types in that there was a definite departure in their aesthetic presence. Absent are the various incised line designs and effigy faces from former times – little to none of the earlier artistic expressionism is evident. It has been postulated that Strickler Cordmarked was a pottery type that was increasingly being replaced by utilitarian metal pots traded into the Susquehannock economy from Europeans (Kent 1984). After all, metal pots lasted longer and heated the food more quickly. Pots of the Strickler type were small in comparison to Schultz Incised and Washington Boro Incised pots–they rarely held more than a quart’s worth of capacity. It can perhaps be stated that Strickler Cordmarked had a longer tradition in Susquehannock culture insofar as the type was being produced well into the 1670’s after the Susquehannocks moved their settlements to the bluffs of the Susquehanna’s west shore in York County, Pennsylvania. By the early 18th century after the Susquehannock’s set up residence at Conestoga town, native pottery seems to have become a relic of the past.

A Strickler Cordmarked pot. 

We hope you have enjoyed revisiting our This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology blog site. Please visit again as we present more in the series on “Pots from the Past”



Herbstritt, James T.

2019      Becoming Susquehannock: The West Branch and North Branch Traditions: in The Susquehannocks: New Perspectives on Settlement and Cultural Identity. Edited by Paul A. Raber. The Pennsylvania State University Press. University Park.

Kent, Barry C.

1984      Susquehanna’s Indians. Anthropological Series, no 6. Harrisburg, Pa. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.


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

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