Lives on Pots: Ancient Pottery in Alberta

Pottery traditions have developed independently all over the globe thanks to the versatility of clay as a medium for utilitarian function and the expression of identity. Over 450 sites in Alberta have pre-contact pottery dating from 300 to close to 2000 years old. Fragments or “sherds” of pots at archaeological sites reveal surprising amounts of information about how people lived, how they transmitted knowledge, and why pottery traditions persisted in Indigenous populations for millennia. Ancient pottery production continues to influence modern potters and it can inform how modern society uses material goods to express identity.

Map of archaeology sites in Alberta where pre-contact pottery sherds have been discovered.

Map of archaeology sites in Alberta where pre-contact pottery sherds have been discovered.

Ceramic artifacts are mostly recovered from archaeological sites in southern Alberta where the tradition was introduced to nomadic hunting communities through interaction with people from villages along the Missouri River and Great Lakes to the southeast. Indigenous pottery production quickly ended in Alberta with the introduction of European metal trade goods and there are almost no firsthand accounts of how pots were made. Therefore, we must rely on archaeological research to reconstruct manufacturing practices. A suite of advanced research techniques are being applied in Alberta to help to extract the complex life histories of pots, including their manufacture, decorations, use, and discard.

Manufacture

It all starts with finding the right clay. Rich sources are found in old glacial lake deposits buried deep under the soil, but eroding river valley walls provide easily accessible outcrops. Clays were prepared by removing large inclusions like pebbles and wood. Tiny fragments of crushed stone, often granite, were added to the clay (called ‘temper’) to provide shock resistant properties that prevented the pots from cracking.

Common techniques to make pots in Alberta included: 1) hand molding, 2) using a large stone on the inside of the clay pot and a paddle on the outside (paddle and anvil), or 3) supporting the vessel in a bag or basket mold. These techniques leave unique markings on the vessel that archaeologists can use to help determine methods of manufacture. Most vessels in Alberta have cord impressions on the exterior surface from a cord-wrapped paddle or a woven bag. Decorative elements were sometimes added including finger pinches, tool impressions, and stamping.

A variety of re-constructed pre-contact vessels from Alberta (individual images courtesy of the Royal Alberta Museum). Most pottery appears in archaeological sites as small broken fragments.

A variety of re-constructed pre-contact vessels from Alberta (individual images courtesy of the Royal Alberta Museum). Most pottery appears in archaeological sites as small broken fragments.

Throughout the Canadian Plains, exteriors were sometimes painted with materials like ochre, the faint residues of which can be detected by archaeologists using advanced computer and photography technologies. Some decorative elements and patterns are indicative of specific cultural traditions common to large groups of people, while some vessels combine decorations suggesting multiple forms of influence and individual style. Once a pot was decorated, it was dried in the sun or near the fire (there is no evidence of kilns in pre-contact Alberta); uneven shades of black to light tan on Alberta sherds are indicative of open-pit firings. Much like modern potters, manufacturing methods were likely passed down with variations to apprentices (children or new members in the community).

Special software programs enhance ochre pigments and can illustrate patterns barely discernible to the naked eye (images courtesy of Andrew Lints).

Special software programs enhance ochre pigments and can illustrate patterns barely discernible to the naked eye (images courtesy of Andrew Lints).

Use

The majority of pre-contact pottery in Alberta was used for cooking, based on charred residues on the insides of vessels. Analyses of these residues have revealed phytoliths (silica bodies produced by specific plant species), seeds, and lipids associated with particular groups of animals and plants. Blood residue analysis has also shown that rabbit and bison were cooked in Alberta vessels. Identifying what was cooked in pots helps provide a more detailed picture of diet and subsistence patterns of Indigenous populations before European contact. Andrew Lints is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta who studies pottery manufacture and he uses residues as a window to the plant components of past diets. His research on pre-contact pottery is revealing the movement of ideas and domesticated plants across the Canadian Plains. Results help answer broader questions about nutrition, ceremonial dishes, and traditional recipes.

Microscopic analyses of pottery residues can reveal fragments of foods. The image at left is a phytolith of maize or corn while the image at right is of a variety of grasses and shrubs (images courtesy of Andrew Lints).

Microscopic analyses of pottery residues can reveal fragments of foods. The image at left is a phytolith of maize or corn while the image at right is of a variety of grasses and shrubs (images courtesy of Andrew Lints).

Value

Archaeological records of pottery provide unique opportunities to explore combinations of individual choices and larger community traditions regarding manufacture and diet. Archaeologists have learned that pots anchored ceremonial events and daily food consumption practices: their workable surfaces advertised a library of information to contemporary witnesses including skill, status, and identity. It is valuable to turn this insight towards our modern use of material goods. What do we purchase or make that performs a basic function while advertising messages to the world? From clothes to home décor, modern cultures still rely on a combination of style and function to let other people know what we do and who we are.

Heritage Art Series

The Heritage Art Series is a collaboration of the Historic Resources Management Branch, the University of Alberta, and the Royal Alberta Museum. Each artwork shares an important story about the people of our province: we hope it fosters a greater awareness of our past and instils a deeper respect for it. The plate below was made by Brenda Danbrook and depicts the techniques and manufacturers of ancient pottery on a modern vessel. Clay and pottery are among the very few materials in Alberta that were used thousands of years ago and continue to be used in modern times. The reason is likely because they are such malleable materials that can be adapted by a variety of users for a variety of tasks. Looking into the past to understand behaviours can shed light on our current use of material goods.

Ceramic vessel by Brenda Danbrook.

Original artworks and interpretive stories of the Heritage Art Series will be featured in a temporary exhibit at the University of Alberta’s Enterprise Square Gallery in October and November. You can learn more about the Heritage Art Series here.

Written By: Sheila Macdonald (Regulatory Approvals and Information Coordinator, Historic Resources Management Branch) and Todd Kristensen (Regional Archaeologist, Historic Resources Management Branch).

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