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In this exercise, students will:

  • learn how Indian people of North Carolina made and used coiled pottery;
  • summarize why archaeologists study pottery;
  • make and decorate a replica of a North Carolina coiled pot.


  • For the teacher, transparencies of “North Carolina Pottery,” of “Pottery Making Tips,” and of “Pottery Surface Treatments” for projection.
  • For each student, clay. Try to find clay that will harden without firing unless your school has a kiln. An assortment of pencils or popsicle sticks wrapped in string, plastic drinking straws, scraps of fabric with large weave patterns, such as burlap, plastic onion bags, dried corncobs, small smooth stones, toothpicks, or paper clips.


Chronological: pertaining to chronology, which is an arrangement of events or periods in the order in which they occurred.

Potter: someone who makes pottery.

Pottery: a ceramic item or material made of fired clay, usually in the form of a vessel.

Sherd: a broken piece of pottery; a shard.

Surface treatment: the way the outside surface of a pottery vessel has been finished by the potter. On ancient Native American pottery from North Carolina, surface treatments typically consisted of stamped or impressed designs made by cordage, nets, fabric, or carved wooden paddles pressed into a vessel’s surface while the clay was still wet.

Temper: material, such as sand or crushed shell, mixed with clay to make pottery stronger and to reduce the risk of it breaking.

Vessel: a hollow or concave utensil for holding something.


Pottery is common in North Carolina archaeological sites dating after 1000 BC. Its rather abrupt appearance about then signals the start of the Woodland Period, the era when people began living in semi-permanent villages and cultivating gardens of seed plants to supplement food obtained by hunting and gathering. During the Woodland, which lasted until AD 1000, people used pottery for storing food and water, and for cooking.

Today, archaeologists can learn a great deal about the life of North Carolina’s Woodland people by studying the pottery they left behind. For instance, archaeologists use pottery styles as a tool to study relationships among the different groups of Indian people living in North Carolina then. Archaeologists also study how pottery styles changed to learn about such things as diet and cooking techniques of earlier peoples.

To archaeologists, pottery is an important artifact because it can often indicate how old a site is. When fired, clay is very durable and is preserved long after organic materials decay. Because of its durability, pottery pieces (sherds), along with stone tools, make up much of what archaeologists recover from Woodland period sites. Because Woodland groups changed pottery styles and production techniques over time, pottery is a useful chronological marker. Also, because pottery styles are distinctive to particular groups of people, they can serve as cultural markers. Native cultures living in the three regions of North Carolina—the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, and the Mountains—during the Woodland were not the same. Their pottery styles and pottery making traditions varied.

Pottery is made from clay that is dug from the ground. Clay that was good for making pottery can be found in almost every part of North Carolina. To make pottery, Native Americans first had to dig the clay and then pound it to make sure there were not any big lumps in it. They mixed the clay with water to make it a putty with play-dough like consistency so they could shape it into bowls and other pottery vessels. To make a piece of pottery, the potter would first shape the bottom of the vessel from long coils or ropes of clay, and then add other coils to build the sides of the pot.

After the pottery vessel was shaped, the potter would smooth the inside and outside surfaces with his or her fingers, or a piece of shell or stone. Smoothing the pottery helped hold the coils together. Usually, the potter would then add patterns or designs to the outside of the pot. Archaeologists call this surface treatment. The pot was set out to dry. The next step was placing it in a fire. Burnable materials, such as bark or wood, were placed around the pot, which was left in the hot fire until the clay became hard.

Most vessels North Carolina Indians crafted were used for cooking. Typically, foods were boiled by placing the pot directly over a fire. Thus, cooking pots were usually deep bowls or jars. The latter had pointed bases which could be placed upright in deep ash. Shallower bowls were also sometimes made; these were used for serving food. The specific shapes changed from one period to another. Hence, archaeologists can use vessel shapes to help date the pottery they find.

Surface treatment is also an important element used by archaeologists for dating pottery. In the coastal areas of North Carolina, early Woodland people sometimes wrapped a paddle with cord and pressed the paddle against the unfired clay pot. Pots decorated in this way are called cord-marked. Fishing nets were also pressed against the surface of pots to create a criss-crossed pattern. In later times, people cut or incised lines into the pottery, or stamped it with carved wooden paddles. Sometimes dried corncobs and fabric were used to impress designs on pottery. Late Woodland coastal peoples often polished the outside of the pot with a smooth stone, and this is called a burnished finish. Pottery from other parts of the state have different types of decoration.

