Twentiethcentury Changes

Catawba pottery has survived because it remains Indian in character and marketable to non-Indians. The tradition does not, however, exist in a museum setting. Today's burning method is a masterful innovation that takes advantage of modern technology yet honors the primary requirement that the pottery remain Catawba in appearance. Fewkes was the first to note a change in the burning process: "One of the most recent innovations in firing is the use of the kitchen stove and a tin wash tub. Vessels to be fired are first placed within such a tin tub, reposing upon its bottom, some six to twelve pieces at a time. The tub is then set upon the stove, in which a moderate fire has been started in the meantime. More fuel is gradually added and the heat is increased, reaching 500 degrees to 600 degrees F" (Fewkes 1944:92).

Use of the kitchen stove allowed the potters to eliminate tending a fire for several hours while the vessels completed the drying process and were preliminarily heated. This simple innovation eventually allowed the potters to shift the drying process from a metal container placed on the stovetop to the oven where the drying and initial heating is most often conducted today. While the potters will accept changes that make life easier, they remain conservative in nature. Again, however, the acceptance of the kitchen oven was slow and did not take place until the Federal Wardship period between 1940 and 1960. Even then, some potters were forced to change their burning method because of circumstances. For instance, Sallie Beck recalled that her family began to use the oven after the old home place burned down. The Beck's new dwelling did not have a fireplace, and Sallie Beck found it necessary to adjust to the new burning process if she were to continue her pottery making (Sallie Beck, interview, 21 April 1977, BC).

While a degree of change came to the tradition, the potters still needed the bonfire to complete the burning. Only the open fire will allow them to retain the mottled colors of their wares that are so crucial to the appearance of Catawba pottery.

Contemporary Burning Method

Once the vessels are built, scraped, rubbed, and considered dry enough to begin the burning process, the potter waits for a day free of wind. The potter begins the day's tasks at dawn or early in the morning. Edith Brown described her procedure in some detail: "Today I heat them in the oven. I put it on preheat for half an hour, then up to 200 degrees for half an hour, then 250 for half an hour, then 300, 350, 400, and 500, and then you can smell them. I'll be having my fire [out in the yard] burning down to the coals (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April 1977, BC).

The potters must coordinate the vessels' heating and drying in the oven and the preparation of the final fire to which the vessels will eventually be transferred. In 1977, I assisted Mrs. Georgia Harris in the entire process. Eleven vessels, both large and small, were put in the oven at 200 degrees at 9:00 a.m. The temperature was gradually raised until the temperature at noon was 300 degrees. At 1:45 p.m. a fire was built in an unsheltered part of the yard. This fire burned heartily until the pottery in the oven turned a dark gray color. When the pottery changed color, it was judged ready to be moved to the bonfire.

Next, the fire was leveled to form a bed of coals. Then the pottery was removed from the oven: the larger pieces were placed in galvanized buckets and the smaller were placed on a cookie tin. The largest pot was put mouth down in the middle of the glowing coals, and the smaller pieces were arranged around it. All was then covered with a thick layer of wood. This transfer was accomplished in seconds to reduce the danger of shifting temperatures and any breakage that might result. So hot were the pottery and the bed of coals that the dry wood immediately burst into flames. As the fire burned, open places were quickly covered with more wood. After about an hour, the heat was so intense that we had to abandon our station close to the fire.

At 4:45 we returned to the fire again after it had burned down to a mound of ash. The legs of the largest pot protruded from the ashes. Mrs. Harris then took an iron rake and gently brushed the ashes away and exposed the vessels. At this point, a cracked swan bowl was discovered, and it was left in the coals. When all the vessels were exposed, Mrs. Harris covered the pottery with large pieces of pine bark. This was done, she explained, to help with the mottling which is so characteristic of Catawba pottery. As the bark burst into flames, we watched the mottled places appear, grow, and sometimes fade away. After this fire died down, the vessels were removed from the coals (Georgia Harris, interview, 24 March 1977, BC). The pottery had actually been exposed to the bonfire for over three hours. The entire process had taken about six hours.

