University of Minnesota
Department of Anthropology


Who Made Them and How Old are They

Archaeologists generally agree that the oldest fired clay containers anywhere in the world were made by Jōmon fisher-gatherer-hunter folks in Japan between 10,700 and 8,000 B.C. (Rice 1999). Clay containers are present in the western hemisphere in eastern tropical South America by 5500 – 4300 B.C. and seem to spread outward from there in a slanting temporal sequence, appearing in Central America by 4000 B.C., southeastern North America by 2500 B.C., and the Midwestern United States by 700 B.C. Midwestern archaeologists assume that the earliest jars in their region are part of this outward movement, because they are similar in shape and surface treatment to earlier jars to the south and east (Emerson 1986). Clay vessels also entered northern North America from northeast Asia by 1000 B.C. (Linton 1944; Fagan 1991:161).

Although archaeologists agree that the earliest fired clay containers were invented by and spread among non-sedentary hunter-gatherers (as compared to sedentary city dwellers), they disagree over why clay vessels first appeared and spread where and when they did. According to culinary hypotheses, pottery containers enabled a range of new foods to be processed and old foods processed in new ways, and thus were an innovation within the subsistence system (Rice 1999:6-10; Brown 1989). Since the origin and spread of pottery in these hypotheses is kitchen-based, it is assumed that women invented and controlled pottery technology.

In recent years, culinary hypotheses and their associated functional/adaptationist rationale have encountered growing skepticism. The most discussed models today for the origin and need for pottery containers stress human responses to increasing sedentarization. According to one influential resource intensification model, clay vessel use emerged and spread at the end of the late Ice Age as a result of socioeconomic competition among "aggrandizing individuals" in complex hunter-gatherer societies in resource-rich environments (Morrison 1994; Hayden 1995). In their competition for power, prestige, and status, these individuals staged competitive feasts in which rare and highly desirable foods were served in pottery containers. According to another such model, the production of pottery among less complex hunter-gatherers was likely "a manifestation of technological intensification in the area of calorie and nutrient extraction," rather than "a minor addition to subsistence technology" (Goodyear 1988:321).

According to social/symbolic elaboration models, the emergence and spread of pottery was part of the emergence of prestige technologies that included "the production and use/display of identity- or ritual-specific objects made of clay and/or the emergence of specialists such as shaman-potters" (Rice 1999:13). An implication of both resource intensification and social/symbolic elaboration models is that men made at least some prehistoric clay containers for religious or ritual purposes.

This background information raises many questions about Minnesota's prehistoric pottery. Among these are: When did pottery first appear in the various regions of the state? What was its out-state geographical source of inspiration? How and why did pottery come to be present in the state’s early material assemblages? What were the specific local needs and circumstances that led to its adoption in different regions of the state? Why did pots appear earlier in some rather than other regions of the state (for example, did pots first appear in particular environmental settings in the state, such as in deciduous forests with nut-bearing trees)? In Minnesota, did pottery function primarily as a practical culinary container, as an item related to ritual, status, or social identity, or some combination of these uses at times (that is, was pottery adopted in Minnesota primarily as a "practical" technology or as a "prestige" technology)?

Other questions archaeologists think about are: If pottery was primarily a culinary adaptation, how did it change local diets (that is, what new foods could be processed or old foods processed in new ways)? How did the role of pottery change in Minnesota through time? Why did ceramic vessels in the state become more rounded and thin-walled through time? Did the use of pottery differ between peoples living in the southwestern prairies as compared to the northern forests, and if so, how? Were different kinds of pots made for cooking, storage, serving, and ritual? Why were Minnesota’s fired clay containers decorated? Does the presence of decoration on most pots signal the presence of socioeconomic or prestige uses in identity (of a family lineage or clan, for example), display, status, and/or feasting? Why were containers made of pottery so abruptly abandoned in Minnesota in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries?

Although these are intensely interesting research questions for archaeologists, we concentrate in this guide on practical, cultural-historical questions like: What does prehistoric pottery in Minnesota look like? How have archaeologists divided this pottery into wares and types? How old are the wares and types, and where are they present in the state? How do I go about identifying the wares and types of pottery in my own collection? and How do I go about reporting this information to the Wilford Laboratory of Archaeology at the University of Minnesota or to the office of the State Archaeologist?

Archaeologists divide Minnesota's pottery-using archaeological cultures into three groupings: Initial Woodland (500/200 B.C. – A.D. 700), Terminal Woodland (A.D. 700 – 1750), and Mississippian (A.D. 950—1750). We use these groupings to briefly outline the sequence through time of pottery wares in southeastern, southwestern, central, and northern Minnesota. A review of the archaeological context of these wares is provided in Archaeology of Minnesota: The First Thirteen Thousand Years (Gibbon and Anfinson 2008).

For the most part, Minnesota's prehistoric ceramics are relatively simple jars and an occasional bowl that vary in size depending on use. This lack of diversity in ceramic items contrasts markedly with ceramic assemblages to the south of Minnesota, particularly after A.D. 1000, in which there were beakers, bowls, funnels, and other shaped ceramics, besides jars. Thus when we use the term pottery in this guide we are referring to jars. For the form of these jars and the terms we use to refer to their parts, see Pottery Jar Terminology and Measurements. For definitions of the pottery terms we use in this outline (e.g., temper, shoulder, cordwrapped-stick impressed), see the Glossary of Technical Terms in the Appendix.

