Articles

 SOUTH CAROLINA IRENE BOWLS

 

Several hundred years before the Europeans seized the land that was destined to become the Southeast in the United States, a grouping of the regional native people developed a cultural entity which most likely had a name in their language but today no one knows that dialect or the societal name.  The designation that is used today is the title that was later given to the waterway beside which these people built their supposed original village - Swift Creek.  And after the collapse of the Swift Creek Society, the natives living closer to the Atlantic Coast developed a successor that was given the Germanic name “Irene”.  Sometime in this AD 1350-1550 time period, in the region that would become the great Palmetto State, one or more pottery artisans produced these rare and beautiful South Carolina Irene bowls.

 

The Swift Creek Culture, named for the Swift Creek Mound in modern Bibb County, Georgia, was unique in that it began around AD 100 and was not a sedentary population of natives.  They indeed had village sites and mounds but it is believed that they lived by constantly moving to fish and hunt and to gather naturally growing nuts and berries and roots.  They did produce pottery - beautiful complicated stamped pottery which means that they used a wooden paddle which was carved with a pattern and the paddle was used to slap the damp clay of the exterior of the finished pottery vessel so as to transfer this pattern to the vessel.  Today it is not known just from whence the Swift Creek aboriginals came but we do know that their descendants eventually evolved into the prominent Historic Period Muscogee (Creek) Indian Nation.  The Swift Creek inhabitants lived throughout much of the region that is now Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina until around AD 600 at which time many, especially south and east of the fall line, seemed to have abandoned and burned their villages and moved away for some completely strange and unknown reasons.  But during the 500 or so years that they lived in their Southeast towns, they were a major force in the province.  They were contemporaries with the well-known Hopewell Culture of the mid-west and both civilizations were apparently trading partners with each other.  But the Swift Creek Culture did not really die in AD 600 because it produced many off-springs, none of which were as large or as grandiose as their parent but they lived on for about another thousand years until the diseases and wars of the Europeans finally decimated them.  These Swift Creek successors have been given such territorial names as Pisgah, Mulberry, Little Egypt, Pee Dee, Burke, Town Creek and Irene and they built their towns throughout the southeastern region and became more agrarian and completely village life oriented.  The Irene Culture was named for the Irene Mound Site located at the juncture of the Savannah River and Pipe Maker’s Creek near Savannah, Georgia.  It was excavated by the WPA between 1937 and 1939 and is mostly a coastal manifestation of the late Swift Creek or Lamar Culture.  The Irene Mound, itself, was named by German Moravian missionaries in 1736 for the ship called Irene that had brought them to this country to minister to the Indians.  The Irene heritage dates from around AD 1300 to AD 1550 depending on just where a given Irene village site was located – the furthest north seems to be the latest.  The heart area of this cultural entity is evidently near the mouth of the Savannah River where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean and the further away from that area one moves, the fewer Irene village locations have been found.

 

During the probable time period of AD 1350-1550 some Irene lifestyle natives built one or more corn based agricultural villages along what would subsequently be named the Cooper River in an area that would later be identified as Berkeley County, South Carolina.  By this much ensuing time period the natives had quit making complicated stamped pottery in favor of Irene Incised vessels.  This styling of pottery favored simple flowing designs of festoons, guilloches and swirls usually just below the exterior vessel rim.  Incising meant that that the designs were cut into the green or damp pottery before it was put into fires for hardening. That does not mean that the vessels were any less well made than their predecessors because they were very skillfully manufactured.  This pottery was grit or sand tempered but deftly burnished both on the interior and exterior surfaces to a well-polished finish.  The vessel rims were often cane or fingernail punctated and many of the incised motifs on the external vessel surfaces have cane or stick punctations.  The basic shapes of these Irene vessels are wide mouth hemispherical bowls and some globular jars.  The bowls are often of the cazuela shapes.  Very few waterbottles have ever been found on Irene town sites.  These natives, who were associated with the Irene Culture, probably had a pretty good life with plenty of corn and beans and squash to eat along with an abundance of fish they would have harvested from the myriad of coastal rivers.  But the onslaught of the fleets of the Spanish and then the French and later the English spelled doom for the Irene traditional people.  These European invaders, in their vain search for gold and riches, brought along their smallpox and measles and guns with which they decimated the Indian populations in a very short time span.  But these indigenous locals did leave a great and lasting endowment for us modern peoples to see and revel in – the legacy of the rare and beautiful South Carolina Irene Bowls.

 

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Caldwell, Joseph R.                                                                             1952

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Hudson, Charles M.                                                                            1976

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Kelly, Arthur R. & Betty Smith                                                                        1975

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Lewis, Thomas & Madeline Kneberg                                                  1946

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Martin, Alton                                                                                      2013

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Snow, Frankie                                                                                      1975

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Waring,  Antonio J.                                                                             1968

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Williams, Mark & Gary Shapiro                                                         1990

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Williams, Mark & Daniel T. Elliot                                                       1998

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