For most of the pots I’ve made during these quarantimes, I’ve used clays more or less as they were. This time, I wanted to try adding a temper. Temper is something mixed into clay to improve how it works, either as the pot is built or for its intended use. Sand is one of the most common tempers, but it’s naturally present in most clays in Florida already. During the Mississippian Period, potters in the Florida Panhandle and west along the Gulf Coast began burning and crushing mussel and clam shells to create a pottery temper. The shell looks like little plates in cross-section. Or sometimes, if the pottery has been buried in an acidic environment, all the shell has dissolved, leaving voids in the characteristic shape.

Thin section of sherd platy voids from dissolved shell temper (width of image 4mm; PPL, 4x)
Thin section of sherd platy voids from dissolved shell temper (width of image 4mm; PPL, 4x)
Cross section of sherd showing shell temper
Cross section of sherd showing shell temper

Pensacola Incised, ca. 1000 years ago

7 sherds with straight and curvilinear incisions
Pensacola Incised, rims (Alabama)

I started my Pensacola Incised pot with clay that was sent to us from Mobile, Alabama. It arrived in big dry chunks. I rehydrated it with water and let it sit for a a few days. Once it had firmed up into a mass, I tried working with it. It felt silty and dried out very quickly in my hands. This meant that it had a significant amount of non-clay particles in it, and I would have to be careful about cracking.

dry clay nodules in bowl
Dry clay nodules
bowl of clay sitting in water
Clay rehydrating
bowl of globby clay
Clay ready to work

I added water regularly to keep it pliable, and mixed in a handful of burned crushed shell. As I worked to blend the shell in, I could feel the sharp pieces pricking my hands. They stung for several hours afterwards.

clay with pile of gray crushed shell on top
Adding crushed shell temper
ball of clay
Clay with shell temper mixed into it

Many of the Pensacola Incised vessels are bowls, so I began to make one using the coil method. For inspiration, I looked at some of the pictures illustrated in the writings of C. B. Moore and Gordon Willey. I realized about halfway through that I hadn’t gotten the shape right, and should have made it a wider, more open bowl, but by that time I didn’t want to start over. I ended up with more of a jar.


bowl in hand
Bowl form out of shell-tempered clay
Incised pottery bowl b/w photo
Image from C.B. Moore’s “Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Northwest Florida Coast”
Illustrations of pottery bowls
Figure 60 from “Archeology of the Florida Gulf Coast,” showing same vessel photographed in Moore 1901.

After a night firming up, I did a little more paddling to refine the shape, and then incised the decoration with my shark’s tooth. I copied an animal design from one of the vessels depicted by C. B. Moore and Gordon Willey. The notches on the rim were the finishing touch. It’s been a few days since I made this one, and I’ve noticed the start of a crack on the base. It is likely due to uneven drying, with the breezy days we’ve been having here in Gainesville. If I’m lucky, the crack won’t go all the way through.

bowl with line decoration
Completed Pensacola Incised (inspired) bowl
Interior of bowl with small crack
Interior showing hairline crack