Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/September 1877/Aboriginal Pottery of the Salt-Springs, Illinois

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IN the work by the late J. W. Foster, LL.D., on the "Prehistoric Races of the United States of America," published in 1873, when treating of the pottery of the mound-builders, on page 248, he says:

"On the Saline River, Gallatin County, Illinois, according to MS. notes of Prof. Cox, there is, just above low-water mark, a salt-spring, which was resorted to in the earliest settlement of the country, by those of European descent, for the purpose of procuring salt by evaporating the brine. Here occur, however, numerous fragments of pottery, showing that a prehistoric people had resorted to the same spring, and for the same purpose. From the slight curvature of the fragments it is evident that the vessels were of large capacity. The material is coarse, and the general thickness of the vessel is about half an inch, but at the rim it is three-quarters of an inch. The exterior is marked by vertical lines of depression about half an inch apart, with bars less conspicuous and close together, sometimes at right angles, and at others oblique. When I first saw these specimens, I was somewhat surprised that the makers should bestow so much ornamentation on vessels so coarsely made, and applied to such ordinary uses; but a slight examination showed me that these figures had been impressed and not carved; or, in other words, that a basket of rushes or willows had first been constructed, inside of which the clay was moulded and allowed to dry before burning."

Then, in a foot-note, he continues:

"Since this chapter was written, I have seen a paper of Mr. Charles Rau, of New York, on the aboriginal pottery of this country, in which he refers to this locality, and arrives at the same conclusion as myself. . . . I had occasion to examine a fragment of a vessel sent to Dr. Davis in 1859, by Mr. George E. Sellers, who obtained it at the salt-springs, near the Saline River. . . . Several acres, Mr. Sellers states, are covered with broken vessels, and heaps of clay and shells, which indicate that they were made on the spot. They present the shape of semi-globular bowls with projecting rims, and measure from thirty inches to four feet across the rim; the thickness varies from a half to three quarters of an inch.

"The earthenware has evidently been moulded in baskets. It is solid and heavy, and must have been tolerably well baked. The impressions on the outside are very regular, and are really ornamental, proving that these aboriginal potters were also skillful basket-makers.

"Mr. Rau quotes from Hunter, as to the aboriginal mode of making pottery, 'Another method practised is to coat the inner surface of baskets, made of rushes or willows, with clay, to the required thickness, and, when dried, to burn them as above described.'"

My object in writing this article is to refute a theory that would attribute to the rude, prehistoric people of the Stone age a skill in manipulation that cannot now be approached by the skilled artisan of the present age; that is, keeping in form and lining with heavy clay fragile baskets of the large size of these old salt-kettles.

About the time I sent the specimens to Dr. Davis referred to by Mr. Rau, I also sent some to the Hon. Thomas Ewbank, and in my letter accompanying I stated that I had discovered what at first I took to be an entire kettle bottom-up; but, on removing the earth that covered it, it appeared to be a solid mass of sun-dried clay. From its position among heaps of clay and shells, its hard, compact, discolored—I might say almost polished—surface, I became satisfied it was a mould on which the clay kettles had been formed, precisely as in loam moulding at the present day.

Mr. Ewbank, in reply, said he thought I was mistaken; that what I took for a mould was most probably a concreted sediment that had filled a kettle and been turned out; that there was no evidence of the aborigines of either North or South America having ever used the lathe, or formed their ware by striking; not even among the Peruvians, whom he considered far in advance as to forms and quality of pottery-ware. They had moulded bottles or jugs on gourds, and open vessels in baskets, which had been burned out or off in baking; he thought the specimens I sent him bore evident marks of reed baskets, etc.

Before presenting the facts that have confirmed me in my original view of the manner in which these salt-pans were formed, and that I may be better understood, I will endeavor to describe the location where the fragments are found.

My first visit was in company with my friend the late Dr. David Dale Owen, about the year 1854. We found two water-worn ravines, commencing on the hills that rise abruptly on the south side of the Saline River, and drain into it. At the base of the hills they are crossed by a State road, between which and the river their bottoms are level, hard, and barren, and here, close to the road rise the salt-springs. Between the ravines is a bench or river-bottom subject to annual overflow.

