Articles

THE POTTERY LABRET

 

For probably well over ten thousand years, the people of ancient tribal cultures have indulged in body scarifying and perforations.  This has independently occurred on all the continents of earth by people who never had any type of lifestyle interactions.  These various individuals made needle pricked and ink filled tattoos on their faces and bodies as well as cutting and piercing holes in various portions of their anatomy.  And in some parts of our planet certain individuals still glorify these practices even in the twenty-first century.  Maybe as early as the Late Archaic into the Woodland Period and definitely further along in time into the Historic Period, in the southeast region of what would become the United-States, the American Indians also performed these rituals and made various piercings, some of which were for the use of the pottery labret.

 

When the explorers from assorted European nations began arriving in the Western Hemisphere continents almost five hundred years ago, they did find many new and unheard of objects and people.  These strangers to the New World discovered tomatoes, corn, potatoes, bananas and tobacco as well as millions of white tail deer and woods bison – all there for the taking.   They also encountered aboriginals who lanced holes in body parts and inserted various ornamental articles made from bone, shell, wood, shark teeth, stone, copper, gold, feathers and fired clay or pottery.  This continued to be done at various times, up until the early twentieth century, and in various places in the Americas from frigid Alaska southward throughout the two continents to Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile.  The Amerinds impaled themselves with knives and drills and needles in the ear flap or pinna and as well as in their ear lobes, cheeks and upper and lower lips.  These rituals were apparently performed so as to make their bodies more decorative and attractive by inserting miscellaneous trinkets in the pierced holes.

 

Beginning in AD 1519, Spanish adventurers invaded the Mexican and Central American domain of the Aztec and Mayan natives.  There they made note of the fact that the natives inserted various shaped jewelry articles, made of gold and jade and obsidian, through their lips.  But in that territory, this was only done by the males of the elite social classes.  Starting around AD 1350 and extending until about AD 1650, in the coastal and some interior regions of the southeastern portion of the future USA, many of the area inhabitants were affiliated with a religious/ceremonial group that, today, is called either Swift Creek or Lamar Culture.  During the last one hundred or so years of this cultural existence, the Spanish and French and English interlopers began exploring this region where they encountered this ethnic manifestation and made written records about the aboriginals and their traditions.  Among the chronicles left by these Europeans, was the supposed factual evidence that both the male and female Indians of this society wore many types of body decorations, including labrets through holes in their lips.  These baubles, though, were not made of precious stone or metal as was seen in Mexico and Guatemala but were often apparently constructed of clay that had been hardened in hot coals from a fire.  These facial decorations of this material were typical of the pottery made in the southeast at that time – tan to brown colored sand or crushed quartz tempered ceramics.  These adornments were either spherical and spool shaped and each had a shallow to deep groove encircling the center.  The overall dimensions, of the examples that have been found, vary from around one-half up to two inches in diameter by an inch or so from back to front.  According to the preserved documents, the natives began the process of wearing the labrets by cutting a small hole through their lower lip into which was placed a little object such as a short round twig or section of bone.  Over time, larger and larger objects were inserted through the lip perforation thus expanding the orifice until the desired size was reached so as to accommodate the ceramic embellishment.  The European explorers also made notes stating that these coarse lip appliances often abraded the wearer’s teeth until some of the dentin and enamel coated incisors actually broke off at the gums.  WOW!   That must have been very painful.  Today there are modern people, especially of the younger generations, who wear lip labrets in an ill-conceived attempt at beautification or to shock their parents.  These modern bling items, though, are normally small and made of polished metals and hopefully they will not cause anyone’s teeth to break.  If these adolescents desire this type of facial ornament, they should be exceedingly happy that it is no longer necessary for them to indulge in wearing the ceramic gewgaws as in the past --- “in the past” relating to the age when the ancient Amerinds made sizable holes in their lips so as to wear the large and possibly dangerous abrasive pottery labret.  

 

 

REFERENCES:

Dall, William H.                                                                               1884

     “On Masks, Labrets and Certain Aboriginal Customs”, SECOND ANNUAL

     REPORT, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTE

Dubin, Lois S.                                                                       1999

     NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN JEWELRY AND ADORNMENT

Griffin, James B.                                                                 1952

     ARCHAEOLOGY OF EASTERN UNITED STATES

Grifton, Joy                                                                          1998

     “Labrets and Tattooing in Native Alaska”, MARKS OF CIVILIZATION

Herbert, Joseph M.                                                            2009

     WOODLAND POTTERY AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL CERAMICS OF THE NORTH

     CAROLINA COAST

Keel, Bennie C.                                                                    1976

    CHEROKEE ARCHAEOLOGY

Shelikov, Gregorii L.                                                          1981

     A VOYAGE TO AMERICA

Stuart, Gene S.                                                                    1981

     THE MIGHTY AZTECS

Von Winning, Hasso                                                          1968

     PRE-COLUMBIAN ART OF MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA

White, James,  Editor                                                        1913

     HANDBOOK OF INDIANS IN CANADA

Williams, Mark. & Daniel T, Elliott                                 1998                                     

     A WORLD ENGRAVED: ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE SWIFT CREEK CULTURE