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Did you know that there were pottery kilns near Etowah Mounds?

Did you know that there were pottery kilns near Etowah Mounds?

 

North American anthropology books tell you that indigenous Americans did not use kilns to fire pottery.  Almost all references and TV documentaries available today also tell you that the indigenous peoples north of Mexico did not know how to fire pottery at high enough temperatures to achieve complete vitrification.    Vitrification is a term of chemistry, which means “to turn into glass.”  You are told that dried clay vessels were first burned in piles of grass then heated in pits, filled with hot coals, to a point where they reached low quality earthenware temperatures. This may or may not been true for hunter-gatherer peoples in the Northeast, Canada and the Western Plains, but there are several eyewitness accounts by early Spanish and French explorers in the Southeast and Mississippi River Basin, which describe seeing high quality ceramics “that pinged, when you tapped them like the finest Majolica pottery.”  So how did indigenous Americans achieve the higher temperatures, required for vitrification?  There were two ways.

Maya Commoner Redware

Maya shell-tempered Redware jar

Back in 2012, when several newspaper and magazine articles quoted Georgia and Florida archaeologists stating that “no Maya style pottery has ever been found in the Southeast,”  I chuckled.   They were exposing their ignorance on the subject. The landscapes of the former suburbs of Maya cities are literally covered with plain redware potsherds . . . the same style of pottery that marks the arrival of the so-called “Mississippian Culture” at Ocmulgee National Monument.

You see . . . about 90% of the Maya population was composed of illiterate commoners.  That label included slaves, farmers, tradesmen and transient merchants.  There was about 5% middle class composed of merchants and professional soldiers.  Commoners were only allowed to make shell-tempered redware pottery because far less firewood was required to achieve vitrification.  The cores of Maya Commoner Redware pottery were composed of whatever clay was available locally with crushed shells.  The interior and exterior surfaces were finished with a type of iron oxide rich, fine particle clay which sealed the pottery.  The surfaces could be polished with river pebbles.

The chemicals in shells, most notably calcium carbonate, vitrify at a lower temperature than the minerals in most clays.  The clay vessels only had to be heated to a cherry red color for about two hours in order to be sufficiently vitrified to hold water.  Conventional clay vessels required much higher heat for at least eight hours to achieve the same vitrification.  Kaolin clays needed even hotter and longer firing periods.

Eventually, the peoples in the interior of the Southeast learned that limestone grit, which was also rich in calcium carbonate, could achieve the same results as shell-tempered pottery, but had to be fired slightly longer and at slightly higher temperatures.

Forgotten kilns on the Etowah River

The 1990s were the heydays of Etowah Mounds National Historical Landmark. Both Etowah Mounds and New Echota near Calhoun, GA were fully staffed with very knowledgeable , highly educated rangers.  The economy boomed throughout the Clinton Administration and an article in National Geographic brought tourists from around the world.  One of the staff’s major headaches was that cults from as far away as Scotland wanted to perform ceremonies atop the largest mound.  LOL

During this period, Etowah Mounds Site Manager, Libby Bell, a Creek descendant, was constantly finding little known information about the Etowah Valley’s history and also brought in fascinating guest speakers.  Two amazing facts stand out from those lectures.

First, the indigenous people living on the lower end of the Etowah River near Rome, GA were apparently different than those farther upstream.  Rather than burying their dead under houses or in mounds, they dug small caves  into the river banks and deposited their dead there.

Secondly,  the people of Etula (Etowah Mounds) fired their pottery and ceramic statuary in kilns . . . typically near the pits where high quality clay was mined.  One type of kiln was a tunnel kiln, similar to those of earlier times in Japan, Korea and China . . . but in the river banks like the tombs downstream.  These tunnel kilns consisted of a lower fire chamber, connected by a short flue drilled through the clay to a pottery chamber.  The updraft heated the pottery red hot without coming in direct contact with the burning wood.

