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Native American pottery vessel tells story of winter survival

March 8, 2016

Filed under Archaeology Collections, Collections, Exhibit Opening, Exhibits, Pennsylvania Icons, Pennsylvania Treasures

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Clemson Island pottery vessel

Two sets of holes visible at that center right of this vessel were drilled on either side of a large crack, allowing for the large pot’s continued use as a food storage container by Native Americans.

Native American culture groups remain an important component in the development of our commonwealth.  This week’s Pennsylvania Treasure, now on exhibit in Pennsylvania Icons at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, features the significant archaeological recovery of a native-made clay storage vessel.

Archaeologists have developed a strategy for dating sites, based in part on the artifacts recovered.  This pottery type, identified by archaeologists as Clemson Island, dates to the Late Woodland period between 1000 and 700 years ago. This well-made pottery is decorated with punctates, a series of small round holes made with a hollow bone or reed, which encircles the rim.  Cord marked decorations, made in a herringbone pattern, are seen on the neck of the body of the artifact. The recovery of a vessel this large is quite remarkable.  Based on its dimensions, 20-inches-tall by 16-inches-in-diameter, the estimated volume of the vessel is seven gallons – space that would have been filled with dried foods such as corn, fish and plant materials that were essential for survival over the winter.  The vessel shows evidence of a repair in the drilled holes on either side of a large crack. Cordage or sinew would have been used to mend the crack.

Students from Lycoming College recovered the vessel in 1971.  Their discovery of Native American artifacts led archaeologists from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to investigate the Nash Site (36Cn17).   Research conducted at this site and other similar area have enabled archaeologists to develop a “picture” of life at a Clemson Island homestead.

Native American groups during the Late Woodland period lived in small hamlets, along the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers.  These hamlets contained small,extended family groups who lived in semi-rectangular houses. These people who made Clemson Island pottery were the first farmers of  Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Valley . They grew corn, squash, sunflower and seed plants such as chenopodium. They also hunted and fished. Farming required a more sedentary life and this probably resulted in changes in social organization.  Increased social order was necessary to insure that gardens were maintained, food was procured and processed and that sufficient  resources were preserved for the winter months.  Homestead sites frequently contained large refuse pits where archaeologists have recovered charred seeds from domesticated plants, freshwater mollusk shells and deer bones.  Archaeological evidence indicates that these sites were occupied for less than 10 years and are thought to correlate with the exhaustion of natural resources and decreases in crop production.  Other homesteads were reestablished in nearby areas a short distance from the original site.


About Pennsylvania Icons:
Featuring a diverse array of artifacts from the collections of the State Museum of Pennsylvania and other Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historic sites and museums, Pennsylvania Icons tells the story of our commonwealth, its people and the role they played in shaping the nation. The exhibit features historic artifacts ranging from a 1654 map of the Philadelphia region to pieces of the Walnut Street bridge in Harrisburg. Pennsylvania Icons opens to the public on Sunday, November 8, 2015.


About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.