Archaic Clay Cooking Balls
During the Late Archaic Period in the Southeast the nomadic hunter/gatherer natives began the transition into a more sedentary lifestyle. Among the diagnostic artifacts made during that time was the development of ceramic pottery. We know that around 2500 BC (that is four thousand five hundred years ago) the Indians, living in the Coastal Plain of the current states of South Carolina and Georgia, began making fiber-tempered pottery with the original tempering agents being Spanish moss and palmetto leaves. Since this vegetation burned away during the firing of the vessels and left small holes in the pottery surface, the ancients switched to sand as a tempering medium. It is not known if this making of ceramic pottery was an invention of these people or if it was brought in from another region or even another continent, but it is believed that this is the oldest pottery making tradition in Eastern North America. It existed, time wise, alongside the large bifaces that we call Savannah River points, grooved axes and maybe un-grooved celts. During the next thousand years, the making of pottery (including fiber tempered vessels) spread throughout the Southeast as far as the Gulf Coastal region. But did these native Americans actually cook over a fire in this early pottery? That is still being debated but there is no debate about the contemporary artifacts to the making of pottery – the Archaic clay cooking balls.
Prehistoric and historic evidence, throughout much of North America, proves that the native people used very hot stones for indirect cooking of plants and animals. These stones, many in the form of heat cracked rocks, have been found from the East to the West coasts on ancient aboriginal sites. It should have been easy enough for these people to gather some suitable stones, heat them in a fire and use them to cook food by diffusion of the heat from the rocks. But in the Coastal Plain this probably did not happen because there are few naturally occurring rocks in that region. Therefore, if the use of hot stone cooking technology was to be used, the natives had a choice of importing rocks such as soapstone slabs from the Piedmont (which they did) and/or finding a suitable replacement medium for stone (which they also did). That medium was baked clay. Buried marine clay, which can be found in some areas of the Coastal Plain, would have been dug and formed into small, usually fist size or smaller, rounded lumps. These clay balls would have been placed in a low temperature fire until thoroughly baked and heat tempered. Then they could be used for cooking. The cooking techniques could have been dry roasting or wet boiling. One thing is certain though. Based on the number of clay cooking balls recovered on Late Archaic Sites in the region, this cooking technique was absolutely used by these ancient Americans.
We do not exactly which came first – ceramic vessels or baked clay cooking balls. The current theory is that the cooking balls preceded pottery vessels but that has not been definitely determined. We do know that numerous small dug pits have been found on Late Archaic sites in the Coastal Plain from the North Carolina-South Carolina border southward to the Savannah River and slightly beyond and that these pits probably functioned as indirect cooking vessels. Some of the pits are lined with heat hardened clay while others were possibly lined with dressed deer skins. It is also believed that water tight baskets were used in this method of cooking, though no remains have been found.
In the wet cooking technique, the crudely formed clay cooking balls (some of which still show human finger impressions) would have been placed in a fire until they were red hot. They would have then been transferred, probably using sticks as tongs, into the pits or baskets or pots that contained water. Also in the water would have been the animal or plant material to be cooked and as more hot clay balls were added, the water temperature would have increased to the desired level – simmering to boiling. As the clay balls cooled, they would have been removed and re-heated in the fire. With dry roasting, the heated clay balls would have been placed on and around the items to be cooked. It is believed that the heated clay balls would have been placed in early shallow and wide ceramic vessels as well as baskets/pits for the purpose of preparing cooked meals. But it is certainly possible that the earliest pottery could have been only used for serving bowls.
Oddly, there is little evidence of the use of steatite bowls in the Coastal Plain areas before the ceramic vessel era began (as did occur in the Piedmont) even though small steatite cooking slabs have been found in the coastal region. The fact that soapstone does not naturally occur in the Coastal Plain probably had something to do with this. It is also theorized that during this time period there was an extensive trade network in place for the distribution of steatite vessels within the Piedmont region. This trade practice may have not extended as far East as the Coastal Plain possibly because of the long distance. Another theory asserts that soapstone vessels were probably too bulky and heavy to move long distances but the smaller and lighter steatite cooking slabs could have easily been transported to the coastal area for trade purposes. Plausible theories also include the idea that this Piedmont trade system in steatite vessels was vital in keeping the invention of early ceramic pottery from rapidly spreading. Maybe the proliferation of ceramic pottery would have cut into the livelihood of the persons who controlled this web of Late Archaic soapstone bowl commerce. Regardless of the conjectures about ceramic and steatite vessels, the current belief is that the practice of using baked clay balls for cooking flourished for almost a millennium. It seems to have died out by about 1700 BC based on the absence of these artifacts on sites of that time period. This probably means that people had learned to make ceramic pottery vessels that could have been placed directly on fires without damage to the pots and their contents and that baked clay cooking balls technology had become obsolete.
To summarize, it is known that ancient Americans made fiber tempered ceramic pottery vessels in the Southeast Coastal Plain about four and a half millennia ago. These early pots, along with clay cooking balls and steatite slabs, were possibly used for indirect cooking of plants, seafood and animals. It is also known that this new technology of making pottery spread into the Carolina Piedmont and beyond during the next thousand or so years. The use of soapstone bowls by inland people slowly died out as ceramic bowls replaced steatite vessels in the Late Archaic into Woodland societies.
What is not known is exactly why all this happened. But the theories shown above have been developed and can be assumed to be correct until proof of something different comes along. All this supports the probability that Late Archaic people did use indirect cooking methods and with the lack of local stone in the Coastal Plain, they made and used the very unusual and ancient Archaic Clay Cooking Balls.
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