Making Eastern Woodland Pots

For at least a year, our seven-year-old student Kunsang has been asking to make clay pots. I'm not sure where he got this idea, but we finally pulled the whole project together, and the results are quite spectacular.

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First we watched some short videos on traditional Eastern Woodland pottery that explained how Native Americans in this area collected and processed their clay for functional pottery and the logic behind the shape they preferred (pointed or rounded bottom with a fluted rim). Unlike in other areas of the country where pottery developed into a sophisticated art form, like Pueblo pottery from the southwest, ceramic vessels in the northeast were completely utilitarian. Because of the relatively poor quality of the clay, there are few surviving intact examples, and much of what archaeologists have learned is from shards.

To begin our own coil pots we headed up to Sheffield, MA to Sheffield Pottery to buy clay that had already been processed. (This week the kids are digging up clay from our school site to make more pots later this winter with Drew). We opted for raku clay because it is suitable for the uncontrolled conditions of pit firing rather than kiln firing.

We ventured into the woods with our clay, dug some shallow pits in which to form our pots, and began making bases with a smoothed ball pressed into a pancake. Building layer upon layer of coils atop the base, our pots began to take shape. Since it was the students' first exposure to coil pots, we kept them small and manageable. I then encouraged our students to add texture and decoration with different natural materials - one rolled a pinecone over his pot, another smoothed his with a stone then marked it with a feather, while a third pressed blades of grass into his.

Digging a shallow pit   

Digging a shallow pit

 

Rolling balls of clay for the base

Rolling balls of clay for the base

We laid down cotton t-shirts to keep the dirt out of our clay. Native Americans probably would have formed their pots on wood planks or hides.

We laid down cotton t-shirts to keep the dirt out of our clay. Native Americans probably would have formed their pots on wood planks or hides.

Smoothing out the coils

Smoothing out the coils

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Several weeks later, when the pots were completely dry, we then set about the business of firing them. First we dug a pit approx. 18" deep, cut firewood, and collected dried leaves, twigs, straw, newspaper, and chicken poop from our coop. The pots were buried in a mix of all these materials with the hope that our fire would smolder and burn unattended for hours. After a bit of a slow start, to our delight the fire burned well into the night. The pots were still too hot to touch in the morning, but the following afternoon we dug them out, washed them up, and they now sit cozily on our windowsill.

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