Native American Pottery
Pere Marquette State Park
Native American Pottery Artifacts
on display in the Visitor Center
Pottery among the Native Americans first appeared on
the east coast of North American around 2000 B.C.E. and found its way to the
southwestern areas of the continent around 500 B.C. The Illini arrived in
the region around 1500 A.D. and were the last major group of
Native Americans to inhabit the Pere Marquette area. They used pottery for
functional uses such as storage and for symbolic uses such as effigies.
Preparing pottery was a task generally performed by
women and consisted of four main components - gathering the clay, preparing
the clay, shaping the pottery and firing the pottery. The women had to
travel long distances to find clay, which is a material formed when tiny bits
of dirt carried by streams sink and settle in still water ponds. The clay
necessary for pottery needed to be malleable enough to be shaped without
After suitable clay was found and taken back to the
village, it needed to be cleaned. This was done by breaking up the clay and
removing any fibers, roots, pebbles or other foreign material. The clay the Illini used was much
different and harder to work with than the clay that can be found in modern
Arts and Craft stores. Once the clay was cleaned, it had to be ‘tempered’.
Tempering clay allows it to withstand rapid changes in temperature when placed
in a fire. Tempering is done by adding crushed material to the clay. The Illini typically
used burnt muscle shells or limestone as their tempering agent with up to
1/10 of the clay mixture consisting of these materials. The bluffs
in the area were an excellent source of limestone. After the clay was
tempered, it needed to be ‘wedged’. Wedging is the process where the
mixture of clay and the tempering agent is evened out and air bubbles are removed. If the
air bubbles are not removed, the clay pottery can break or crack during the
drying or firing processes.
Once the clay was ready, it needed to be shaped into
its desired form. Two common techniques for shaping clay were the coil
method and pinching. The coil method consists of rolling out ropes of clay
and combining them in a circular fashion. After the desired shaped was
achieved, the coils would be pressed together before being scraped and
smoothed. Pinch pots were a simple way of making pottery. This involves
taking a rounded ball of clay and pinching a depression in the center.
Making symbolic effigies involved a variation of the pinching process. Duck
pots were common as the Illini revered ducks for their ability to traverse
the three elements - sky, earth and the underworld (underwater).
The Illini fired their pottery outdoors. After
allowing the finished pottery to dry for several days, the pottery was
placed in a
shallow preparation fire pit to warm the pottery, before being placed in a
finishing pit where the temperature of the fire could reach 1500 degrees.
The Illini never mastered the technique of glazing, therefore their pottery
was never 100 percent waterproof and couldn’t be used to store liquids for
a long period of time. Examples of Native American pottery can be found in
the exhibit room of the Visitor Center.
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