In addition to variation in shape and surface treatment, pottery vessels often differ in temper. Temper is material that was mixed with clay to make the finished pottery stronger and less likely to crack during firing. Sand, crushed shell, bits of fired clay, and small pebbles have all been used as tempering materials in North Carolina pottery. Archaeologists have found that looking at temper type is another good way to date pottery.

Setting the stage

Project the transparency of “North Carolina Pottery,” which shows three kinds of pottery North Carolina Indians made during Woodland times. Ask the students what they observe about differences in vessel shapes and surface decoration.


  1. Share the background information with the students.
  2. Distribute a piece of clay to each student.
  3. Project the transparency of “Pottery Making Tips” and go over steps in making coiled pottery with the students. Give students time to complete their pots.
  4. Project the transparency of “Pottery Surface Treatments” so that students can see the different types of surface treatment used on ancient pottery from the North Carolina Coastal Plain. Distribute the string-wrapped pencils, corncobs, onion bags, drinking straws, fabric, paper clips, and stones for creating surface treatments. Allow students time to decorate their own vessels.
  5. If your school has a kiln, fire the pots.


Summarize the reasons why archaeologists study pottery and the value the study of pottery has for identifying sites.


The students turn in their pottery for evaluation.


Have a Native American potter come to class to show students how he or she makes pots today.

North Carolina curriculum alignment


Grade 4

  • Goal 2: The learner will examine the importance of the role of ethnic groups and examine the multiple roles they have played in the development of North Carolina.
    • Objective 2.01: Locate and describe American Indians in North Carolina, past and present.

Grade 8

  • Goal 1: The learner will analyze important geographic, political, economic, and social aspects of life in the region prior to the Revolutionary Period.
    • Objective 1.02: Identify and describe American Indians who inhabited the regions that became Carolina and assess their impact on the colony.


Grade 4

  • Goal 2: The learner will develop skills necessary for understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes.
    • Objective 2.02: Use additional art media, techniques and processes which may include:
      • Fibers – stitchery, a variety of fiber weaving techniques, felting and quilting
      • Cut paper – complex symmetrical folding and cutting;
      • Sculpture – experiments with varied tools including small hand tools.
  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.03: Compare works of art from different times and cultures.

Grade 8

  • Goal 2: The learner will develop skills necessary for understanding and applying media, techniques, and processes.
    • Objective 2.02: Apply materials such that their unique properties and potential impact the artistic solution.
    • Objective 2.03: Apply a variety of techniques and processes when working with each material.
  • Goal 5: The learner will understand the visual arts in relation to history and cultures.
    • Objective 5.01: Consider the history, purpose and function of visual arts and analyze their impact on various cultures.
    • Objective 5.03: Compare and contrast relationships of works of art to one another in terms of history, aesthetics, and cultural/ethnic groups.

North Carolina Essential Standards



Grade 4

  • 4.C.1 Understand the impact of various cultural groups on North Carolina. 4.C.1.1 Explain how the settlement of people from various cultures affected the development of regions in North Carolina (languages, foods and traditions). 4.C.1.2 Explain how the artistic…

Grade 8

  • 8.C.1 Understand how different cultures influenced North Carolina and the United States. 8.C.1.1 Explain how exploration and colonization influenced Africa, Europe and the Americas (e.g. Columbian exchange, slavery and the decline of the American Indian populations)….



Grade 4

  • 4.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 4.CX.1.1 Understand how the visual arts have affected, and are reflected in, the culture, traditions, and history of North Carolina. 4.CX.1.2 Recognize key contributions…
  • 4.V.3 Create art using a variety of tools, media, and processes, safely and appropriately. 4.V.3.1 Apply a variety of methods of manipulating a single tool, safely and appropriately. 4.V.3.2 Compare characteristics of a variety of media. 4.V.3.3 Create art…

Grade 8

  • 8.CX.1 Understand the global, historical, societal, and cultural contexts of the visual arts. 8.CX.1.1 Understand the role of visual arts in North Carolina and the United States in relation to history and geography. 8.CX.1.2 Analyze art from various historical…
  • 8.V.3 Create art using a variety of tools, media, and processes, safely and appropriately. 8.V.3.1 Apply knowledge of safety and media to maintain and take care of the work space and art. 8.V.3.2 Use a variety of media to create art. 8.V.3.3 Evaluate techniques…