Articles

ALABAMA RIVER PHASE POTTERY


The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex arose in Arkansas/Missouri along the Mississippi River and extended East as far as Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas.  This religious and ceremonial manifestation, commonly known as the Mississippian Culture, was initially begun around AD 1000 and continued in existence until the mass arrival of European explorers just before AD 1700.  The natives living through this ritualistic existence made many forms of commemorative art that were used in their celebrations and worships including elegant pottery vessels, engraved marine shell ornaments and zoomorphic effigies of smoking pipes.  The styles of these ceremonial items changed many times and in many ways during the seven hundred or so years of this Temple Mound societal existence.  During the declining years of the civilization, a unique phenomenon came into being in a part of the Southeast that would later be named Alabama.  That event was the development of large earthenware vessels as interment containers for infants and small children (and occasionally dis-articulated bones of adults).  This was named, in the early twentieth century, as the Burial Urn Culture of Alabama.  The designation of this circa AD 1500-1700 period ceramic vessel event has been changed and is now known as the age of the Alabama River Phase Pottery.

 

The ceramic vessels used by the natives for these funerary  urns did vary in shapes from deep conical based pots to wide and shallow globular receptacles with incurvate rims and angular shoulders – also known as casuela bowls.  These entombment containers were most probably everyday cooking cauldrons but the covers could have been especially made to fit the base bowls.  Generally, there are two sub-orders categorized by the tempering mediums.  The Alabama River aspect is crushed shell tempered ceramics while the Wilcox phase was a blend of the river clay with the strengthening agent sand or grit.  Aside from the changes in the tempering vehicle, the two pottery types are essentially identical.  Both the urns and covers are usually incised with Southern Cult motifs (hands, bones, snakes, etc.), the styles of which seems to be directly descended from the more ancient Moundville ornamentations, though not as complex.

 

In November 1975, the owner of a farm adjacent to the Tallapoosa River in Macon County, Alabama decided to excavate a river flood water diversion channel near a temple mound on an alluvial plain that once had been the home of a group of Creek Indians.  Since amateur archaeologists had walked the site for some time looking for artifacts left over from the ancient residents, the land owner contacted some of them about his bulldozing plans.  These men did some quick salvage excavations in an attempt to save any artifacts that could be found.  The particular urn and cover shown in the photos with this article were both preserved during that operation and were saved from being crushed by the tracks and blade of a large earth moving machine.  The casuela urn is 14 1/8 inches across by 5 ½ inches deep and is gray fire cloud marked and grit tempered Wilcox pottery.  It was recovered intact though it has several restored ground pressure cracks. No human remains were found within it.  The cover is 14 ¼ inches in diameter and is 6 ½ inches high and is shell tempered Alabama River Moundville Black Film pottery.  It was broken into several pieces by the first pass of the heavy soil distributing tractor and has been professionally restored.

 

The urn is incised on the lower shoulder area with three scrolled lines encircling the vessel and has fingernail punctuates on the rim.  Some collectors and scholars believe these meandering scrolls are stylized snakes originating with the religious/ceremonial beliefs of the Amerinds living in the area a few hundred or so years before these vessels were made.  The cover or lid is incised on the exterior shoulder with alternating hand and scroll motifs reminiscent of the more ancient Moundville residents of AD 1000-1450.

 

The decorations on these vessels are typical of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs but they are less elaborate than what was executed a few centuries before during the height of the culture.  But that does not take away from the supreme beauty of both containers in overall style and ornamentations. It is a definite tragedy that the site was partially destroyed but it is very fortunate that the salvage operation was carried out and these marvelous vessels were saved.  This beautiful urn and cover now can provide insight into this most magnificent culture highlighted by the Alabama River Phase Pottery.

 

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DeJarnette, David C.                                             1952

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Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman      1957

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Krebs, Phillip W.                                                     1986

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Maus, James E.                                                       2001

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Moore, Clarence E.                                                1904

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Steponaitis, Vincas P.                                            1983

    “Ceramics, Chronology and Community Patterns: An Archaeological Study of

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Walthall, John A.                                                    1980

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