Woodland and Mississippian Decorative Techniques

Vessel Polishers

Mississippian vessels were generally constructed using the coiling method. Hand-rolled coils of clay were built up from the base to create the general form of the vessel. The vessel was then smoothed on both the interior and exterior. Often additional texture or decoration were added to the exterior before firing. Once fired, the pot might be further polished using a clay polisher like those depicted at left. I have seen them referred to as "trowels" and "polishers", indicating that scholars are unclear as to whether they were used to help fuse together the coils during construction, to brighten up the finish of a fired pot, or perhaps both.

Woodland Period

Mineral Tempering

All ceramic vessels are created with clay to which some binding agent, called temper, has been added. This gives the vessel far greater strength. The earliest vessels in the Southeast were tempered with fibers of grass or roots. By the Woodland Period, mineral tempers became the norm. Grit, crushed rock, sand or ground ceramic sherds were the most common types.

Fabric Marked

Fabric Marked vessels have a rough surface whose texture resembles that of a textile. This is because the vessels were smoothed before firing with a wooden paddle wrapped in fabric. Once smoothed, the paddle was pressed against the vessel to provide the characteristic texture.

Cord Marked

Cord Marked vessels were prepared in the same manner as Fabric Marked pottery, except that the wooden paddle was wrapped with cord rather than fabric. This resulted in a finish which resembled incising, except that the lines are usually curved and very closely spaced, and their ends nearly always overlap.

Complicated Stamped

Sometimes paddles were carved with some sort of curvilinear pattern, which created a surface which was far more decorative. This decorative technique was particularly popular in the Swift Creek area of central Georgia. I suspect these textured types of "decoration" were in fact an effort to increase the handleability of the vessel, as they usually occur on pots without handles.

Rocker Stamped

Rocker Stamped vessels have patterns created by rolling curved "rocker stamps" over the surface of the vessel. Rocker Stamps usually create the appearance of regularized pinpricked decoration, and are often applied in linear or curvilinear patterns.

Mississippian Period

Shell Tempering

One of the major distinguishing features of the ceramics of most Mississippian cultures was the wholesale adoption of shell tempering. The use of crushed shells apparently had a number of advantages over mineral tempers. Chemical reactions created during the firing process made the vessels even stronger than before. The shell also aided in heat transfer, making cooking vessels far more functional. Shell temper is often visible on the exterior, making it an easy indicator.

Punctated Decoration

Punctated designs are those which were punched into the surface using some sort of sharp tool or even the fingernail. Usually the indentations are not very deep and are either conical indicating an awl-like tool, or elongated and rectangular indicating a narrow flat tool. The example at left is somewhat unusual in this regard. 

Incised Decoration

Incised decoration was created by drawing linear or curvilinear patterns on the unfired clay. Incised decoration is distinguishable from engraved decoration by the buildup of excess material along the edges of the incised lines. This is visible in the example at left.

Noded Decoration

The use of noding was limited to a fairly small area in the core region of Mississippian culture. Nodes are small balls of clay which have been added to the surface of the smoothed pot. Two varieties are found, the first having nodes situated in an allover pattern, the second having one or two distinct rows of nodes placed near the rim.

Appliqué Decoration

When patterns were created by adding raised designs in clay to the surface of a smoothed vessel, it is termed "appliqué". Noding might be thought of as a form of appliqué, but the typical form creates some variety of linear patterning. Zigzag is common, especially along rims, and beaded rims are also considered to be of this type.

Engraved Decoration

Engraved decoration was created by scratching away at the surface of a vessel which had already been fired, revealing the natural color of the clay below. This must be done with a very sharp tool, and as such, solid areas of engraved design always show telltale scratch marks created by the tool, and are often not even completely cleared of the surface color, as seen at left.

Painted Decoration

All of the previously mentioned decorative techniques have been "plastic", meaning that they were modifications to the actual clay of the vessel. Painting is a surface decoration, and was usually added to the vessel after it had dried, but before it was fired. Red and white were the most popular colors, black being a late addition.

Negative Painted

Negative painting involved painting the majority of the vessel some background color, usually black, but leaving the linear design unpainted. After the vessel was fired, the natural clay color remained light, showing through as the pattern color. This was often enhanced with the addition of a third color, usually red, to complete the design.


Introduction :: Culture Overview :: Vessel Forms :: Artifacts