Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Morphological and Technological Characteristics of Early and Middle Woodland Pottery from the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys


Archaeologists working in different parts of the world have found that major changes in ceramic technology occurred thousands of years ago and it appears that now the origin and early development of clay pots emerged in East Asia. In fact, the earliest pottery on record, radiocarbon dated around 18,000 – 20,000 years old, was found in two caves in China and excavations at other Asian and European habitation sites indicate that pottery making began much earlier than previously thought. Pottery was an independent invention in the New World and dates many thousands of years later. In fact, the earliest dates are from shell midden habitation sites that are 4000 years old along the coasts of northern South America and southeastern United States. More time passes before the concept is adopted by Middle Atlantic and North Eastern Native American cultures as fired clay vessels become the ideal alternative cooking method for prepare food. 

Steatite bowl (Loan from Dauphin County Historical Society)

The earliest portable cooking containers found in the Middle Atlantic region date to approximately 3600 years ago during the Transitional Period (circa 4300 – 2700 years ago). These bowls are carved from a soft stone known as steatite. In Pennsylvania, this rock is found in Lancaster County and Native Americans needed to travel to that region or obtain it through trade to acquire their bowls. Steatite is heavy and difficult to obtain so it is easy to understand the many advantages that clay pots had over stone bowls. The following presentation will review the morphological and technological characteristics of Early Woodland (circa 3200 – 1200 years ago) and Middle Woodland (circa 1800 – 1200 years ago) pottery in the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys. 

Classification and Form

Researchers identify changes in ceramic technology through a classificatory system based on physical attributes. Form, temper, surface treatment, and decoration are among, but not limited to, the criteria used in typologically assigning categories to pottery. With few modifications the attribute system, has been and continues to be, the traditional format that researchers use to analyze prehistoric pottery from archaeological site contexts. Below are a few general trends in the evolution of Early and Middle Woodland pottery.

It is important to note that the various forms of Early and Middle Woodland pottery are markedly different from later pottery types of the Susquehanna and Delaware valleys. Vessel volume/capacity, vessel shape and the variations that are present in vessel decoration are hallmarks that distinguish different pottery types. For example, Early Woodland pots are generally less well made with coarse rock temper than Middle Woodland pots that appear well made with finer temper inclusions. In the Middle Atlantic regions of the lower Susquehanna and lower Delaware valleys, pottery forms begin as flat bottomed, straight sided pots (some with lugged handles) that are followed later by sub-conical and conical forms without handles. Middle Woodland pots often exhibit a decoration along the collar or rim over a smoothed or cordmarked surface.

Cordmarking is a surface treatment for pottery using a wooden paddle wrapped with twisted cord. This is done while the pot is still wet and roughens the surface making it easier to hold after firing. This technique is the principle form of marking pottery surfaces for the next 2000 years. Nets and twined fabrics wrapped around wooden paddles served the same function and appear during Middle Woodland times.  

Artist illustration of pottery making using a cord-wrapped paddle (First Pennsylvanians, 2015)

Construction Methods and Design

Building the pot required the potter to add temper, such as roasted and pulverized mussel shells or some type of granulated rock to the clay as a binding agent that prevented shrinkage and weakening, prior to and during, the firing process. The principal method of constructing Early and Middle Woodland pottery was to weld together stacked coils or fillets of tempered clay with a wooden paddle or stone palate. These tools were manipulated with the potter’s palm as each clay section was added and modeled into place.

Pot exteriors were roughened for better handling in later use. Nets, twisted cords, or rarely, textiles, were some of the materials used to create the roughed surface. One, or a combination of these materials, was applied to the surface of pots before firing. Early Woodland examples were rarely modified with designs beyond the application of cordmarkings on their interiors. Alternatively, the interior lip and rim areas of Middle Woodland pots were frequently decorated with a stamped decoration using a tooth or peg-shaped tool. Some of the Middle Woodland pots from the Delaware Valley are highly decorated with zones of line incising and elaborate punctations, often carefully executed in geometric patterns.


