Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Little Bowl in the Fort

Native American pottery fragment from the third Fort de Chartres.

Archaeologists spend a lot of time talking about pottery. This humble little fragment from our recent work at Fort de Chartres is an illustration of why that is.

Ninety-nine percent of the ceramics we find at eighteenth century sites in Illinois are European products – mostly French wares before 1750. French merchants and colonists brought these here. The Native American residents of Illinois had ceased to make pottery by this time, and were using brass kettles and the occasional piece of French faience. The dominant indigenous group during the occupation of Fort de Chartres was the Illinois nation. By the time the third fort was constructed in 1732, the Illinois had been without a native pottery tradition for about 50 years. The last evidence for their manufacture of pottery (called “Danner Series) was in pre-1680 contexts in the upper Illinois River valley.
Danner Series sherd from the 17th century Zimmerman site, in the upper Illinois River Valley.
By the 1680s or 1690s, the Illinois were no longer making clay pots. The reason for this is complex. The old chestnut has been that they traded in their ancient practice of pottery making for shiny new brass kettles, which were more durable. However, a closer look at the seventeenth century villages of the Illinois reveals that for one or two generations, brass kettles and old-style clay pots were used at the same time. The former did not immediately replace the latter. Instead, the end of pottery-making seems to have followed population decline and social disruption. In other words, brass kettles didn’t destroy clay pots; warfare, disease and resettlement did, at least in Illinois. 
European brass kettle.
This brings us back to the tiny sherd found this fall at the fort. It is of native manufacture, but it was not made in Illinois. It was made in the southern Mississippi Valley, probably by the Natchez. There are references in the historical record to “Indian pots full of oil” brought up from the southern part of the valley, where indigenous pottery traditions were still alive and well during the eighteenth century – and where French brass kettles were also in use. 

Eighteenth century Natchez bowl.
This little vessel would not have been big enough to use to ship bear’s oil upriver, however. It was probably a little bowl or small bottle, decorated in a pattern of incised lines. It probably came to Illinois as part of someone’s personal possessions. It was also one of the last pieces of traditional pottery in use in the central Mississippi River valley, where Native American ceramics had been made for over 2000 years prior to the arrival of the French.

Such artifacts can be the tips of enormous historical icebergs….

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