Initial Woodland Ceramics

Southeastern Minnesota

The earliest pottery vessels in southeastern Minnesota are called La Moille Thick (500 B.C. to A.D. 100). La Moille Thick, as its name implies, is a thick-walled (often thicker than 1 cm) jar with a conoidal, flowerpot shape, flat bottom, and wide circular orifice. The clay of these vessels is heavily tempered with pieces of crushed rock larger than .5 cm, and both the exterior surface and upper part of the interior surface of the vessels are usually covered with cord impressions. Black Sand ceramics, which are somewhat more recent in time and have a sandy rather than grit-tempered paste, are decorated with trailed lines (Black Sand Incised) or, less commonly, with finger or fingernail impressions (Sisters Creek Punctated) over a cordmarked exterior surface. Both of these ceramic wares have earlier counterparts south of Minnesota and were used, it is thought, in the sustained simmering of the tough seeds of early cultivated plants, such as sumpweed, little barley, and goosefoot.

La Moille Thick and Black Sand pottery is succeeded by (or overlapped in part) Howard Lake and Sorg Havana-Hopewell pottery (A.D. 100 to A.D. 200) that also has its inspiration south of Minnesota. Vessels in both wares are thick-walled (6-12 mm) jars with straight rims, slightly constricted necks, somewhat rounded shoulders, sub-conoidal bottoms, and exterior rim surfaces decorated mainly with dentate stamps, ovoid stamps, trailed lines, and bosses. Since Howard Lake and Sorg pottery vessels are similar to decorated varieties of pottery in Havana-Hopewell complexes to the south and southeast in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, the pottery is thought to belong to an archaeological culture that was a northward extension of Havana-Hopewell and the "Interaction Sphere" of which it was a part. The "Hopewell Interaction Sphere" is identified with a focus on mortuary ceremonialism (large, elaborate burial mounds) and the widespread acquisition of exotic materials like obsidian from Wyoming and copper from the Upper Great Lakes.

The Havana-Hopewell phenomenon represents a cultural climax within the Initial Woodland period. In the Upper Mississippi River valley, Howard Lake and Sorg are followed by new, derivative ceramic wares, such as Linn ware (A.D. 200 to A.D. 500), that retain design treatments and motifs of the earlier ware, but that gradually become thinner-walled and less decorated than the earlier wares. It is thought that the trend toward thinner vessel walls and the sealing of the exterior surface by smoothing over the cordmarking caused by the manufacture process were intended to make the jars more functionally effective cooking vessels.

Southwestern Minnesota

The earliest pottery in southwestern Minnesota is Fox Lake ware (200 B.C. to A.D. 700). Vessels of the ware are small to medium-sized jars with thick walls, sand temper, a conoidal shape, and a smooth or cordmarked exterior surface. Trailed lines on the exterior surface of the rim, neck, or shoulder dominate decoration. The inspiration for Fox Lake jars is thought to be Black Sand ceramics in western Illinois, which also have trailing over cordmarked exterior surfaces. Like Initial Woodland ceramics in southeastern Minnesota, Fox Lake vessels gradually become thinner and smoothing of the cordmarked exterior surface appears late in the period. Fox Lake appears to have been a relatively stable ceramic tradition that lasted perhaps a thousand years.

Central Minnesota

The earliest ceramic ware in central Minnesota, and perhaps in all of Minnesota, is Brainerd ware (1000 B. C. to A.D. 400). Vessels of the ware are easily recognizable in Minnesota by their net-impressed and horizontally cordmarked exterior surfaces. Like other central and northern Initial Woodland wares (Malmo, Laurel), vessels of the ware have open orifices, vertical rims, and conoidal or sub-conoidal bases. Lips tend to be flat and the vessels tempered with sand or grit. Brainerd ware is concentrated in the Mississippi River headwaters area, but vessels of the ware are present in smaller numbers in sites throughout central and northern Minnesota. Some archaeologists believe that the pottery was an adaptation that facilitated the boiling of starchy seeds. The very early dates for some Brainerd ware vessels remain controversial, since ceramic jars to not appear in other areas of the Midwest until about 700 B.C. and the time range for the jars would mean that the ware persisted without apparent stylistic change for 1,400 years.

Another Initial Woodland pottery ware, Malmo, is concentrated in the Mille Lacs lake area between 200 B.C. and A.D. 500. Malmo pottery jars are thick-walled, conoidal-bottomed vessels with smooth surfaces, coarsely crushed granite temper, and straight rims decorated with cordwrapped-stick and dentate stamp impressions. Malmo ceramics are thought to be distantly related to Howard Lake-Sorg ceramics to the south and Laurel ceramics to the north. Malmo pottery is found in sites west of Mille Lacs Lake into the lares area in Ottertail County. Food residues of both wild rice and maize (corn) have been found on the interior surface of Malmo vessels.

Northern Minnesota

Although Brainerd ware could be the earliest pottery in northern Minnesota, the dominant Initial Woodland ware is Laurel (50 B.C. to A.D. 1000). Laurel ceramics are characterized by the presence of relatively thick, grit-tempered jars with conoidal bases, straight rims, slight or no neck constriction, smooth surfaces, and stamped-tool decoration on the exterior rim, neck, and occasionally upper shoulder. Techniques of decoration include dentate stamping, trailing, push-pull bands, pseudo-scallop shell stamps, bossed, and punctates.

Terminal Woodland Ceramics

Southeastern Minnesota

Contributors to this section: Guy Gibbon

Date of last contribution: December 2008