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WOODLAND POTTERY OF THE PIEDMONT

 

During the time period beginning around 1,000 BC or three thousand years ago, two major changes were being made by the prehistoric natives living the region that was to later become the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Virginia.  The changes were that the aboriginals began living in semi-permanent villages and they started making and using ceramic pottery.  These life style alterations marked the beginning of the time that is archaeologically known as the Woodland Period (circa 1,000 BC to AD 1,000) but it had its beginning many years prior to that era.  The making of ceramic vessels in the area now known as Southeastern United States was started during the Late Archaic Period around 2,500 BC along the coast of modern-day South Carolina and Georgia with vegetative tempered pottery and shortly thereafter along the northern coast of the territory known today as North Carolina with sand tempered ceramics.  Further inland, west of the fall line, this new pottery invention did not take hold with the natives for another 1,500 years.  The time of 1,000 BC marked the beginning of the Woodland Pottery of the Piedmont.

 

Prior to the start of this Woodland Period, the natives were still basically hunters and gathers whose existence revolved around being on the move in search of food and water and a safe haven.  They used small spears or darts tipped with knapped stone points and propelled with the aid of the spear throwing stick or atl-atl.  Their dwellings were probably easily assembled small conical shaped huts covered with animal skins, brush and hardened clay or tree limbs.  They most likely did forage for wild plants to eat but did little or no cultivating of these natural food sources.   And they cooked their food skewered on sticks over an open fire or, as soups and stews, in pits dug in the earth or in soapstone bowls. The lifestyles of these interior natives probably changed little for the first 1500 years of the Woodland Period except for becoming more proficient at making pottery. But all that began to be altered around AD 500, when the natives exchanged their darts and spear throwers for the new technically advanced bow and arrows. They began cultivating naturally found vegetative items as well as the newly acquired corn, beans and squash and they built permanent houses in their alluvial plains villages.  The actual word Woodland is a term coined in the 1930’s during the advent of modern archaeology to describe the prehistoric time between the hunter and gatherer Archaic Period (ending around 1,000 BC in the Southeast) and the later full village and socially organized Mississippian Period (beginning around AD 1,000).  These were major technological advancements for a people who only shortly before were somewhat backwards in their approaches to coordinated living among themselves.  Along with the new technologies listed above they began developing extensive trade networks among other groups and began elaborate burial practices in and around their new village sites.

 

 

 

Today it is not known whether the oldest Southeastern pottery (2,500 BC) was actually placed in or on fires to be used for cooking or if they were only used as receptacles for the already cooked foods.  They were crude slab made bowls and jars that were thick and, since they were fired at low heat, were not particularly strong and impact resistant.  As the pottery making technology reached the interior lands some one thousand or more years later, these initial vessels had been transformed to more usable forms by a refined method of construction and the firing techniques.  The natives, by that time, had developed the coiling method of pottery construction in which long ribbons of plastic clay were coiled one on the top of another until the desired annular size and shape of the vessel was acquired.  These coils would have been then melded to each other by burnishing the interior with smooth rocks and by pressing or paddling the exterior with carved or net/string covered wooden paddles.  This burnishing and paddling made for much stronger vessels with much less porous interior walls and roughened exterior surfaces that were easier to grasp and hold.  And the firing of these new vessels at a much higher heat, gave the pots much more resistance to breakage and damage.  The basic shapes of the earliest Woodland pots were bowls and conical jars with usually pointed bases but occasionally rounded basal areas.  The vessel sides were normally straight during the first thousand or so years of the Woodland Period and they had plain and unmodified rims.  This changed during the last years of the period to everted or flared sides and plain to punctated rim edges.  The tempering medium was fine to coarse grain sand, crushed quartz and limestone or broken pieces of steatite and the wall thicknesses were still relatively thick.  There is certainly the belief that these Woodland vessels were placed over open fires or hot coals and used to cook the meals for the natives as well as being used as plates and bowls for food consumption.  As time moved forward the ancient natives learned how to make the vessels in more intricate shapes and larger sizes and to make them with much thinner walls while still maintaining their stability.  By the time the Woodland Period ended, around AD 1,000, the early Americans were more civilized and lived in permanent villages and towns and with their newly discovered bows and arrows and along with corn, squash and beans and they could have had a much better life than their ancestors.  All the new technologies helped these people in their quest for a more desirable existence and but the development of useful fired ceramics gave them giant steps into the future – these colossal strides that were, at least, partially determined by the Woodland Pottery of the Piedmont.

 

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