The second type of ceramic firing structure was a bee hive shaped kiln, built out of stone, mortared and plastered with a special heat-resistant clay.   These were first noted by surveyors, who entered the region in 1784 as part of an effort to produce the first official map of the State of Georgia.  When first observed, these kilns appeared to have been abandoned for a long time.  There was an ancient Creek village with mounds nearby, called Yohawle (now the town of Euharlee), but its inhabitants only used cast iron and copper pots.  They did not know who had built the kilns or the mounds in the Etowah Valley.  It is possible that their ancestors in the early 1700s had operated the kilns, but this is speculation.

The first Cherokees, mostly mixed-bloods, established a village around where the Roselawn Mansion is located in Cartersville, GA around 1794 after the end of the Cherokee Chickamauga War.  More detailed descriptions of these kilns came from Anglo-Americans, who visited a trading post here and a little later, missionaries, who established a mission very close to the mounds. 

There were originally several dozen kilns, in various states of survival, along that section of the Etowah River.  Most had completely or partially collapsed, but contained many pieces of broken “Indian” pottery.  Some of the kilns were still complete and even contained partially fired pottery.  There was an interesting comment about the partially burned pottery.  The clay pots and jars had been molded around pumpkins, squashes and gourds. The rinds of these vegetables had carbonized in the high heat and therefore were still visible.  If the pottery had been fully vitrified, the organic matter of the vegetables would have decomposed into ashes and carbon deoxide.

An eyewitness stated that it looked like that several of the kilns had been in use, when their owners suddenly had to flee.  None of the potsherds in the kilns survive.  Neither, apparently, do any of the kilns.   It is unknown what indigenous ethnic group built the kilns or when they built the kilns. However, their abandonment probably occurred either in the 1600s or early 1700s.  Unless a kiln is found somewhere in the Etowah River Valley, these questions will probably never be answered. 

 

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

9 Comments

  1. csmoke@webound.com'

    seems like I recall that Georgia was the first producer of Kaolin (oriental referred to as “china” clay) in the U.S. … Georgia Kaolin used in the high fired. I have used epk (Edgars Plastic Kaolin) as part of engobe slip mix without variation on high and low fired.

    Reply
    • That’s in the world! It is one of the biggest exports for the state. Ships loaded to the brim with kaolin leave the Port of Savannah regularly.

      Reply
  2. playclay2013@yahoo.com'

    First dug clay I used was of this type and I never got it fired harder than chalk in open fires. Later I fired some of the same in an electric kiln and realized just how high a temp was required. (cone 05 and 5 did little more than the fireplace.) I’d like to make a riverbank kiln….. it should be fairly easy to construct and plenty of drift wood available nearby for firing.

    Reply
    • They started definitely started using kilns after the Spanish missionaries arrived, but no kilns have been found from the Pre-Contact Period.

      Reply
  3. 44philliplayne@gmail.com'

    Hmm. If one goes to the trouble of constructing a proper kiln rather than simply pit firing simple clay pots for “home use”, there is usually some sort of trading activity going on with the end result. Pottery that was fired high enough to “ping” would have been stable enough to transport over a long distance. It is interesting that you mention the Japanese, Chinese, etc……..changing the subject somewhat, I have a distant cousin whom I met once in North Carolina who is a linguist. She was working several years ago on a project that showed connections between the ancient Catawba language and proto-Japanese.

    Reply
  4. gingerhearn@hotmail.com'

    What year is actually correct in the following? “The first Cherokees, mostly mixed-bloods, established a village around where the Roselawn Mansion is located in Cartersville, GA around 1994 after the end of the Cherokee Chickamauga War. ”

    Enjoying your posts!

    Reply
    • Duh-h-h I need to drink more hot tea in the morning! 1794

      Reply
  5. ah.all@inorbit.com'

    Though I’ve yet to find any Etowah River pottery that “pings” like fine porcelain, I have found umber and ochre glazed fragments, which were thrilling enough. The largest pieces I found were glazed inside and out. Approximately two miles upstream of the Etowah Mounds, there is a still operating ochre and umber mine, opened for commercial business in 1905 by Cartersville resident William Satterfield. Considering the proliferation of umber and ochre glazed ceramics in the area, and this revelation of nearby kilns, I would suspect it was a well established, important mine long before Mr Satterfield came along.

    Reply

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