Pot calls the kettle prehistoric

A glimpse of the past through Fort Ancient Ceramics at Sunwatch

By Tim Smith

Photo: Jill Krieg-Accrocco presents “Fort Ancient Ceramics in the Great Miami River Valley” on Feb. 20 at SunWatch Indian Village; photo: Tracy Malott

The Miami Valley contains many hidden treasures that offer a glimpse of long-ago civilizations. It takes a history sleuth to uncover these clues then piece them together to form a story. SunWatch Indian Village is giving one such detective the opportunity to share her findings on Feb. 20. “Archaeology in the Eastern United States” is part of the Village’s Winter Lecture Series. Jill Krieg-Accrocco, associate curator of anthropology for the Dayton Society of Natural History.

“Many Native American populations created pottery throughout and prior to recorded history,” she says. “Cultures like the Fort Ancient people are what we describe as ‘prehistoric’ or ‘pre-contact’ because they predate the arrival of most Europeans to the continent. These prehistoric groups had no form of writing, and there are no historic records since they lived centuries before the arrival of Columbus. Most of what we know about these ancient peoples comes from studying the artifacts and other traces of their lives that remain physically intact within the ground.”

Krieg-Accrocco has used her knowledge of ceramics to document the tribe’s history.

“Pottery is one of the most useful types of artifacts for understanding past cultures because it can be used to indirectly study diet, social structure, trade, interaction and other aspects of a culture,” she says. “Archaeologists study pottery to better understand the people who manufactured the vessels.”

She has found that Fort Ancient ceramics are distinct from those of other contemporary groups and from groups that lived before and after the Fort Ancient people: “There are utilitarian jars of various sizes for cooking and storing foodstuffs, as well as highly crafted ceremonial wares with complex decorations. The decorations may express the identity of the families or individuals who manufactured the vessels or may be indicative of the function of the pot.”

Incised motifs, a form of engraving, were a hallmark of Fort Ancient ceramics and provide another clue.

“The incorporation of decorative style on ceramics creates a medium for information exchange,” Krieg-Accrocco says. “The exterior of a pot is part of the visual environment and may communicate the function of the pot. In the household or marketplace, for example, a pot with a specific design may be used to store corn while another design type is indicative of a pot that holds water. Specific designs may suggest that the pot is intended to be used in a religious ceremony or communal feasting event.”

Vessels made by the tribe typically served a functional purpose: “Most have a form that we call a ‘jar’ and were used for food preparation or storage … Every pot has a number of attributes that provide clues to its function, such as the size and shape of the opening and the type of surface treatment on the exterior.”

A common misconception is that the women of the tribes were the pottery makers, a notion that Krieg-Accrocco is quick to dispute.

“We do not know for sure that women were the ones making the pottery,” she says. “We assume that based on comparison with historic groups. Pottery manufacture is an activity that is primarily done within or near the village, meaning you can ‘work from home.’ It makes sense that women would take on this responsibility considering other activities, such as child rearing, make it more difficult for women to be away for long periods of time. Women are taught by their mothers and this is one reason why there can be great continuity in manufacture and decoration over long periods of time—even centuries.”

She finds the Late Prehistoric Period (A.D. 1000 to 1550) to be the most interesting in terms of ceramic study.

“I was originally taken with the transformation of clay to ceramic. If you think about it, ceramic is really the first synthetic material ever created by man; it’s a type of artificial stone,” she explains.

“When I tell people that I study prehistoric pottery, most people envision complete pots. It would make my job easier if the pots were complete, but that is actually almost never the case. I am often looking at highly fragmented individual pieces from many different vessels that have been mixed together. Many of the techniques I use to analyze pottery allow me to draw inferences from these small fragments. Also, when we are talking about ceramics, a broken piece of pottery is called a SHERD not a shard!”

Krieg-Accrocco would like attendees to take away an understanding of the importance of pottery in history.

“Studying pottery gives us a glimpse into the dynamics of the past,” she says. “When we study pottery, we learn so much more than just the details of the pot; we learn about the people who made that pot. Ohio has an incredibly rich prehistory, and I hope to bring awareness and appreciation for the ancient people who came before us.”

“Fort Ancient Ceramics in the Great Miami River Valley” will be presented on Feb. 20 at SunWatch Indian Village, 2301 W. River Rd. in Dayton. The program begins at 10:30 a.m. in the Prairie View Room. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, please call 937.268.8199 or visit sunwatch.org.


Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach Dayton City Paper freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@daytoncitypaper.com.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at TimSmith@DaytonCityPaper.com

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