Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/March 1898/Fabric-Marked Pottery

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search


THE cord markings on American pottery have been usually ascribed mainly to a desire on the part of the aboriginal potter for decoration. While this may in some cases have been the purpose of the application of the fabrics, which are so distinctly seen in the casts made by Mr. Holmes, it has occurred to me that originally the decorative purpose, if there was any, was quite a secondary matter, and that the real object of the net or coarse fabric was to aid construction. It was one of the means invoked by the primitive potter to enable him to handle his pot or jar when complete and before it could receive the firing.

As these vessels show no evidence of the "coil": process, he must have used some kind of a mold or form. If built on interior molds of indurated clay, as has been suggested,[1] there would be great difficulty in removing the pot from the mold, hence it seems to me this was not the kind of mold used.

The earlier potters probably used baskets that came up to the curved-in part of the jar, which was continued above the basket by deft handling, or, if a basket of the same form was followed, the basket was destroyed in the firing process. This would seem to the modern mind a great waste of time and material, but it must be remembered that the Indian potter had not learned modern haste, and besides could turn up a coarse basket in a very short time. Therefore it does not seem improbable that he may, in the early stages, have modeled his jar on the inside of a basket frame of similar form and then allowed the basket to be consumed in the baking

PSM V52 D695 Fabric marked jar and the fabric.png
Fig. 1.—A Fabric-marked Jar. Fig. 2.

process when it could not be separated from the vessel. Even when he developed to a point beyond and modeled the upper portions with a free hand, he would find great trouble in separating his jar from its framework. What, therefore, would be the following step? It seems to me it would have been the placing between the clay and the mold of a piece of netting, which would permit him to lift out his jar easily and intact, and transport it to the drying place. He would then speedily discover that his basket was not necessary—was not so serviceable, in fact, as a hole in the ground, for the sides of the hole could be plastered with a layer of very sandy clay, and thus would all sticking of the vessel to its mold be avoided.

The netting, or fabric, having been spread as evenly as possible over the inside surface of the mold hole, the upper edges were allowed to lie out upon the ground. The soft clay being now pressed evenly upon the fabric to the required thickness, the sandy surface of the mold hole easily gave it shape and gave the potter no anxiety about the outside surface. Indeed, he had but one surface to watch till he came to the incurve, if his vessel was to have a narrow mouth. Then, I surmise, he built up roughly a clay mold, well sanded, pressing what was left of his fabric into the inside of this mold as he built his vessel upward. Frequently, doubtless, the fabric was not sufficient to go to the top, which explains why sometimes only a part of a jar shows the cord markings. The jar completed, it was easy to pull away the upper mold shell of clay and by means of the fabric lift the vessel out of the mold hole and remove it to the drying spot, where the fabric was peeled off and handles or other projecting parts added. The cord-markings are plainly shown in Plate XXXIX, from Mr. Holmes's casts.

The distorting and overlapping of the meshes observed by Mr. Holmes were probably due to the gathering in to fit the interior of the mold, for it must be borne in mind that the fabric was not shaped in any way to fit the mold, but was doubtless a fragment of some squarely woven article. Thus gathering and overlapping were necessary to make it conform to the inside surface of the mold.

When coarse basketry was used for a mold that was intended to be removed before firing, the interstices of the basket work were probably rubbed full of a mixture of sand PSM V52 D696 Mesh pattern for pottery impression 1.pngFig. 3. PSM V52 D696 Mesh pattern for pottery impression 2.pngFig. 4. and clay to prevent the finished vessel from sticking or catching, which explains, I think, the peculiarity of design in some cases, for only the more prominent features of the basket work would impress the vessel. In Mr. Holmes's fine paper on this subject in the Third Annual Report of the United States Bureau of Ethnology, the illustrations—Figs. 1.07, 108, 109, 111, and 112—present this peculiarity of design, due to the fact that the chief members of the basketry were covered by the sand-clay mixture. It seems quite probable that to gain stiffness these baskets may also have been put into a ground mold. I have not been able to examine the interstices in the casts Mr. Holmes so cleverly made, but a careful examination would probably show evidences in favor of the mold-hole idea. The fabrics used, being of a uniform thickness and easily removed, impressed themselves fully upon the exterior surface of the jar, the plain portions being the impress of the smoothed sides PSM V52 D697 Fabric with sparse wicker impressions.pngFig. 5. of the mold hole. Of the wicker-marked ware, however, only the prominent projections of the form made an impression, the plain surfaces corresponding to the sandy filling that was resorted to for preventing the soft clay from squeezing into and through the interstices. In some kinds of basketry more filling was necessary than in others, which explains the frequent greater separation and irregularity of the markings. For example, Fig. 5 shows far less of the wicker impressions than Fig. 3, and Fig. 2 gives only the irregular salients of an exceedingly coarse support. It seems probable that the wicker-marked pottery is the most primitive, and an extended study of it might lead to a clearer understanding of the beginnings of pottery-making. The next distinct advance was apparently the use of a fabric as a base, supported by some smooth surface, and then as a further development the coil ware, a process still in use among the Moki, and the simplest and easiest way of modeling a clay vessel without the aid of the wheel; progress in pottery, as in other arts, having been in the direction of simplicity of construction combined with skill in execution.

The probable line of development in pottery-making was then about like this:

1. Made on the outside of a wicker form. Confined chiefly to bowls. 2. Made on the inside of a wicker form. 3. Made on netting in mold hole. 4. Coil-made. 5. Wheel-made, which Indians seem never to have attained.

There was doubtless no sharp line of separation anywhere between these several stages, but they merged into each other as the dawn merges into the day.


The most important of the accessions to the library of Columbia University during 1897 was a gift of 387 books, mainly illustrated works in art. architecture, and natural history. Among them are Audubon's Quadrupeds, Sepp's Nederlandsche Insekten, Gould's Humming Birds, Le Vaillant's Oiseaux d'Afrique, and other illustrated works in natural history, many of them colored by hand; a hand-colored copy of Catlin's American Indians, Schoolcraft's Indians, Pennant's Archæological and Zoölogical Works, with rare and valuable portraits, and books on the Baltic provinces, Livonia, and Frisia.
  1. George E. Sellers. Popular Science Monthly, vol. xi, p. 573.