Weather conditions remain the major problem with burning outdoors, and the resulting innovations to compensate for this variable element are numerous. For instance, Effie Robbins, working in the 1940s, burned her pottery in a hole in the ground, as did Martin Harris (Martin Harris, interview, 13 April 1977, BC; Earl Robbins, interview, 13 May 1987, BC). Lula Beck and Reola Harris used an old tin tub or drum (Lula Beck, interview, 22 March 1977, BC; Reola Harris, interview, 10 May 1977, BC). During an unexpected rain shower, the potters who do not have a sheltered fire must run for sheets of tin to protect their pottery (Frances Wade, interview, 24 February 1977, BC). Most recently, Cheryl and Brian Sanders have burned their wares in an open shed. The interior is lined with tin to protect the building from catching fire during a very hot process.

The type of wood used is straightforward. Under the best of conditions, the potters use seasoned oak. Blackjack is common in the area (Georgia Harris, interview, 16 February 1977, BC; Arzada Sanders, interview, 25 January 1977, BC; Reola Harris, interview, 10 May 1977, BC). The potter must be wary of green wood. For instance, Georgia Harris noted that if sap should emerge from the burning logs and fall on the pottery, it will leave scars (Georgia Harris, interview, 16 February 1977, BC). Nola Campbell illustrated this problem in 1989 when she observed an inexperienced Indian put chemically treated wood lathing on a fire and damage an entire burning of pottery.

Some potters attribute the vessel's final color to the kind of wood used. For instance, Arzada Sanders claimed that pine will make the pots red and that oak will give a better color (Arzada Sanders, interview, 25 January 1977, BC). Fewkes was told that pine tended to make the vessels lighter in color as did oak, hickory, and dogwood (Fewkes 1944:90). Some of the potters have no theories on this matter and are content with any seasoned wood.

In the last step in the burning process, many of the potters smother the fire with bark or wood chips (Edith Brown, interview, 21 April

1977, BC; Evelyn George, interview, 25 March 1977, BC; Sallie Beck, interview, 21 April 1977, BC). In doing this, the potters hope to increase the clouding on the vessels. When Fewkes was doing his research in the late 1930s, corncobs were often used when bark was not available (Fewkes 1944:90). Today, the main difficulty seems to be in obtaining suitable material for this part of the burning process. Bark is in short supply. Few people cut wood with an axe, and wood chips are difficult to find (Bertha Harris, interview, 3 February 1977, BC).

Catawba pottery production has always been limited except among those potters who wholesale their work to shops. Georgia Harris recalls that her grandmother, Martha Jane Harris, usually burned about a dozen pots in each fire. In recalling the work of Martha Jane Harris, Jessie Harris said she would burn about two dozen pipes at a time. If she had a very large vessel, it would be burned alone (Jesse Harris, interview, 14 April 1977, BC). This kind of special attention is still given to the burning process by master potters.

Black Ware

Today, all the Catawba potters produce some black ware. Depending on the time spent polishing the vessels, these range from a dull but uniform black color to a high glossy black. These vessels are noted for their lack of clouding. This color is attained by completely smothering the fire so that no oxygen reaches the vessels. Some Catawba potters are happy if one or two vessels emerge from the fire with this even black coloration, and others try to burn all their vessels jet black.

When Edward Palmer of the Smithsonian visited the Eastern Band Cherokees at the end of the nineteenth century, a dwindling number of Cherokee potters were still producing a traditional black ware. According to Sally Wahoo, a Catawba potter who had married into the Cherokee Nation in the 1830s, this burning method was Cherokee in origin (Holmes 1903:53). By the 1880s, the Catawba had adopted this technique as their own and used it almost exclusively for pipes. Harrington observed such a burning: "Pipes are stacked upon between two fires to receive their preliminary heating; but after this the burning takes place as with the pottery, and the black color, which is more popular for pipes than for pottery, is produced in the same way, the pipes, after the preliminary heating, being packed into the containing vessel between layers of bark chips" (Harrington 1908:405). The containing vessel, a bucket or an iron kettle, is then inverted on a bed of coals and covered with wood that is allowed to burn away. As the bark chips in the containing vessel smolder, a black smoke is produced. (Rather than burn rapidly, this slow fire, deprived of oxygen, smolders.) The resulting thick black smoke penetrates the pipes that have been burnished with care (Fewkes 1944:91-92). They emerge from this process with a brilliant shine and are uniformly black. According to archaeologist Brett Riggs, all such pottery was originally burned black on the inside as a method of making cooking vessels waterproof (Riggs, interview, 19 November 2002, BC).

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