Prehistoric Pottery at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

Throughout the past year NMSC has been working on processing a large archeology collection from Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.  This collection contains a significant amount of prehistoric material, including some great examples of pottery dating to the Woodland Period.  While at NMSC, Josh Bradford researched and processed a large portion of this collection.  In this post, Josh summarizes the types of prehistoric ceramics found in the DEWA collection.

[The following blog post written by Josh Bradford.]

We write a lot about historic ceramics on this blog because we love them and come across so many of them. Recently, however, we had a large amount of Native American prehistoric pottery come through the lab, and I thought it presented the perfect opportunity for a closer look at the basics of some of these beautiful and interesting prehistoric ceramics.

All of the prehistoric pottery discussed here comes from two neighboring archeological sites in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which straddles the Pennsylvania/New Jersey Border along the Delaware River. The area encompassing the sites has had continuous Native American habitation, mostly the Lenape and their ancestors, for over 10,000 years, and was designated the Minisink Historic District or Minisink Archeological Site, a National Landmark, in 1993. Fortunately, the ceramics from these sites provide a good example of the progression and types of ceramics all throughout the Eastern Woodlands.


Map found on Minisink Valley Historical Society’s website.

Although the area contains sites stretching from pre-Archaic (>10,000 BP) to beyond Contact, and these two specific sites also contain Archaic artifacts and historic artifacts, when discussing prehistoric pottery it important to focus on the Woodland Period (or Eastern Woodland Period), which is commonly defined as beginning around 3,000 years ago. This is important because one of the main characteristics that define the Woodland Period is the introduction or invention of Pottery and its wide-spread use! Before the Woodland Period stone bowls and basket containers were used. Luckily, the two sites contain a wide range of prehistoric pottery from each of the three parts into which the Woodland period is broken: Early Woodland, Middle Woodland, and Late Woodland.

Early Woodland

 Early Woodland ceramics first began being produced around 3,000 years ago. As with most new technologies, prehistoric pottery became finer and more complex over time (although there are always exceptions). Figuring out which Woodland period each sherd of pottery comes from is done by examining its temper, thickness, and surface decoration. Of course, in the rare case of a whole vessel, the vessel shape can reveal the time period; Early Woodland pots often had flat bottoms and resembled the stone vessels from earlier periods. The temper, which was added to the clay to prevent the pot from breaking when fired, used during the Early Woodland was usually a course grit, which was crushed locally-available stone often mixed with sand or shell. On sherds, such as the one below on the left, it’s easy to see the grit in the broken edges. Early Woodland ceramics were also usually thick-walled. Finally, and often most revealing, is the decoration on the surface, typically the exterior. Early Woodland ceramics often had plain exteriors or were pressed with a net (such as the one below, although hard to see) or piece of fabric all over their surface. They were also frequently impressed with a cord-wrapped stick to make basic designs.


Middle Woodland

During the Middle Woodland period, from about 2,000 to 1000 years ago, Native Americans began experimenting with new tempers, designs, and vessel shapes, and ceramics became even more wide spread. While many of the same Early Woodland materials were used for temper, the grit was less course, and the stone or shell, sometimes used alone, often came from farther away through travel or trade networks (extensive trade networks are one of the defining features of the Middle Woodland). Vessel walls also became thinner and finer, and vessel shapes began to resemble what many think of as a classic rounded, tapered bottom prehistoric pot. Finally, exterior surface designs became elaborate, with incising, punctating, cord-wrapped stick impressing, and many other techniques becoming common, as does decoration of the pot’s rim. Additionally, in the Middle Woodland, regional and cultural commonalities in pottery design, temper use, and vessel shape become evident, and Archaeologists have identified different types or wares of pottery.


Late Woodland

 Finally, the Late Woodland, which ran from about 1000 years ago to contact with Europeans, brought intricate and elaborate, collared pottery. Again, temper became even more fine, and the materials used came from farther away, which allowed even thinner vessel walls. For the Late Woodland, vessel shape and design becomes even more important. Vessels with rounded shoulders and flared lips became common.  Additionally, and most defining of Late Woodland Pottery is the addition of a highly-decorated collar to the lip of the pot, parts of which can be seen in the pictures below.  While decoration techniques remained the same as earlier periods, they became much more elaborate on both the collar and the exterior surface of the pot, and occasionally zoomorphic designs were used. Cultural and regional wares also become more established and defined.


The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area has extensive Native American history, and the collection we’ve been working on contains artifacts of all types, time periods, cultures, and peoples. It is fortunate, however, that looking at just one type of artifact—in this case, prehistoric pottery—can reveal so much about each archaeological site or stratum within the site, especially the times periods they represent.  Although this is just the very basics of prehistoric pottery in the Eastern Woodlands and the periods within it, it does provide a simple example of how archaeologists can date sites and strata and provides and a good overview of Eastern Woodland Pottery.



Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland.

Kerber, Jordan E., ed. A Lasting Impression: Coastal, Lithic, and Ceramic Research in New England Archaeology. Praeger: Westport, Connecticut, 2002.

Louis Berger & Associates, Inc. Archaeological Survey of the Milford Transect, Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. East Orange, New Jersey, 1995.

Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission. Pennsylvania Archaeology.

Southeast Archaeology Center. Southeastern Prehistory, Middle Woodland Period.


About JessicaC

Jessica is a Museum Specialist in the Archeology Program at the Northeast Museum Services Center/National Park Service. She majored in history as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Geneseo, and has a master's degree in historical archeology from the University of Massachusetts-Boston. She is particularly interested in 18th and 19th century American history and material culture.
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One Response to Prehistoric Pottery at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area

  1. Pingback: NMSC: Our Best of 2016! | NMSC Archeology & Museum Blog

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