Articles

RANCH INCISED POTTERY

In the closing centuries of the Mississippian Cultural Period, AD 1400-1700 (also known as the Southern Cult, the Buzzard Cult, the Temple Mound Period and the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex), the natives who lived near the big river that bears their societal name, developed a goodly number of new artistic designs that were used on their ceramics.  These styles included animal and human effigy pottery, engraved and incised vessels and multi-colored paints or slips. One of the more intriguing models is enigmatic but also beautiful in its simplicity and creativity.  It is called Ranch Incised pottery.

Many of these pottery creations, made and used by the prehistoric to proto-historic Indians, have been given names that relate to ancient village/mound sites that were inhabited by these aboriginals along the various river flood plains in Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.   The Ranch Incised ceramic pattern seems to have been named for examples found at the Barton Ranch Site adjacent to the Tyronza River in Crittenden County, Arkansas which is across the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee. The names applied to most of the pottery types found in and around the Mississippi River alluvial valley are not of the ancient Indian dialects since little is known of the vocabularies they used.  Instead these ceramics titles reflect current geographical locations in our modern English language.  One of the recent conjectures is that many of these motifs were derived from the earlier Indians of the Caddo Culture who lived in modern-day northeast Texas, southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas.  If that is correct, it means that much of the pottery incising/engraving trends had a west to east movement.  That is the opposite of many of the opinions about stylistic transference during the prehistoric period – those beliefs being artistic conveyance of east to west.   Ranch Incised pottery was made and used mostly in the St. Francis River Valley in Arkansas and in the Memphis vicinity across the big river.  A few examples of the motif, though, have been found as far south as Louisiana, as far east as Mississippi and as far north as Missouri. The cultural group to which this pottery has been assigned is called the Parkin Phase and is named for the Parkin Site which is alongside the St. Francis River in Crittenden County.  This site is also thought to be the town called Casqui by the De Soto chroniclers and named for the Indian king of that region.  A number of native village sites, in the domain of Casqui, were situated along the St. Francis and Tyronza Rivers. They include Neeley’s Ferry, Rose Mound, Big Eddy, Hazel, Fortune and, of course, Barton Ranch and were strung along the riverine systems, every few miles, like beads on a necklace.  In actuality though, there have probably been more Ranch Incised vessels found on the Tennessee side of the Big Muddy than in Arkansas even though the pottery name came from an Arkansas site.  Today it is accepted that the age of this ceramic motif is from about AD 1500 to AD 1700.  It is also believed that the general population of natives, who lived near the Mississippi River during this time period, was greatly reduced by European diseases brought on by the incursion of the army of the Spaniard Hernando De Soto in AD 1541/1543. This is reflected in the reasonable scarcity of active village sites of these Indian agriculturists after that time period and also the paucity of Ranch Incised pottery in comparison to other earlier earthenware themes. That being said, it is also presumed, today, that each of these towns was occupied for a considerable time (20 to 30 years) until the adjoining crop fields were overly used and completely worn out for agronomy purposes. At that time the aboriginals moved to new and unused village and farming sites. These relocation cycles to find arable land were probably repeated throughout east Arkansas and west Tennessee during much of the several hundred years of the Mississippian cultural period.  It is also currently believed that there was an artistic continuity in the region in regards to ceramics manufacture by the local municipalities. This means that native towns, often many miles apart, regularly associated with one another as to shapes and styles of pottery being produced.  

The scoring of the Ranch Incised ceramic motif is an imbricated ornamentation which simply means it looks like the pattern of the scales on many freshwater fish.  Indeed the theme is parallel and overlapping curvilinear lines incised very closely together that resembles the scales of these water living vertebrates.  The fish scale incising which was possibly done with a stone knife or burin onto the unfired or green clay vessels, covers the entire bodies of many of these shell tempered pottery vessels.  The actual ceramics finish is called Neeley’s Ferry greyware or as some collectors call it, “Mississippi plain”, and is believed to have been primarily used for utilitarian or culinary purposes.  This is a reasonably rough and coarse textured pottery with the tempering material being large particles of crushed mussel shell. The irregular finish and sizable bits of shell have often led to pockmarked surfaces caused by the shell leaching from the container walls after several hundred years of weathering in the soil.  The method of manufacture was the coiling and connecting of long strips of the damp and pliable clay into a desired shape and size.  The exterior and interior coiled seams were then smoothed and blended into one continuous surface before the pot was hardened.   On some of the pots made of Neeley’s Ferry Ranch Incised greyware, the spaces between these clay spirals were not uniformly flattened and gaps between the non-compacted coils are clearly evident on the outside of the urns.  The external vessel façade was normally abraded and flattened but not polished and the shell fragments can easily be seen on the surface.   The interior was usually well burnished for less porosity so food liquids, while being cooked, would not seep through the canister walls.  These earthenware crockery items were normally open pit fired in hot coals that gave the exterior a medium to dark grey color but if a given piece was over-heated, the color changed to tan or buff on the outside with a grey core. The Ranch Incised pottery grouping mostly fits the above descriptions but there exists a similar motif which is made of well-polished ceramics.  This classification has been given the name Hull Engraved pottery and was always made with the vessel finish that is known as Bell Plain greyware.  It was made in the some of the locales and in the same time periods as the Ranch Incised but is less plentiful.

Based on archaeological investigations, many, if not indeed most, of the Ranch Incised vessels are in the jar form meaning that the vessels are taller than wide and have large mouth openings with turned out or everted rims.  Many of them also have the so called “arcaded handles” encircling the outside of the jars just below the lip.  This term simply means arches and when one of these jars is viewed from the side, these arched curvatures are clearly evident.  The Ranch Incised jars are usually in the globular or spherical form with very short necks.  The few existing water bottles of this pottery style are normally flattened globular in shape and usually have taller and narrower necks than are found on the jar forms.  The rare bowls made with this incised decoration are ordinarily shallow with short flaring sides. It is believed to be a distinctly geographical style based primarily on population centers in the Mississippi River Valley of the modern state regions of northeast Arkansas and southwest Tennessee.  The ceramists who made vessels in this style certainly made pottery with other incised and engraved motifs since the Ranch Incised decoration is seen in conjunction with other patterns in hybrid configurations.  These composites include vessels whose necks are engraved with diagonal lines such as Barton Incised or with punctuations as in Parkin Punctate along with the vessel body having the Ranch Incised imbrications. 

One of the main questions for modern American Indian pottery enthusiasts is whether the natives, a few hundred years ago, actually developed this fish scale motif from Mississippi, St. Francis and Tyronza River aquatic animals.  There is no definite answer to this query but the current thinking is that the scales on the bodies of these piscine critters possibly did inspire the ancient ceramists.  But just where and how the style originated is of less importance than its actual being since we can now enjoy the rare imbricated beauty of Ranch Incised pottery.

 

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