These bottoms, as well as the hill-sides, were covered with a thick growth of young timber—the primitive forest having been cut off for fuel for evaporating the brine at the time the salines were worked by the early settlers. The principal spring was then, and is now, known as the "Nigger" well or salt-works, as it was worked by slave-labor while the State of Illinois was a Territory.

PSM V11 D593 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 1.

The spring in the west ravine overflowed a curbed well about eight feet square, which I sounded, and found to be about forty feet deep. In the east ravine a salt-spring was oozing. A short distance above the curbed well flows a sulphur-spring, and near it one of good fresh water.

I have been informed, by a reliable party who had personal knowledge of all that was done by the early settlers in working the salines, that in the east ravine they sunk a well and curbed it down to the bed-rock, a depth of 42 feet, and made a boring of about 150 feet in its bottom. That all the way from the surface to the rock they found pieces of broken pottery, and on the rock a pitcher or jug, with a handle within the rim; this jug was sent to the Philadelphia Museum. My informant expressed the opinion that, at the time the aborigines used the waters, the spring had its outlet at or near the bed-rock, and had since gradually filled by surface-washings, just as the well in the west ravine has been filled since my first visit, and is now a cattle-tramped salt-swamp.

The present outlet of the spring is not over six or eight feet above low water of the Saline River, and the character of its bed precludes the possibility of its ever having been on a lower level; for at Island Ripple, within two miles of the spring, the river falls over a broad reef of rocks which backs the water—forming a pool—up to this place, where there is another slight ripple.

This, to me, is conclusive evidence that, whoever the people were who left the masses of broken pottery as proof of their having used the salt-waters, they resorted to precisely the same means as did their more civilized successors of our time—that is, sinking wells or reservoirs to collect the brine; and the dipper-jug which had been dropped had sunk to the bottom, showing that their reservoirs were down to the rock.

Running nearly in an east-and-west course on the south side, and close to the outlet of the springs, is an upheaval that has brought the carboniferous limestone to the surface standing on edge. The sulphur and fresh-water springs rise south of the line of this dike. On the line of it, about the centre of the raised bottom or plateau between the two ravines, say ten or twelve feet higher than the springs, and embracing an area of about eight acres, occurs a sink of about 120 feet in diameter. It was on the raised rim of this sink that I discovered the heaps of clay and shells, and what I took to be the inside mould or core on which the kettles had been formed. It was then a pool of water, around which I found the most abundant remains of pottery, not only represented by fragments of the large, coarse salt-pans, but by many pieces of small vessels of much finer texture, and of superior workmanship, such as would be used for domestic purposes. From these and large quantities of chippings and offal, I inferred that this was the site of the old settlement. The broken pottery, the black soil, the waste from long occupancy extending a considerable distance both east and west of the springs, and to the foot of the bluffs on the south, covering an area of about thirty acres, were confirmatory of this view; but the fact of the annual overflow made me look further for a permanent settlement.

The hills at this point run nearly an east-and-west course, forming a range of upheaval that crosses the State of Illinois, from the Ohio River at Shawneetown to the Mississippi, and at some places attains a height of about 700 feet, being the highest land in Illinois or in either of the adjoining States of Missouri, Kentucky, and Indiana. Immediately south of the salt-springs is a spur of the main hill, its northern terminus being precipitous bluffs of metamorphic sandstone, which Prof. Worthen, the State Geologist of Illinois, who once visited the location with me, classed with the Chester group. Above this bluff, where the spur rises at an angle of about 30°, it has been terraced, and the terraces as well as the crown of the spur have been used as a cemetery: portions of the terraces are still perfect; all the burials appear to have been made in rude stone cists, that vary in size from eighteen inches by three feet, to two feet by four feet, and from eighteen inches to two feet deep. They are made of thin-bedded sandstone slabs, generally roughly shaped, but some of them have been edged and squared with considerable care, particularly the covering-slabs. The slope below the terraces was thickly strewed with these slabs, washed out as the terraces have worn away, and which have since been carried off for door-steps and hearthstones.

PSM V11 D595 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 2.

I have opened many of these cists; they nearly all contain fragments of human bones far gone in decay, but I have never succeeded in securing a perfect skull; even the clay vessels that were interred with the dead have disintegrated, the portions remaining being almost as soft and fragile as the bones.

