Museum archaeologist receives $20,000 to analyze Swift Creek pottery

July 11th, 2011

Photos available

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida Museum of Natural History researcher Neill Wallis recently received a $20,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation to analyze and digitally document pottery made by prehistoric people of the southeast U.S.

The grant will help Wallis analyze Swift Creek Complicated Stamped pottery used by hunter-gatherers of northern Florida, Georgia and eastern Alabama from A.D. 100 to 800. Methods include recording vessel shape and form, photographing designs, and conducting neutron activation and petrographic analyses and radiocarbon dating soot on the pottery. The grant will fund the neutron activation and petrographic analyses.

“This will be useful to many archaeologists working in Florida, Georgia or Alabama – there are a lot of sites that have Swift Creek pottery,” Wallis said. “It’s really going to give us a sense of how hunter-gatherers interacted with other hunter-gatherers.”

The research will expand the work Wallis conducted for his book, “The Swift Creek Gift: Vessel Exchange on the Atlantic Coast,” published in February. The book, featured in April by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian Library, showed significance could be found in seemingly meaningless items, such as cooking pots that were found to be exchanged long distances.

“This project is of a much larger scale, to create a database we can continue to build on in the future,” Wallis said. “When we have enough data, we should be able to pick out patterns of population migration, marriage alliances, or exchange, and actually be able to discern the difference between those things.”

Swift Creek pottery is unique because the designs created by stamping a paddle into a vessel before it is fired can be traced to specific sites with vessels sharing the same impressions. The designs are like “fingerprints,” enabling researchers to map where ancient people lived, the distances they traveled and with whom they interacted, Wallis said.

The samples are from the Woodland period, which spanned 1,000 B.C. to A.D. 1,000, a time of considerable cultural development and increased burial mound ceremonialism, Wallis said.

“Around 1,500 years ago, people were organized in ways we don’t understand that well,” Wallis said. “At a level of social organization somewhere between large chiefdoms and small bands of hunter-gatherers, anthropologists don’t have a very good idea of how those people interacted or how exchange or mobility shaped their society. This pottery allows us to establish patterns in the movement of ancient people or the movement of objects in ways no other artifacts can.”

About one-third of the samples used for the project are housed in the Florida Museum’s collections. Other contributors include the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, the University of South Florida, the University of Georgia and Valdosta State University.

The University of Missouri will conduct the Neutron Activation Analysis, a process of determining chemical signatures for the pottery and distinguishing local and non-local pieces. Ann Cordell, a senior biological scientist at the Florida Museum, will conduct the petrographic analysis, which identifies the mineral inclusions in the clays.

The Wenner-Gren Foundation is a private organization supporting worldwide research in all branches of anthropology. The foundation awarded Wallis the maximum funding available to applicants in the “Grants for Post-Ph.D. Scholars” category for the one-year project, which began July 1.

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Source: Neill Wallis, office: 352-273-1920, cell: 352-745-6888, nwallis@flmnh.ufl.edu
Writer: Danielle Torrent, dtorrent@flmnh.ufl.edu
Media contact:  Paul Ramey, 352-273-2054, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu