History of NJ Ceramics

The Carman collection uncovers prehistoric New Jersey and its diverse cultures.

Map of the U.S. depicting cultural territories including the Eastern Woodlands (northeast and southeast)

Ceramics are an innovation from the prehistory of the Eastern Woodlands (cultural territory of the indigenous people of North America stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Plains). It was adopted by native peoples of the Middle Atlantic Region from their interaction with people of the southeast. Before stone and ceramic containers were popularized, Native groups relied on bags made out of skin and hide, wooden bowls, and baskets for carrying and storing goods, including food. Stone and ceramic containers were later created to last longer and provide more successful cooking methods. For example, before stone and ceramic vessels, heating liquids was done through stone boiling. This means stones were heated near or in a fire and then placed into a container to heat liquid or liquid-based food. Stone bowls however, could be placed directly over the fire for cooking. Not every Native American group adopted ceramics at the same time. Its popularity would have been based on access to steatite (soapstone) or clay, and which groups controlled those resources. Generally, steatite containers were used during the Terminal Archaic period (ca. 2000-1000 B.C.) which is the transitional time between the Archaic period (10,000-3,000 years ago) and Woodland period (ca. 1000 B.C.-A.D. 1600). Clay ceramics developed and increased in use during the Woodland period. This means there was no ceramic technology used in the Paleoindian period (12,000-10,000 years ago) or the archaic period.

  • Paleo Period (12,000-10,000 years ago)

    Clovis point made only during the Paleo period.
    Illustration representing the paleo-period with the now extinct Mastodon.

    The Paleoindian period occurred during the last Ice Age, when the environment in New Jersey resembled a tundra. Technology included stone tools such as the Clovis point seen above, that would have been used to hunt the now-extinct creatures, such as the mastodon and other large beasts.

  • Archaic (10,000-3,000 years ago)

    Archaic period axes
    Terminal archaic steatite bowl fragment

    The Archaic period saw the introduction of artifacts like the axe, used to manipulate the new woodlands and extract valuable lumber. Other tools, such as knives, scrapers, and drills, were also used to process gathered materials. The terminal archaic period included the development of steatite containers, a precursor to clay-fired ceramics.

  • Woodland (3,000-400 years ago)

    Middle-Late Woodland clay pot with cordage impression.
    Late Woodland clay pot with collared neck, cord-impressed body, and incised design around the top.

    During the Woodland period, fired clay pottery was invented. Eventually Native groups turned to horticulture as their main food source, which meant ceramics would be needed for storage and a more sedentary way of life. Many of the Carman ceramics demonstrate patterns and designs that were impressed or incised into the vessel surface with an assortment of tools.

The Lenape

Around 1600 AD, Europeans who settled in the Delaware Valley encountered a variety of Native American groups known generally as the Lenape (Leh-NAH-pay), sometimes referred to as the Delaware. All Native American people who have lived in New Jersey and whose artifacts have been found here, are considered to be the Lenape and their ancestors. While many Native Americans were killed and relocated after European contact, there are groups of Lenape who still live in New Jersey. They are not lost, ancient people, but modern ethnic communities just like any other. We strive to respect their traditions and preserve their history and prehistory, learning from them and working with them for the sake of their heritage.

Map of New Jersey showing different dialect groups within the Lenape.

From Soapstone to Clay

Soapstone quarries were located in Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and New England. These bowls and materials were traded to Lenape groups in South Jersey. Due to the labor-intensive effort needed for manufacture, soapstone bowls were cherished and protected. Tool marks are often present on the exterior from being shaped by chisels or picks, Notice the rim and handles decorated with notches.

Clay-fired pots are specific to the Woodland period, more likely Middle and Late Woodland sites. At this point steatite pots are no longer in use likely due to the difficulty of both acquiring and manufacturing this resource. Clay is found near water sources, where Native populations often settled. It is a common resource that is easier to handle and manipulate into different sized containers.

Illustration of the Lenape and their use of ceramics by Herbert C. and John T. Kraft

Purpose and Use

The main advantage of ceramic containers for cooking is that they can be placed directly on fires; therefore, foods can be cooked longer and more thoroughly. Thoroughly cooked food such as stews and gruels can be eaten by the very young and the very old, which may have led to increases in population. The young can switch from milk to food faster, allowing their mothers to have more children sooner. The elderly may have been living longer due to more nutritious and easily digestible food. Ceramics are also used for storage, and as objects for drinking and eating out of.

Late Woodland clay pot with collared neck, cord-impressed body, and incised design around the top.

Cultural Shift

As native groups shifted from a hunting-gathering lifestyle to horticulture and farming, there was an increase of food which allowed for populations to grow. With this culture shift, groups became less mobile and higher in population. Ceramics are not easily transported, so the increased number of ceramics found throughout the middle and late woodland period, suggests groups were moving less often. Ceramics also begin to vary in size and design. Large vessels suggest a successful and long term food source that required more storage. Varying designs on pots suggest individuality between groups and their styles. The collar pot pictured above for example, is more commonly found in Pennsylvania and North Jersey. How do you think it ended up in Cumberland County?