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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 breaking.

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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