Pope's Creek Ware Sherd

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Torben C. Rick, Ph.D.

Dr. Torben Rick

Image Courtesy of Torben Rick

Dr. Torben Rick grew up on the California coast where he developed an interest in the ocean and its role in peoples' everyday lives at an early age. As an archaeologist and curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, he studies how humans have influenced and been influenced by the environments in which they lived for centuries and millennia. His work focuses on analyzing animal bones and shells from coastal archaeological sites to understand how marine ecosystems change through time and how people and natural climatic changes influence these developments. He has a bachelor's degree in Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Oregon.

Meet our associated expert

This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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An Example of Woodland Pottery
A88341-0, Department of Anthropology, NMNH, Smithsonian Institution

About Native American Traditions of Eastern North America

The first humans in eastern North America were small hunting and gathering societies that lived in the eastern woodlands of the United States and relied exclusively on wild plants and animals for their food. About 4,000 years ago, pottery first appeared in North America, but was not widespread until 3,000 years ago. Pottery was an important part of these societies as they shifted from their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one built around agriculture, specifically corn, or maize. At about the same time that maize became the most important crop plant in eastern North America, a major advance in ceramic technology also occurred. Native American societies in the Southeast and Midwest United States began to add ground clam shell to strengthen or temper their pottery clay. This allowed them to make much larger, stronger, and longer-lived vessels of many different shapes. Pottery is a key element of the archaeological record from approximately 1050 B.C., gradually increasing in both the quality and types of vessels made until European explorers and settlers arrived.

Baule woodcarvers at work, Yagolikro village, Ivory Coast
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1972. Image no. EEPA EECL 6900. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

About Humans and the Environment

Humans have always manipulated their environment, whether by acquiring food, making and using tools, or other aspects of daily life. They are constantly interacting with their environment on a daily basis. By using the available materials, humans have created shelter, made tools, created containers and vessels, and produced items of personal and cultural significance. Many of these resources are naturally occurring, such as stones, minerals, animal bones, or organic fibers from plants, while others are made from combining materials. The process of acquiring these materials and the manufacturing process can be traditional practices that are passed down from one generation to another. Because materials are unique to the location of different communities and cultures, by studying the types of materials, as well as animal remains found and the processes used to manipulate them, anthropologists and researchers can learn about the daily activities and lifestyles of the cultures they are studying. In what ways do you interact with your environment on a daily basis?

Smithsonian Archaeologists in the Field
Courtesy of William W. Fitzhugh


How Archaeologists Use Pottery to Learn About Cultures

Archaeologists and researchers use the broken pieces of pottery or ceramics ("sherds") that they find during their search for and excavation of ancient settlements to learn many things about the people who once lived there. These pieces of pottery can provide clues about the age of the settlement that lies buried below the surface and the types of activities that took place there. Just by looking at the sherd, archaeologists can often recognize the size, shape, and date of the vessel based on the sherd's shape, the material used to temper the vessel, and the designs incised into or painted onto its surface. The date of the vessel will also apply to the settlement underneath the surface. Ancient societies changed the shape of their pottery vessels and their designs over time, sometimes quite rapidly, and archaeologists have been able to develop "ceramic chronologies" for different regions of the world. They do this by excavating and dating (using carbon-14 or other methods) ancient settlements of different ages and determining what the pottery of different time periods looked like.

Researchers take detailed notes about objects found during their excavations
Courtesy of Stephen Loring, Dept. of Anthropology, NMNH

Practicing Archaeology

The discipline of archaeology has changed dramatically since the time when average people were searching for strange or exotic objects. Today's archaeologists carefully excavate sites by recording the context and stratigraphic relationship of the objects they recover. Archaeologists are careful to take detailed notes during the entire process. When people continue to live in the same location for a long period of time, they build on the remains of those who lived there before, thus creating layers of remains that can be studied to learn how people lived and how they interacted with other groups. Excavation, however, is only part of the process of archaeology. Today the archaeologist may use techniques of the chemical or physical sciences to study materials used in the past and to determine where they were made and if they were brought into a site from somewhere else. Another approach is that of experimental archaeology where archaeologists attempt to recreate the objects of the past to understand the process by which the objects were made. Examples of experimental archaeology might be making tools (e.g., flintknapping) or by attempting to recreate some special type of pottery.