People have been making pottery in the St. Croix Valley for thousands of years. A few contemporary clayworkers made a pilgrimage to St. Paul this week to see the work of their prehistoric predecessors.
St. Croix 360 helped organize the visit, working with the Science Museum of Minnesota’s curator of archaeology, Dr. Ed Fleming.
Fleming has spent several summers carefully excavating sites along the St. Croix River, uncovering considerable evidence of humans who lived here before any European set foot on North America. The discoveries were made not far from the studios and kilns of his visitors.
The group spent two hours touring the gallery and archives, examining ancient artifacts up close. Through it all, flowed a wide-ranging conversation with each other and the archaeologist — and with the prehistoric potters, who spoke across the ages through shapes, details, and delicate decorations, all crafted by their forgotten hands.
The visit was prompted in particular by potter Linda Christianson of Lindstrom, Minn. She has a passionate curiosity about the history of pottery in the region, sparked by St. Croix 360’s 2014 story on Fleming’s research at 800-year-old site near Marine on St. Croix.
Sheffield Site artifacts are part of a new gallery at the Science Museum. “Science Superheroes” features the museum’s scientific staff and their work around the world. It currently includes several displays of pottery from around the hemisphere, with one case dedicated to Fleming’s findings in the St. Croix Valley. (A crew was installing an exhibit focused on the St. Croix Watershed Research Station’s work the day we visited.)
The potters and Fleming started in that gallery, gathered around a glass cube with remains of pots that were crafted before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. In addition to St. Croix River pots, other ceramics in this gallery and the nearby Native American gallery were found elsewhere in Minnesota and the upper Midwest, by people of the same cultures that lived along the St. Croix River.
Fleming told the group he enjoys studying ancient ceramics because they can say so much about the people who made them, and artifacts from across the centuries show how cultures changed and evolved.
“You can make anything with clay, but they use these set patterns,” he said. There were reasons for following traditions so closely, much of it still unknown to modern people.
The prehistoric pots were used for several important purposes: cooking, serving, storing food, carrying water. You can still see what black hunks encrusted on the inside of some pots, what Fleming calls “CCC: Carbonized Cooking Crud.”
They were also adorned with specific patterns and symbols.
Guillermo Cuellar said it showed how they had “more significance than just their function.”
The same could be said for many St. Croix Valley potters today. One modern tradition is an emphasis on functionality, producing pots that are meant to be used daily, the process of eating and drinking from them a sacred interaction between user, potter, and clay. Yet, the pots are also beautiful to the eye, with symbols and significance far beyond their usefulness as vessels.
It’s worth noting that the modern potters are not necessarily continuing the indigenous traditions. While Minnesota is a globally-recognized as a pottery hotspot today, the potters are most likely to be influenced by Japanese and British traditions rather than Oneota or Sandy Lake, Mississippian or Woodland.
That doesn’t stop them from being fascinated by the work of these people who left remnants of their craft along the shorelines of lakes and rivers.
Who exactly the potters were is a persistent question. They did not sit at a spinning wheel, but probably around a fire, carefully shaping the clay using methods passed down over generations. In other indigenous cultures, pottery has often been the domain of women, and it’s possible that’s who performed this important work in the St. Croix Valley.
The Sheffield Site was occupied between 1300 and 1450 AD, based on carbon dating. This was the same time Geoffrey Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales in England.
Pottery is one of the best ways to know a site was occupied by Oneota.
“The most diagnostic trait of an Oneota population is probably the shell-tempered globular jar with a constricted orifice and a rounded bottom,” the Iowa state archaeologist says. “Shoulder decoration often includes geometric patterns comprised of trailed lines, which are sometimes bordered by punctates. Chevrons and variations of the chevron theme appear to have been a common ceramic decorative motif during some time periods.”
Dakota people later moved into the area, making their own pottery in a style called “Sandy Lake.” But then the Europeans arrived, bringing copper and iron vessels, and most likely, the experienced potters no longer had students seeking to learn the craft. The tradition fizzled for a few centuries.
Then came the 20th century potters, who are mentoring another young generation right now. One of the tour attendees was Peter Paul, an apprentice working in Cuellar’s studio with a Minnesota State Arts Board grant.
Fleming told us the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community has also recently hired a Oneida/Dakota potter to study the Dakota pottery tradition in Minnesota and attempt to revive it.
The tour ended in the museum’s 10,000-square foot collections archive, where rolling shelves contain artifacts from throughout time and across the world. Three rows were home to ceramics, with everything from Oneota to Hopi.
This was where everyone seemed to start feeling “overwhelmed,” like kids in a candy store, someone said. They slowly worked their way through the collection, seeing some recognizable styles and some that were new to their eyes.
They noticed where maybe one potter was more skilled than another, where the rim on a pot was perfect yet irregular, how styles changed over centuries and millennia.
Christianson later called it “humbling and thrilling.”
When the potters left, a little exhausted from the experience of time travel, they returned to their homes and studios, and got back to working with clay.