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 .

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