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Northeastern ceramic diversity: An optical mineralogy approach

John P Pretola, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study uses ceramic petrography to understand the meaning of “Iroquoian” ceramic traits in eastern New York and southern New England. This analysis assumes that style represents nonverbal behavior residing in both decorative and technologic attributes. Style manifests itself as symbolic, iconographic, and technologic communication that can be active or passive. Technologic style is learned behavior that is slow changing, and represented as variation in manufacturing attributes. Because of the enculturative nature of technologic style, it is possible to distinguish social phenomena, especially group affiliation, using ceramic petrography Ceramic petrography works without resort to typological analysis. Previous attempts to address this question using the typological method have been confounded by the great variability in northeastern ceramic traits. My approach combines optical mineralogy with macroscopic examination to study 91 vessel lots from Mohawk, Hudson, Housatonic and Connecticut river valley sites of Terminal Woodland age. I test hypotheses about northeastern group affiliation expressed in technologic terms. I find that: (1) the mineral composition of aplastic paste inclusions differentiates the ceramics of each river drainage; (2) analysis of construction techniques shows that Mohawk River Valley ceramics were drawn, while those to the east were coil-built; (3) surface treatment and collar design application techniques also show distinctions between central Mohawk River Valley ceramics and those of eastern New York and southern New England; (4) the use of slips has a clinal distribution from 76% in the Mohawk River Valley sample to 12% in the Connecticut River Valley sample. Clearly, pan-northeastern decorative traits were incorporated and combined into locally distinct stylistic repertoires. This study shows that “Iroquoian” traits in southern New England ceramics were of local Algonquian manufacture. Traditional arguments relying upon unilateral diffusion and trade from central New York do not explain ceramic diversity in southern New England. Northeastern archaeologists need to develop a model based upon multidirectional flow of traits integrated with a realistic theory of style and stylistic change. This study shows clear distinctions between the ceramics of two culturally and linguistically distinct northeastern peoples, who interacted in an open and fluid system that allowed association and mixture of people and ideas.

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Recommended Citation

Pretola, John P, "Northeastern ceramic diversity: An optical mineralogy approach" (2000). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9960781.