Once created, the pot was set aside for a period to air dry.  After sufficient time had passed rendering the pot stable, wood was stacked around the pot and ignited. As the pot’s temperature normalized with the heat of the fire, more fuel was added, eventually covering the entire pot and the firing brought to a higher temperature. If conditions did not remain stable during firing, or the pot had not sufficiently dried, the entire process generally failed.

Restored Pots of the Early and Middle Woodland Periods

Some examples of Early and Middle Woodland pottery in museum repositories.

Early Woodland vessel from Bare Island site(36LA0056)

Bare Island site (Susquehanna Valley, Early Woodland) – Large pot with Plain exterior. Steatite temper. Flat bottom with straight sidewalls. Plain rim. 

Early Woodland vessel, Oscar Leibhart site(36YO0009), Private Collection

Oscar Leibhart site (Susquehanna Valley, Early Woodland) - Large pot with cordmarked exterior. Crushed quartz temper. Conical form with unmodified rim.

Middle Woodland vessel from Muddy Run (36LA0103)

Muddy Run site (Lower Susquehanna Valley, Middle Woodland) – Large pot with netmarked exterior. Crushed shell temper. Conical form with cordmarked rim decoration. 

Middle Woodland vessel, Marysville site 

Marysville site (Susquehanna Valley, Middle Woodland) – Large pot with dentate stamped exterior.  Crushed igneous rock temper. Sub-globular form with slight neck constriction. Plain rim. 

Late Middle Woodland, Three Mile Island (36DA0050) Private Collection

Three Mile Island site (Susquehanna Valley, Late Middle Woodland)– Large pot with cordmarked exterior. Crushed angular rock temper. Sub-globular form with slight neck constriction. Plain rim.

Early Woodland vessel, Byram site (28HU39)

Byram site (Middle Delaware Valley, Early Woodland) – Large pot with plain exterior. Crushed rock temper. Flat bottom with exaggerated out-sloping sidewalls. Rectangular form. Plain rim.

Middle Woodland vessel, Abbott Farm, New Jersey

Abbott Farm site (Lower Delaware Valley, Middle Woodland) – Large pot with exterior fabric marking and zoned decorations. Crushed shell temper. Conical-shaped form. Plain rim. 

Middle Woodland vessel, Zimmermann site (36PI0014)

Zimmermann site (Upper Delaware Valley, Middle Woodland) – Large pot with exterior cordmarked/dentate stamped exterior. Crushed angular rock temper. Sub-conical form with dentate stamp rim decoration. Moderate neck constriction. 
Interestingly, Middle and especially Early Woodland pots are generally large compared to Late Woodland (1100 AD – 1550 AD) pots. This may reflect the size of the social group using the pot. During Late Woodland times, people were cooking for household groups. During Early and Middle Woodland times, cooking may have been conducted communally, involving several family groups. 

Although Early and Middle Woodland pottery varies in quality, shape, temper and surface treatment, the evolution of pottery types in the Susquehanna and Delaware Valleys seem to evolve in tandem suggesting potters, although experimenting with a variety of techniques, seem to be in communication with one-another. This is in contrast with Late Woodland times when distinctive styles emerge between the Delaware and Susquehanna Valleys. 

Thank you for visiting and please do so again when This Week In Pennsylvania Archaeology and the State Museum of Pennsylvania, Section of Archaeology presents other blogs in the series “Pots from the Past”. 


 Carr, Kurt W. and Roger W. Moeller
 2015         First Pennsylvanians, The Archaeology of Native Americans in  Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.   Harrisburg.   
Cross, Dorothy
1941 The Archaeology of New Jersey. Volume 1. The Archaeological Society of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Museum. Trenton.
1956 The Archaeology of New Jersey. Volume 2. The Archaeological Society of New Jersey and the New Jersey State Museum. Trenton.

Hurley, William M.
1979 Prehistoric Cordage: Identification of Impressions on Pottery. Manuals on Archeology 3. Taraxacum Inc. Washington.

