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Embodiments of choice: Native American ceramic diversity in the New England interior

Elizabeth S Chilton, University of Massachusetts Amherst


In the northeastern United States--as elsewhere--an overemphasis on cultural-historical ceramic typologies and ceramic decoration by archaeologists has stymied research along other axes of ceramic variation. For example, little attention has been paid to the sequence of choices made by potters during the production process. The goal of this study is to examine the complex relationships among technical choices, historical context, and society during the Late Woodland period (1000-1600 A.D.) in the middle or Massachusetts portion of the Connecticut Valley. Ceramic assemblages from two New England Algonquian sites and one Mohawk Iroquois site are examined using an attribute analysis of technical choice. The attributes selected for analysis reflect choices made by potters along the production sequence: paste characteristics, vessel morphology, construction techniques, surface treatments, and firing conditions. Differences between Algonquian and Iroquoian ceramic attributes are interpreted as embodiments of profound differences in technical systems, which include intended function, the context and scale of production, and stylistic signaling. Since the two groups were interacting and sharing information during the Late Woodland period, Connecticut Valley Algonquians had access to similar kinds of cultural knowledge and technologies. Nevertheless, rather than becoming sedentary farmers, forming extensive and rigid social structures, and producing large, thin-walled, cooking pots like the Iroquois, Connecticut Valley peoples maintained fluid and mutable subsistence, settlement, and social relationships that are reflected in the their diverse and flexible ceramic traditions. Instead of assuming that New England Algonquians were not as culturally or technologically advanced as the Iroquois, I suggest that they can be understood as active agents of their own social change. As such, they made decisions concerning subsistence, settlement, and social structure. As potters, they made choices in ceramic production that both reflected and affected these decisions.

Subject Area

Archaeology|Art History|Ancient civilizations

Recommended Citation

Chilton, Elizabeth S, "Embodiments of choice: Native American ceramic diversity in the New England interior" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9638945.