Primitive pottery class bridges a crack in time

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

   Students who participated in a Primitive Pottery class Saturday at Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area will have to wait until the Carter Mansion Celebration on Aug. 9 to find out whether they have mastered skills passed down from their Stone Age ancestors.
   Bob Estep, Chris Edens and Clark Sams -- teachers of the primitive pottery class -- also host one of only three traditional knap-ins remaining in the United States. Using bone, antler, stone or wood, they teach others how to fashion prehistoric-era stone tools at workshops conducted at Sycamore Shoals.
   About a dozen students, both young and young-at-heart, showed up at 10 a.m. Saturday to basically play in the mud and get their hands dirty. By the time class was over at 4 p.m., they had created bowls and fashioned animals and other items drawn from their imaginations. Because the clay must dry at least a week, the pottery will not be put through the firing process until the weekend of Aug. 9, when class will resume at Carter Mansion Celebration. Visitors will be treated to live music, dancing, and also will get a glimpse of the firing process as part of the traditional arts and crafts exhibitions.
   According to class instructors, clay can be a temperamental medium.
   Students were shown how to mix sand, or "tempering," with their clay. "When we fire this pottery, there are going to be thousands and thousands and thousands of microscopic cracks that are going to develop. What the tempering does is, when the crack begins, it's going to go right to a piece of that sand and it's going to stop because it can't go anywhere else," Edens said.
   Ideally, this is to help hold the piece together so it doesn't burst apart upon firing. But no matter how much tempering is in the clay, if the pottery is not heated evenly, it's doomed. "If it gets too hot too fast, it will blow that piece of pottery all to pieces. The same thing with when it cools down. It's got to cool down at its own rate. You can't pull the pot out of the fire too fast. No matter how bad you want to see it, you've just got to leave it in there," he said.
   The pieces are covered with ash and as the fire burns down, coals are continually raked across the top of the pottery to keep the wind from blowing on it. "If the wind blows across it and it's real hot, it could cause the same thing to happen. You'll hear it go 'ping!' And then you know you've got a bad thing that just happened," Edens said.
   Instructors offered a table displaying some of their triumphs and not-so-greatest moments. Also on display were Native American pottery shards from the Woodland and Mississippian periods.
   Edens said he always tells his beginning students, "I don't care how beautiful your piece of pottery is, don't get too attached to it; because realistically, you've got anywhere from a 50 or 60 percent chance of it coming through the firing, which means you may have as much as a 50 or 40 percent chance of it blowing apart."
   He pointed to a large conical-shaped vessel on display. "That big one on the stand down there is a failure, and the reason why, is I got in too big a hurry to do the firing and I messed it up. I should have just left it alone the first time and let it come through the firing, and I would have been OK. But I tried to heat it up again and the fire got too hot too quickly and it burst apart. But like I said, that's all part of the learning process."
   Estep has been doing primitive skills about 15 years. "I've always had an interest in the way things used to be done. I marveled at arrowheads and pottery, and always had an interest in what they were made out of, who used them, and what purpose they were used for.
   "I guess my first love is probably flint knapping -- making stone tools. I like to make knife blades and drills to demonstrate the pump drill with. I like to make stone tools for demonstration purposes and to show people that they really work. It's the technology that actually got us to where we are today. I like to teach primitive skills from the standpoint that it's everyone's shared heritage. We all have Stone Age roots," Estep said.
   He uses a small homemade clay pot to heat up pine pitch for arrows, knife blades and handles, he said.
   "One thing I like to tell people is not to just make this stuff and look at it. Use it, because it really does work. You can put it in the oven or you can set it on the eye of a stove. I like to use it outside on a fire pit.
   "Pottery in prehistoric times is what Tupperware is today, so to speak. They were using it to store food items in, seed and grains -- things they wanted to store to keep critters out. Also, they were using it to cook and eat out of. It was something that propelled us as a people. It made our life easier, so to speak."
   After Estep fires a pot, he said, he fills it with water and leaves it 24 hours to see how much water it will lose. "I'll put a little pencil mark on the inside of the rim when I put water in it, and if it drops to one-eighth of an inch, that's a good pot. Any more, it's too porous," he said.
   A small amount of water will appear on the outside of the vessel as condensation. "That also has a good purpose, because it helps cool the water inside. It's sort of like its own refrigeration process. It kept the water cool if you wanted to drink out of it during the day."
   One of the nice things about using pottery for cooking, he said, "is if you fill it up not quite to rim, it will only stay hot up to the point where the water is. Beyond that, you can grasp it. It doesn't get hot beyond that point."
   There are a lot of different ways of firing and a lot of people have their own techniques, according to Estep, who says he has used cedar, but prefers locust and other hard woods.
   "If a piece of wood is laying up against a piece of pottery during the firing process, it will create designs on the sides which are called 'fire clouds.' That is the dark and gray swirls around the pot. You turn a pot completely upside down when you're firing it; it will turn the pot black inside," he said.
   Pine creates a lot of dark fire clouds, according to Edens. "You'll see some that have black interiors. That's from the carbonization from the wood. Usually that happens when you lay a piece of pottery mouth down. The smoke and the carbon get caught on the inside of it, and it accumulates there, and that's what causes the inside to get black.
   "It also happens to the outside of a piece of pottery. If you use your piece of pottery like we hope you will, you'll cook in it. If you use it outside, then that carbonization will burn up and disappear off of it, but it will be replaced with new fire clouds. That's why they call it 'clouds' -- because they move around all over the piece of pottery. And that's a good thing. You want it to be mottled like that," he said.
   Pottery flourished and became more of an art form, rather than just something to cook out of, during the Mississippian period, according to Estep.
   "Basketweave was created by using a paddle with cordage wrapped around it. They did make another paddle where they carved designs in the paddle, and they would paddle the pottery with that and it would put a design in it. That was relatively late Mississippian times," he said.
   "It was pretty, but it also served a purpose, and that was to keep the pots from sliding out of their hands when theypicked them up," he said.