Kinsey, W. Fred 
1972 Archeology in the Upper Delaware Valley. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Harrisburg.

Ritchie, William A., and Richard S. MacNeish
1949 The Pre-Iroquoian Pottery of New York State. American Antiquity 15(2):97-124. Menasha.
Rye, Owen S.

1981 Pottery Technology: Principles and Reconstruction. Manuals on Archeology 4. Taraxacum Inc., Washington.

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

Monday, March 22, 2021

Colonial Ceramics Series - Creamware

This week we continue our series on early historic ceramics recovered from archaeological sites and their significance in the historic and archaeological record. Past posts have discussed Jackfield (1745-1790), Scratch blue (1744-1775), and Slipware (1675-1770) ceramics. Colonial ceramics of the 17th & 18th century are typically divided into three categories: Earthenware, Stoneware and Porcelain. These categories are derived from the clays used in manufacture as well as the firing techniques. 

Creamware cup replicates the form of Chinese Porcelain cups

Chinese Porcelain cup from collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Creamware, sometimes referred to as cream-colored ware, is a clear lead glazed refined earthenware ceramic first produced in the Staffordshire region of England in the 1740s. The first and defining characteristic of creamware is its off-white or cream-colored body, and paste. This is attributed to iron impurities in the source clay. Another tell-tale sign of creamware can be found where the clear lead glaze collects and pools in the crevasses of a piece, often apparent around the base or foot ring. In these areas where the glaze is thickest it will appear green or yellow green in color. 

Pooling of clear lead glaze in base with slight yellow green tint

(Head House, Philadelphia) Collections of The State Museum of Pennsylvania

“Importation of Chinese porcelain into Europe provided a great catalyst for the experimentation in the quest for the secret of making porcelain.” (Miller and Hunter 2001:135). Without diving into the complex chemistry involved, creamware is the result of one of those experiments. By 1760 the popularity of creamware began to overshadow earlier attempts to mimic porcelain, such as tin-glazed delft wares and salt-glazed stonewares, and well-established potters like Wedgwood and Whieldon were producing creamware in quantities to meet demand.

Creamware would continue to be produced through 1820 with a variety of decorations including clouded-creamware, or Whieldon, molded patterns like queensware, as well as hand-painted and transfer-printed designs. As with the earlier ceramic types, creamware also found itself falling out of favor by the 1790s with the introduction of pearlware, another refined earthenware, whiter in appearance than creamware and closer to the goal of a porcelain-like ceramic that consumers coveted.

Below is a small creamware mug from the Market St. excavations in Philadelphia. This specimen exhibits a hand painted dark brown annual band near the rim and base, and also has a dark brown transfer-printed star and sprig motif on the body of the mug opposite the handle.

Creamware mug from 36Ph1

We hope you will continue to follow our blog to learn more about the incredible ceramics that have been recovered by archaeologists from across the Commonwealth. The preservation of these objects provides a personal glimpse into the lives of early colonists and of the potters who produced them. German immigrants who became potters in Philadelphia, Lancaster and York developed their methods and refined the clay available locally to produce ceramics that would replace those from Europe and led the way for many artisan crafts throughout the colony.

Advancements in science have allowed archaeologists to analyze clay sources and trace them to regions and in some cases, potters.  Archaeologists have the unique ability of finding the stories of everyday life through the evidence of the past- even if it is only a broken piece of pottery.


Miller, George L. and Robert Hunter

2001      How Creamware got the Blues: The Origins of China Glaze and Pearlware. In Ceramics in America, Robert Hunter editor, Chipstone Foundation.


Noel Hume, Ivor

1969      A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. Alfred A. Knopf Publishers


Miller, George L. Hunter, Robert (editor)

2008      Book Review of Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined. Thomas Walford and Roger Massey, editors In Ceramics in America, Robert Hunter editor, Chipstone Foundation..



Creamware - Wikipedia

Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland

HistoricCeramicTypesChart.pdf(maryland.gov) (PDF)


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