Figure 1. The archaeological site of Spring Creek is in Muskegon County, Michigan. It is dated to the Late Woodland period and contained thousands of pottery sherds from more than 900 pots. 

Figure 2. The exterior of Sherd 1, a cord-marked sherd from Spring Creek. 

Figure 3. The exterior of Sherds 2 and 3, cord-marked pottery sherds from Spring Creek, Michigan.

by Molly Huisingh

Broken pieces of pottery can tell us a lot about the people that made them, from what foods they ate to the size of their village. Archaeologists call pieces of broken pottery sherds. Sherds can also tell us how old a site is. The Spring Creek site in Muskegon County, Michigan, is full of pottery sherds (Figure 1). The three sherds pictured here (Figures 2 and 3) showcase the collared rims and cord-marking characteristic of the Late Woodland period (500 BCE to 1000 CE). These sherds are representative of the thousands of sherds that were excavated at the site. In the 1950s, archaeologists excavated more than 17,000 sherds from an estimated 966 vessels.

The potters living at Spring Creek used coils of clay to form the pots that these sherds came from. To create these vessels, a potter would have rolled soft clay between her hands to create long, thin ropes. After this, she would have stacked the coils of clay on top of one another and then flattened them with her fingers. Sometimes, we can still see where the potter smoothed coils together inside the pot. On rare occasions, we can even see the potter’s fingerprints—hundreds of years after they were made.

The three sherds also have a thick, collared rim. Potters made these collars by folding the rim down over the exterior of the vessel and smoothing the end to the body. Both Sherds 1 and 2 have areas of the collar that are not smoothed down completely. Archaeologists are not sure if the collars were functional or were a form of decoration. It’s possible the thicker rim made the pot more durable. There is a correlation between thicker, collared vessels and a larger rim diameter (17.9 cm average) of pottery at Spring Creek, so it is possible that these larger pots were meant to be more structurally sound.

If you look at the broken edges of the sherds in bright light, they glint with small specks of crushed quartz and other minerals (Figure 4). These were used as what archaeologists call temper. Potters add temper to unfired clay to strengthen it and prevent it from cracking while firing. The temper varies depending on the type of pottery being made or the resources available. The crushed quartz comes from firing granitic rock, which breaks down into its crystalline minerals. Quartz makes pots more durable, but it is not a good temper for making cooking pots. Quartz expands faster than the clay during heating and can cause cracking during repeated use. Other examples of tempers include straw, sand, shells, and crushed rock, most of which would have been available at Spring Creek.

The vertical, uneven lines on these sherds’ exteriors are characteristic of cord-marked pottery. Cord-marking involves wrapping a wooden paddle with twine and pressing it against the exterior surface of an unfired vessel. At the same time, the potter presses a small stone anvil to the interior of the unfired pot. The cord helps keep the paddle from sticking to the clay. This practice keeps the wall thickness even and helps to join the clay coils. The cords leave behind a rough texture, reminiscent of tree bark, which varies with the paddle used. Some of the cord marks from Spring Creek were smoothed over before they were fired. It’s possible that the cord marks were just the style at the time. Functionally, they may provide a rough surface to help grip the pot when wet. Cord-marking also creates more surface area, which could help the pot heat faster during cooking. It’s possible that all three were reasons for making cord-marked pottery.

Sherd 2 contains three circular punctates just below the edge of the collar itself. Punctates are indents in the clay that can be rectangular, triangular, or circular in shape and are often used to decorate the rims of pottery. This shows that the potters added some elements of design for decoration. Sherd 3 shows a coarser form of cord-marking. “Coarse” cord-marking means that there are fewer cord impressions per centimeter of clay. Thus, the markings are more readily recognizable as separate vertical lines. This difference in style is evidence of the use of a different paddle. The number of cords wrapped around the wood and the distance between the cords themselves would have led to a unique pattern.

What purpose did Spring Creek Pottery serve? Collared and cord-marked pottery was popular at Spring Creek and other sites throughout North America that have been dated to the Late Woodland period. Spring Creek is interpreted by archaeologists as a village site, as it contains fire pits, post holes, and multiple middens filled with many cultural artifacts. The majority of sherds at Spring Creek were recovered from a midden. A midden is a place where people dumped their garbage, leaving behind broken pottery and other discarded objects. That so many of these pots ended up in the middens suggests that they were used for everyday purposes such as food preparation or storage. If the pots were sacred or ceremonial, they wouldn’t have been thrown away so readily.

As its name suggests, the Spring Creek site is near a small river, so one possible use for these pots was to transport water from Spring Creek to the village. Animal bones found at Spring Creek consist of white-tailed deer, beaver, black bear, raccoon, gray fox, muskrat, and a considerable number of mussel shell fragments. Collectively only 42 mammals were discovered. The low number of animals, as well as the low number of stone tools (only 344 tools, compared to 966 pots) tells us that Spring Creek was not a large hunting site.

Learning more about the specific cooking or storing function that Spring Creek pottery served would require a closer examination of the pots. Researchers could seek what Susan M. Kooiman calls “use-alteration traces”: the mark of food remains or carbon left on the pottery sherds. These manifest in interior and exterior carbonization and exterior sooting (dark discoloration). All three of the sherds appear to be darkened in certain places inside and out, but it is difficult to know whether these areas are traces of cooking activity, remnants of manufacture during firing, or the result of being tossed into a fire after being broken. Since these sherds are from the rim, we might not expect to see as much evidence of charred food as we would at the bottom. As mentioned, the use of quartz as a temper may also suggest that these pots were used more for water or storage purposes, rather than cooking.

These three potsherds found at the Spring Creek site show us traces of how they were made. The manufacturing and stylistic choices made by the potters tell us that they intended to make functional, sturdy pots, with a few stylistic elements for decoration. By closely examining the remains of these broken pots, we can begin to imagine how the people who made and used them interacted with the landscape. This offers us a rare chance to learn more about their lives, despite the many years between us.


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Figure 4. Side view of a pottery sherd from Spring Creek, Michigan, showing the quartz temper.