Remembering Ancient Pottery Traditions

Posted: October 4, 2016 - 15:15 , by Craig Cipolla
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Richard and Catherine examining ceramics made by their Ancestors.

By Richard Zane Smith, Catherine Tammaro, and Craig Cipolla

This summer Wyandot artists Richard Zane Smith and Catherine Tammaro visited the Royal Ontario Museum’s New World Archaeology collections. The purpose of their visit was to study a small sample of the ROM’s Wendat pottery collections in order to gain information on ancestral Wendat and Tionontati ceramic techniques.

Richard and Catherine examining the ROM’s New World Archaeology ceramic collection

The visit was part of a new project by Richard and Catherine that aims to teach traditional ceramic techniques through practical, hands-on workshops. What led them to this project is a shared interest in learning about their Ancestors and the things that they made and used in daily life.

Seventeenth-century pots from the ROM’s New World Archaeology collection (photo by Catherine Tammaro)

For instance, in his early twenties, Richard remembers being asked if his Ancestors in Ohio made pottery. He knew that his eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Wyandot Ancestors used brass kettles, lived in log cabins, and hunted using flintlock rifles. He knew that they used steel axes and knives and had horse-drawn wagons and plows. He knew that they kept cattle and hogs and had their corn ground at the local “Indian Mill” in Upper Sandusky. And he knew that they built schools and churches of brick and stone. At the time, all of these clues seemed to indicate that his Ancestors did not make their own pottery.

It turns out that all Richard needed to do to learn about the ancient pottery traditions of his Ancestors was to look deeper into Wyandot history. Before they arrived in Ohio, the Wyandot lived in Ontario, where they were known as the Attignawantan (Bear Nation) and Tionnontate (Tobacco Nation). It was here in Ontario where he discovered that his Ancestors did indeed make pottery! Upon this discovery, Richard began studying the ceramic traditions using photographs of ancient ceramics. To learn as much as possible and to get as close to the ancient forms as he could, he began making replicas of the ancient pots at this time. This eventually led him to begin teaching traditional Wendat/Iroquoian pottery classes with the Wendat in Wendake, Quebec and in his current home, Wyandotte, Oklahoma. For these initial workshops, Richard taught ceramic hand-building techniques that he developed from looking at photographs of ancient ceramics and trying to replicate what he saw.

Richard making traditional pottery in Wendake, Quebec, 2004 (photo courtesy of Richard Zane Smith)

Pottery made by Joanna Hadley and Pearl Chase, students at one of Richard’s workshops in Wyandotte, Oklahoma (photo courtesy of Richard Zane Smith)

Catherine began working with Richard last summer to bring a workshop on traditional ceramic manufacture back to Ontario. She studied ceramics extensively as a young art student and was interested in renewing her own ceramic practice highlighting her Wyandot Ancestral connection as well. Both Richard and Catherine see this as an important project because it would reinforce those cultural connections that they and other Wyandot members share with their Ancestors. It would also allow them to share important cultural information with anyone willing to learn such as their host at the ROM, Craig Cipolla (a curator of North American Archaeology).

Before planning the workshops in Ontario, however, Richard and Catherine wanted to learn more about Ancestral ceramic techniques. They wanted the opportunity to handle and physically examine ancient ceramics to help answer specific questions that Richard had formulated during the initial workshops in Wendake and Wyandotte. In order to arrange this part of the project, they reached out to ASI and the ROM.

Richard Zane Smith handling the ROM's 17th-century ceramics.

Richard handling seventeenth-century pots (photo by Catherine Tammaro)

Craig and Richard examine a photograph of a pot in ROM's collection room.

Craig and Richard discussing archaeology and ancestral ceramic traditions (photo by Catherine Tammaro)

Richard and Catherine examine ceramics made by their Ancestors

Richard and Catherine examining ceramics made by their Ancestors

In our next blog entries, we reveal more of the details of Richard’s and Catherine’s visit to the ROM, discuss the specific questions that they brought to the ROM’s collection room concerning ancient ceramic techniques, and explore how their project compares to other ongoing work in the field of archaeology in general and in the ROM’s New World Archaeology Department, in particular.