Some of the cists that I explored were paved with valves of fresh-water shells, but most generally with the fragments of the great salt-pans, which, in every case, are so far gone in decay as to have lost the outside markings. This seems conclusively to couple the tenants of these ancient graves with the makers and the users of the salt-pans.

The great number of graves and the quantity of slabs that have been washed out prove either a dense population or a long occupancy, or both.

On the crown of the main hill above the cemetery are ranges of circular depressions, from one to three feet deep, and from fifteen to twenty-five feet in diameter; they cover a large area, on two sides of which there is evidence of earthworks.

I had the soil removed from one of these depressions, and found marks of long-continued fire in its centre, from which I infer that they are sites of the lodges of these ancient people.

The general character of this portion of the hill-range is precipitous to the north, with a very gradual descent to the south, forming the north slope of the broad and beautiful valley of Eagle Creek, a tributary of the Saline, a valley once cultivated by the prehistoric people that worked the salines, evidenced by the fine specimens of stone agricultural implements turned up by the plough, and most abundant near the earthworks.

I have in my collection, from this locality, four hoes or spades, flaked out of chert or quartzite, most probably from the metamorphic sandstone of the district. They are beautifully wrought, and vary in size from six and a half by three and a half to ten and a half by four and three-quarter inches, and from one-half to three-quarters of an inch in thickness.

On receipt of Mr. Ewbank's letter in 1859, I examined carefully quantities of specimens of pottery, and found the markings on all of them to have been made by woven cloth of twisted threads, and in no single instance by rush or willow baskets. Some of these cloth impressions were of fine texture.

When I considered that a basket of the large size of these salt-kettles, even if made of metallic wire no thicker than the thread impressions, could not possibly be kept in form while being lined with heavy clay, the idea of using any twisted textile fabric for such a purpose seemed absurd. We must, therefore, look for some other explanation of these markings.

They could not be for ornament, or the rough, sharp edge of the projecting rim would have been finished with more care, or where threads had broken, or pieces been torn from the cloth, the defects in the markings would have been repaired.

Some of the threads of the cloth being at right angles to the rim, and gradually becoming oblique or bias, presented the exact appearance which a bandage of cloth would, if tightly bound round a semi-globular bowl.

I imagine these half-civilized people to have been practical utilitarians; and I can see the use of a bandage in holding the moist clay firmly bound while being raised from the mould on which it was formed, and which was essential to prevent cracking as it hardened or dried.

If a bandage was used in this manner and for this purpose, there could probably be found pieces of the pans showing the width of bandage used, also where and how it had been fastened at its union.

Therefore, my first object was to secure all the specimens that I could, also the mould or core on which I believed the pans had been formed. But from the time I collected the specimens sent to Mr. Ewbank and Dr. Davis, it was nine or ten years before I again had an opportunity of visiting the springs. I then found the plateau between them cleared and under cultivation; the water had dried from the sink; a crop of corn was growing on its bottom; the plough had overturned and broken the mould, but in doing so had exposed portions of others of the same character. They appeared to have been small mounds built of stone, and covered with a tenacious yellow clay, which, by sun-drying, had become as hard as common salmon-brick.

From the position of the moulds on the rim of the sink, I inclined to the opinion that it was mainly an artificial reservoir for water, and the centre of a great pottery-manufactory; the material used being the siliceous fire-clays and shales of the coal-measures, which are found in abundance, decomposed and ready for use, in ravines within reasonable distance of the locality, together with fresh-water shells from the reefs and ripples of the Saline and Wabash Rivers, using bivalves and univalves indiscriminately.

The plough had played sad havoc with the pieces of pottery I expected to secure. At first, pieces ten or twelve inches across were easily obtained; now one as large as the hand is a treasure: this breaking up made it very difficult to secure the evidence I was looking for. I made many thorough searches before finding any specimens of well-marked unions of the bandages, or establishing conclusively that in no case were the bottoms of the large vessels marked, as they would have been if formed in baskets.

PSM V11 D597 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 3.

A person familiar with the work of the early settlers informs me that, in grading for foundations of their salt-furnaces, several of the large pans, almost perfect, were unearthed and destroyed by the black laborers. He paid no attention to the markings, only observing that their bottoms were perfectly plain, and described them as "basins, as large around as the hind-wheel of his wagon, with flattish bottoms."

