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Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Potomac Creek Ware

Potomac Creek Ware
Potomac Creek Ware
Potomac Creek Ware
Potomac Creek Ware
Period: Late Woodland
Defining Attributes: Potomac Creek Cord Marked and Potomac Creek Plain are recognized within this ware. Their temper has been described as crushed quartz and/or fine to medium grained sand with a compact and hard paste. The most distinctive element of Potomac Creek Ware is the elaborate corded-decorations below the rim.
Chronology: Traditionally, Potomac Creek ware has been dated to 1200 CE through the seventeenth century (Potter 1993:125). Recent work at the Potomac Creek site (44ST0002) conducted by the College of William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research returned calibrated corrected radiocarbon dates of 1260 to 1655 CE (95 percent probability) with a median date of 1458 CE (Blanton et al. 1999: 22).
Distribution: In Virginia, Potomac Creek ceramics are found primarily in the northern Coastal Plain and adjacent Piedmont near the Fall Zone, and to an unknown extent on the Eastern Shore. A few sherds have been found as far south in the Interior Coastal Plain as the north shore of the James River in Charles City County and in Goochland County, west of Richmond. The ware occurs as far west as the Shenandoah Valley at the Keyser Farm Site in Page County.
Description:
Paste/Temper: In what is perhaps the most often used definition Stephenson et al. (1963: 115) states: “Temper is predominately of angular crushed quartz with occasional inclusions of other crushed, hard rock or coarse sand. Temper particles are 1 to 4 mm in diameter, but usually about 2 mm. A minority of sherds is tempered with coarse to medium sand but with small amounts of crushed quartz.” In the 44ST0002 sample, rounded to sub-angular grit alone or in combination with a fine to medium grained sand rather than crushed quartz predominated. This generally agrees with descriptions in Schmitt’s 1942 analysis (Stewart 1992: 40) which referred to “coarse” and “fine” gravel. Coarse gravel was defined as “quartz gravel apparently obtained from the beach of Potomac Creek.” with particles ranging in size from 1 to 7 mm (Stewart 1992:40). The rounded to subangular grit particles are consistent with the coarse grained portion of river sand. Fine gravel was defined as a variation of coarse gravel with particles sizes running consistently smaller (due to crushing of larger particles) with an average size of 1 mm or smaller (Stewart 1992: 40).
Surface Treatment: The original definition of Potomac Creek Ware included two types: Potomac Creek Cord Impressed and Potomac Creek Plain (Stephenson et al 1963:113). The primary characteristics defined for Potomac Creek Cord Impressed were corded decoration (for which it was named) and cord-marked surface treatment. It is noted that “Decoration is always present.” on Potomac Creek Cord Impressed sherds. Potomac Creek Plain was defined as having plain or smoothed surfaces with little or no decoration. Stephen Potter (1993) redefines the cord-impressed variety as Potomac Creek Cord Marked based on its surface treatment. This new designation is more useful because decoration is usually restricted to rim sherds, and some vessels are not decorated at all. The surface treatment most prevalent in the sample from 44ST0002 was cord marked (71.4 percent), followed by smoothed-over (23 percent), and plain (5.6 percent). Smoothed surfaces often contained roughened areas which probably represent residual cord marking. Cord marking and smoothed surfaces encompassed sherds of all temper types and were most often associated with sand and grit and grit tempers. Plain sherds also fell into all temper categories, however over 50 percent of the plain sherds were found to have little or no temper.
Decoration: Decoration of the sherds from 44ST0002 is confined to the rim and neck portion of vessels. The majority of the decoration is the result of cord impressions applied horizontally, diagonally, or vertically to the vessel rim. Incising and punctation is also occasionally present. Of all the vessel rims identified from 44ST0002, 44.1 percent were decorated. When decorative technique and motifs are compared, several important trends may be identified. The majority of vessels decorated with cord impression had the horizontal motif (60.4 percent). The remaining 39.4 percent were diagonal top left (15.1 percent), and diagonal top right (3.8 percent), vertical (6.65), simple designs (9.4 percent), complex designs (1.9 percent), and unidentified (3.8 percent). Motifs on vessels decorated with the cord-wrapped dowel technique were more variable: 27.3 percent were horizontal, 5 percent diagonal top left, 22.7 percent simple designs, and the remaining 25 percent vertical, diagonal top right, and complex designs. This clustering of particular decorative techniques and motifs may indicate particular trend within the Potomac Creek ceramics industry.
Morpholopgy:
Vessel Form: Of the four basic vessel forms recognized, jars are by far the most common, followed in frequency by miniature vessels and bowls in similar proportions, and then by beakers (deep conoidal vessels). Jar forms with their constricted necks are commonly regarded as vessels for storing liquids, but they can also be useful in cooking. These are the vessels that tend to have cord-marked surfaces and grit tempering. Schmitt (1965) and Stephenson et al. (1963) commented decades ago on the common occurrence of miniature vessels. Most of these vessels fit into the Moyaone category. They show a range of forms that include jars, bowls, and ladles, and always are less than 10 cm in diameter.
Vessel Diameter: A plot of rim diameters shows that jars tend to be the largest vessels in use. Most have orifice diameters 20 to 30 cm, but another, less common group, is even larger (30 to 40 cm). Bowls tend to be smaller than jars, with most having orifice diameters of less than 20 cm, but not smaller than 15 cm.
Vessel Height: Jar depths range from 13 to 30 cm, but are usually 20 to 25 cm.
Rim Form: Rims are predominantly flared, forming a constricted neck. Rarely are rims straight or slightly inverted. An extra band of clay is applied to product a thickened rim from 1 to 3 times the body thickness.
Base Form: Rounded bases.
Vessel Wall Thickness: Relatively thin. Thickness usually ranges from 4 to 7 mm, except for the artificial rim thickening. Vessels of sandier temper range from 6 to 10 mm in thickness.
Discussion: Examination of a sample of cordage impressions on the 44ST0002 sherds establishes a dominance of Z-twist cordage on Potomac Creek surface finishes and decoration. Elsewhere in the region, Z-twist cordage predominates, including on Late Woodland Townsend, Shepard, Shenks Ferry, and Monongahela wares (Johnson, personal Communication 1998). Cord impressions on vessel bodies show a remarkably high frequency of Z-twist cordage (96 percent), while cord decoration includes about 12 percent S-twist cordage. It is notable that the finishes of two shelltempered sherds from the site (one Keyser and one Townsend) both exhibit S-twist cordage. In addition, sherds that fall into categories previously designated as Potomac Creek Sand Tempered or Moyaone ware have also been included in this discussion due to shared ceramic characteristics and provenience. Potomac Creek Ware is also closely related to Moyaone Ware, which occurs in the same region. Moyaone Ware is just slightly later in time. All three ware-Potomac Creek, Moyaone, and Camden-probably overlap and represent a continuum in the Potomac River Valley.
Defined in the Literature: The ware was first described by W.H. Holmes (1903: 155-156) based on surface collection material from the Potomac Creek Site. Recent research has often used refinements of this type complied by Stephenson et al (1963) based on ceramics from Maryland’s Accokeek Creek site.
References: Blanton, et al.1999; Holmes 1903; Potter 1993; Schmitt 1965; Stephenson, et al. 1963; Stewart 1992; Stewart 1994.;
Prepared By: William & Mary Center for Archaeological Research 2001; Egloff 2009

Updated February 6, 2020