Preserving the Prehistoric Pottery of Nantucket

On a visit to the Whaling Museum, the first exhibit typically encountered is a display of Wampanoag artifacts. While these artifacts are a window to the many thousands of years of adaptation, technological expertise, and modes of settlement and subsistence by the island’s first peoples, they represent just a small fraction of Native American objects curated by the Nantucket Historical Association. Beginning in 2020, through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the NHA team began a major update to how the rest of this vital collection is preserved, studied, and made accessible.

Among the pieces on display at the Whaling Museum, one stands out: a beautiful, partially reconstructed pottery vessel. The use of pottery is an earmark of the Woodland period beginning around 3,000 years ago. On Nantucket, this was a time of environmental stabilization, as tidal estuaries, ponds, and salt marshes formed across the island. Archaeologists interpret the presence of pottery and its use on Nantucket archaeological sites as evidence of site use during the Woodland Period, coinciding with cultivation of indigenous plants, exploitation of salt marsh resources such as shellfish and grasses, and the establishment of community settlement areas and gardens. While people had been utilizing the island’s natural resources long before 3,000 Before Present Era (BPE) evidence suggests that during the Woodland Period, Native Americans were remaining on Nantucket on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. Early Woodland pottery is typically thick, grit-tempered, and undecorated. As ceramic and tool technology improved in the Northeast, so did the pottery forms, and by the Late Woodland period, vessels were typically stylized, sturdy, and refined, many having been shell-tempered and bearing distinctive decoration.

For tribal historians, archaeologists, and museum staff, Pre-Contact period Native American pottery is valuable for research in a number of key areas. As a starting point, because pottery is not easily transported, a deposit of pottery sherds often suggests a nearby settlement. Pottery in general, and various pottery forms, relate to specific time periods, helping to refine the age of archaeological sites within the Woodland Period. Protein and lipid residue analyses can show what a piece was used for. For archaeologists in the sub field of ceramic archaeology, complete or partially reconstructed vessels provide data on the size and volume of containers, methods of construction, and cultural identity through craftsmanship and design. The list goes on, from migration and trade patterns, to cultural affiliations with neighboring communities, population density, discard behaviors, production methods, technological innovations, and linear connections to artisans today.

The Cape and Islands at 9,000 BPE
The Cape and Islands at 9,000 BPE, before the Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds were formed due to sea level rise. Courtesy of Gray & Pape Heritage Management.
Partially reconstructed pottery vessel on display
Partially reconstructed prehistoric pottery vessel. On display at the Whaling Museum, Nantucket.

Stone tools make up the bulk of Native American artifacts now stored at the NHA and rightfully garner much attention. They are, for the most part, complete and familiar; stone artifacts are difficult to break, and share many of the same functions as similar tools used today. The collection also contains research-rich materials from excavation sites, including soil samples, charcoal fragments, animal bone, and the field notebooks of dozens of archaeologists. Research and exhibition potential meet with the hundreds of pottery fragments, or sherds. These pieces represent dozens of vessels and clay pipes, and most were painstakingly labeled by archaeologists in the field so that they might someday be studied and reconstructed.

Pottery sherd
Pottery sherds excavated by archaeologists on Nantucket, housed at the NHA’s collections management facility.

Dr. Elizabeth Little, who over several decades spearheaded research on the pre-historic and early colonial periods on Nantucket, often discouraged further excavation and disturbance of Native American sites on the island. Little recommended that “the abundant available resources not requiring excavation form the basis for…thorough study.” Today, the collection is being migrated into long-term storage solutions based in part on the potential for future research. Ceramics bearing clear provenance are carefully wrapped in tissue and bagged according to where they were excavated. Even with this information, potential areas for study can be difficult to identify. As objects are taken out of an excavation site and grouped by material, context is lost. Years in storage makes residue analysis more difficult, and rather than working directly with the archaeologists who conducted the field work, there is a reliance on the records they left behind. Still, the collection can help answer some of the fundamental questions about prehistoric pottery on Nantucket: Was pottery made here, or brought from other places? Is there pottery on Nantucket that is stylistically unique? Can the pottery on Nantucket be sourced to Martha’s Vineyard or the mainland? How did pottery change on Nantucket? What was collected, stored, and cooked in Nantucket pottery? There has never been a major study in these areas. The collection housed at the NHA contains thousands of artifacts, many associated with specific excavation sites, that have not been researched for decades, if ever. Preparing these artifacts for future research requires painstaking work, from record keeping and maintenance to careful handling and storage. From an exhibition perspective, the display of material types like pottery allows museums to interpret North American prehistory in new ways, with less emphasis on stone tools so familiar to audiences, and greater appreciation for the rich, textured lifeways of Native Americans from the distant past.

The views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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