A new book by a Florida Museum researcher challenges traditional theories about the exchange of prehistoric pottery and its value among ancient peoples in north Florida and southern Georgia.
“The Swift Creek Gift: Vessel Exchange on the Atlantic Coast” by Neill Wallis, an assistant curator of archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, provides evidence early peoples found symbolism in seemingly insignificant items such as cooking pots.
“I discovered cooking vessels, considered normal, everyday items people use, break often and throw away in their kitchen garbage, were exchanged in ceremonial and in mortuary contexts,” Wallis said. “That’s really unexpected because archaeologists rarely think of ceramic cooking vessels as exchange items.”
Typically, archaeologists look for rare items that may have brought prestige or power, such as trinkets made of copper or mica. Cooking vessels have not been singled out as exchange items in the past because they are heavy, cumbersome, break easily and are comprised of everyday materials such as clay.
Wallis analyzed samples in village remains and burial mounds from 30 sites throughout north Florida and south Georgia, including Swift Creek Complicated Stamped pottery, which many archaeologists consider the pinnacle of prehistoric pottery in eastern North America, said Thomas Pluckhahn, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida.
“People have realized that this pottery has huge potential for understanding the people who made it because the designs are so unusual and so particular,” Pluckhahn said. “It’s a level of detail that you can get down to maybe not the individual potter, but close to it, which we don’t often get in archaeology.”
Swift Creek Complicated Stamped pottery was created by carving a design of lines and curves onto a wooden paddle used to stamp the ceramic vessel before it was fired. The patterns are associated with different peoples from the Altamaha River in Georgia and the St. Johns River in Florida.
Swift Creek culture spanned parts of northern Florida, Georgia and eastern Alabama about 1,500 years ago, from A.D. 100 to 800. Wallis compared form and function data on the samples he collected, including soot, abrasions and shape of the reconstructed pots, all of which offer clues about how a vessel may have been used. He also analyzed the chemistry and mineralogy of the samples to identify non-local specimens at each site.
Surprisingly, all the non-local vessels were found in burial mounds rather than middens, or trash mounds. Wallis suggests this represents exchange rather than the movement of people. The vessels would have been used as social and political capital, objects important for creating alliances. These exchanges are most pronounced when someone dies, triggering repayment of debt obligations, he said.
“It’s particularly unusual because it comes out of a domestic production context,” Wallis said. “Probably women at the household level were making these vessels and using them every day – but some of them also were exchanged. It’s like someone giving you the pot they use to boil their pasta, but they’ve used it for 10 years.”
The samples are from the Woodland period, from 1,000 B.C. to A.D. 1,000, a time of considerable cultural development. The period is well known for the increased popularity of burial mound ceremonialism, Wallis said. It saw the rise of long-distance exchange networks, the spread and diversification of ceramic vessels across the eastern United States and the emergence of new pottery-making traditions.
“In general, we do find that pottery was buried with people, but in this particular location, most of these vessels were broken and spread across the top of the mound, which suggests they are group or communal offerings, not necessarily specific to one person,” Wallis said. “It all came together, I think, to tell a story.”
Wallis’ research began in 2004 with analysis of a sherd, or piece of a vessel, from the Mayport Mound in Jacksonville. He compared the vessel’s size and thickness to sherds from other Swift Creek culture sites.
In 2007, Wallis received National Science Foundation funding to conduct Neutron Activation Analysis and petrography analysis on the samples to identify their mineral and elemental composition. The analysis was performed at the University of Missouri Research Reactor. Florida Museum of Natural History scientist Ann Cordell also conducted petrographic analyses of the samples.
“I think many archaeologists have realized this [Swift Creek] pottery has this great potential, but nobody had approached this research in such a systematic and comprehensive manner,” Pluckhahn said. “Wallis has done a good job of exploring that potential.”
The University of Alabama Press released “The Swift Creek Gift: Vessel Exchange on the Atlantic Coast” Friday (Jan. 28, 2011). The 264-page book is available in hardcover and paperback editions.