At the present salt-works, about five miles higher up the Saline River, on its south fork, near Equality, is the "Half-Moon Lick," where the earth has been licked away to a depth varying from twelve to sixteen feet, in the shape of a horseshoe, about 200 yards from point to point of the heels, and to the toe, or back of the curve, 250 yards. In this lick are still to be seen deeply-trodden buffalo-roads. On one bank is a slightly-raised ridge, in which were found imbedded a number of earthen vessels in a row. Mr. B. Temple, one of the proprietors of the salt-works, described them to me as between four and five feet diameter and sixteen to eighteen inches deep. After uncovering, they were not removed, but suffered to go to decay. The bones of the mastodon have been found here.[1]

PSM V11 D598 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 4.

On many of the fragments of the large pans in my collection the impressions of the cloth are perfect delineations of the fabrics used. Though differing greatly in pattern and in fineness of texture, they are all, with one single exception, made woven in the same manner—that is, by twisting two threads of warp around the single thread of the woof, precisely as the wire faces of laid moulds for forming paper are now made. The coarsest fabric that I find the impression of has warps about one and a half inch apart, with about five threads of woof to the inch. This piece is shown full size in Fig. 1; the double warp when twisted being about one-eighth of an inch, and the woof from one-twelfth to one-tenth of an inch in diameter. It will be observed that the twist of the warp is continuous, while that of the woof terminates at, or is lost in, the warp.

The finest specimen I have has ten threads of warp to the inch, with a woof or filling of from thirty to thirty-four. Fig. 2 is a portion of it, showing the texture, which, though exceedingly close in the filling, is plainly impressed on the clay, even showing the twist of the threads and the crimping of the cloth as bound round the vessel.

The exception referred to is a square-mesh net. The squares are one-fourth of an inch; the threads in thickness about equal to No. 6 sewing-cotton; and the knots at the corners of the meshes are very distinctly marked.

Fig, 3. represents the first piece that I found giving any idea of the union of the bandage, which in this case appears to have been by the intervention of a stick to which the threads were fastened.

Fig. 4 is a piece of the rim of a vessel where the bandage has been united by twisting.

Fig. 5 is a similar piece, showing where two pieces of cloth of different texture have been united, and the obliquity of the threads to the rim caused by the hemispherical form of the vessel.

Fig. 6 shows varieties in the pattern of the cloth.

On none of the specimens do I find impressions of cloth woven as delineated by Mr. Foster (p. 225), as cloth from the mounds of Butler and Jackson Counties, Ohio.


Most of the fragments of the large vessels are of a leaden-clay color, and, where reddened by heat, it is more on the inside than on the outside. Some specimens that 1 found in the woods showed signs of the action of fire on the portions projecting above the ground, from the frequent burning of the woods. Where reddened by heat, most of the markings have been thrown off.

This and other considerations lead me to doubt a burning or baking process ever having been applied to them, and I do not think it would have been possible in open fires. The unequal heat would have caused unequal expansion and contraction, and consequent cracking.

It is evident that they are composed of a cement of siliceous clay and slightly-calcined shells. None of the pieces will stand a high heat and afterward moisture. I have heated to redness large pieces, that, on fracturing, I found to contain portions of coarsely-pounded shells (flakes as large as one-fourth of an inch frequently occurring). On cooling, they were about the color of common salmon-brick; when moistened, they at once fall to pieces by the slacking of the shell-lime; and when exposed to the air they gradually waste away, the lime only slacking and causing disintegration as it absorbs moisture from the air. If formed of cement, they must have time to harden, and for that purpose must be removed from the mould on which they were formed, to prevent cracking by contraction; and here the cloth bandage becomes a necessity. But this cloth is a costly article, requiring a great expenditure of hand-labor and time. It must not be allowed to fasten

PSM V11 D600 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 5.

to the vessel as the cement hardens. To prevent this, a simple, natural device has been adopted. The pottery shows a laminated texture. No doubt every fresh layer of the cement has been hardly compressed on the previous one; for at hand we find the primitive tools that were used for the purpose, scattered over the site of this ancient manufactory, in shape of flat river-pebbles, all of which are polished on the flat surface, just as the digging edges of the stone spades are by use. Cement thus compressed would be too hard to take the perfect impression of the cloth bandage; but a thin layer, or even a

PSM V11 D601 American aboriginal pottery.jpg
Fig. 6.

wash, of river-silt or mud would take it, and at the same time prevent the cloth adhering to the vessel; and, when required to be removed, a slight surface-moistening would accomplish the object without jury to the cloth. The river-silt is sufficiently siliceous when in contact with a body of lime-cement, in process of time, to become almost as hard as the cement itself 1 have succeeded in separating perfect sections of this thin surface-lamina from the underlying mass; but in no instance have I found this coating on the plain bottoms of the vessels.

