Articles

MINIATURE POTTERY

 

The people called American Indians have been converting clay into usable pottery vessels for more than four thousand years.  They mixed the soil with water for a plastic medium and made long snake-like ribbons which were wound around and on top of one another until the desired container size was achieved.  The pots would have then been kneaded until all the individual coiled strips were blended into continuous vessel sides.  Most of this pottery was made as utilitarian bowls, jars and bottles for usage by the natives in food preparation and for eating and drinking.  They were usually in normal sizes – which means the expanse a container should have been so as to accommodate a meal sized portion of food or drink.  But there have been some earthenware receptacles found that are much too small to have been used as standard plates and bowls.  These ceramic fabrications are known, today, as miniature pottery.

As the prehistoric eons moved past the Archaic Period and into the Woodland and Historic time phases, the natives throughout the eastern half of North America made hundreds of thousands of ceramic vessels.  After the European adventurers began exploring North America, starting around the middle of the sixteenth century AD, they saw and provided ethno-historic information about the daily life of the Indians.  These compositions included the details about the male Indian children being given diminutive spears and bows and arrows, by their fathers, so as to become proficient at hunting and protection of their towns.  The native women, as stated in these reports, were makers of baskets and pottery along with preparers of animal hides, plant foragers and family cooks.  The female youngsters were taught all these supposed womanly trades and skills, especially the expertise as ceramics artisans.  But there are no mentions of the sizes of the vessels made by the adolescent girls.

From the extreme Atlantic coastline to the Gulf of Mexico and north into the Great Lakes region and westward past the Mississippi River, the natives definitely made the undersized ceramic products since they have been discovered in all these regions. The vast majority, it seems, were made during the interval that is now called the Mississippian Period which was AD 1000-1700.   What we would consider normal sizes of pottery vessels were made in widths from four to more than six inches and heights of three to eight inches.  Jars seem to be the most often created types and are usually of simple globular construction with large mouth orifices.  Many plain bowls and bottles, though, have also been discovered and in the same basic measurements except that bottles are usually taller.   There have also been located a considerable number of effigy pots in many motifs including frogs, conch shells, corn gods, fish and even human heads - all in the same approximate dimensions as the normal size jars.  And then there are the miniature ceramic vessels. These rare petite receptacles seem to have beginning measurements of about one inch tall and wide up to one and a half inches in height by about two in diameter.  Aside from the dwarf sizes, these small-scale ceramics are identical to their larger cousins including the tempering mediums used, which included crushed shell and quartz, fine sand and grog. The exact finish of these elfin containers includes non-polished interiors and exteriors such as Neeley’s Ferry greyware and net and fabric impressed ceramics as well as highly burnished outside surfaces as are found on Bell Plain pottery.  All these surface appearances are the same as are found on full size vessels.  These usually grey colored facades, on the miniatures, also include various engraved and incised motifs such as Walls Engraved, Fortune Noded and Ranch Incised as well as occasional colors in red and white and black clay slips. The small pots also incorporate the same stylized and realistic modeling of creatures from the animal world as are found on the larger vessels.

But, all this begs for an answer to the question of just why these scaled-down vessels were made?  Perhaps they could have been used in training for juveniles but it would seem to be more realistic for the pupils to have learned to make full sized pots.  Or maybe they were made by adult mothers as toys for their daughters since an assumption can be logically made that these parents loved their children then, just as we love ours today, and wanted to lavish them with child sized objects.  Or perhaps these dwarf crockery items had uses in some never-to-be-known ancient religious ceremonies. Or could it be that at the end of pottery making sessions, the ceramists often had a small amount of usable clay remaining and, not wanting to waste the material, made tiny vessels.  These are all reasonable suppositions but with no definite answers.  The only conclusive responses we have today are that some of the ancient American Indians did make, for some obscure reasons and by using our good earth, these very rare and beautiful vessels known simply as miniature pottery.

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