And now, reader, if you have patiently and attentively followed me through these ramblings, and still believe this ancient, simple, practical people went the roundabout road you have been led to suppose to accomplish an object, with great waste of time, labor, and material, when a simpler, more natural, and direct way was open to them, and which my researches convince me they adopted, I will ask you to accompany me up the hill, not by the steep ascent, through the cemetery, but up the ravine, past the sulphur-spring. You will find it gradual and easy; in fact, part of the old, well-beaten foot-trail is now a wagon-road; but, before reaching the top, the trail leaves the road and winds among the rocks, one branch sweeping off to the left to the ancient settlement. We will take the one to the right. When you near the top of the hill, though fully a quarter of a mile from the salt-spring, keep a sharp lookout, for you may chance on a good specimen of well-marked pottery. On reaching the crown, you will be some distance west of the old town-site. Here the plough has been working destruction for many years; but you cannot take up a handful of soil without finding in it the débris of the old salt-pans.

You are now in a lane separating a young apple-orchard, thickly grown with clover (so thick as to cover all specimens), from freshly ploughed cornfields, stretching far off to the south, over the grand valley of Eagle Creek.

If you can take your eyes from the charming landscape, climb with me the snake-fence into these ploughed fields, and examine the soil: you will not be likely to find any specimens worth saving, unless it be in an old fence-row, for the ploughshare has ground them and the corn has fed on them. Still, the soil is largely composed of disintegrated pottery. You may walk the furrows, examine the washes, the entire slope, to the east, to the west—you may follow its descent to the south—in every ravine, drain, or wash, you will find these remains, and you may possibly be repaid for your tramp by discovering among the wasted pottery and flakes of chert a spade, a rough and peculiarly-chipped arrow-point, or a flaked axe or chisel. But when your legs have given out, and you can walk no farther, you will have failed to find the boundaries that limit the district over which these remains are strewed. Then you will sit down and ponder in amazement, and ask, "What object would these people have had in carrying their broken pans and strewing them broadcast over so vast an extent of country, and so far from the salt-springs?" As you sit thinking, you feel the warmth of the setting sun. Its rays cast your lengthening shadow on the hill, and that of the hill far over the valley of the Saline; from these shadows you obstruct the rays of light, and from these glimmering rays you begin to realize that these simple people, who had advanced so far as to have learned the use and value of salt, probably from the herds of mighty animals that came to lap the water of the springs, or to lick the salt-impregnated earth, had also learned that the sun dried away the water and left the salt; and as they could not take the sun down into the valley to the water, they carried the water to the sun; and here on this southern slope, which then, as it does now, caught the first rays in early morning, its noonday beams, and evening kiss, were ranged scores—probably hundreds—of these primitive vessels, in which the sun, by its direct rays and heat-laden, southern breath, was doing the work of evaporation, yet not unaided by man. Around in every direction you find evidence of this, for every stone—and there are myriads—has been through the fire. They have been heated to redness and plunged into the brine.

Now, you may say I am indulging my imagination. Well, be it so. If I am, my imagination keeps within the bounds of possibility; while yours would endow these primitive people, whose only implements or tools seem to have belonged to the rude age of stone, with a skill in handling them far beyond what we in this enlightened age possess, with all our appliances. And you do this to give a color of truth to an entirely imaginary process, not sustained by a single fact.


  1. After writing the above description of the "Half-Moon Lick," I referred to Prof. E. T. Cox's report of it in the "Geological Surrey of Gallatin County," as published in the sixth volume of A. H. Worthen's "Report" of Illinois, and find that he has probably trusted to eye-measurement, and greatly understated the extent of this remarkable lick.
    I wrote to Mr. B. Temple, who confirmed what I had written, and furnished the actual measures, as given above.