Miniature Clay Pot: An Ancient Toy

By: Kayla Kraft

Miniature vessel recovered from Abbott Farm excavations. The center scar is from a twig impression in the clay.  NJSM # AE98089.

This vessel is from Abbott Farm, a significant archaeological site near Trenton, New Jersey, which is part of the Abbott Farm National Historical Landmark. Dorothy Cross, and her team of excavators, discovered it on Tuesday, January 17, 1939. It is dated to be from the Abbott Phase of the Middle Woodland Period (300 CE – 600 CE). The pot was made using the pinch-pot method, which is done by forming a ball of clay, pressing inward with your thumbs and pinching the walls to create a bowl or cup-like vessel. This is evident from the fingerprint / fingernail markings and the smooth exterior. It has no decoration and no slip (meaning there is no paint covering). By looking under a microscope, it was determined that sand was used as a temper and a secondary clay was used. Secondary clay is clay that has been transported from its original location to a new deposit through water erosion. Because secondary clay is redeposited, it collects organic impurities. This is evident from the twig, grass and other organic impressions left behind in the clay. It also has a lot of surface cracks, which are typically attributed to either the clay over drying or containing too much moisture when fired, causing the clay to expand and crack. The cracking could also be due to a novice maker or because the vessel was not going to be used for the same purposes as other vessels, so less care was taken during construction.

Journal page cropped
Daily log noting the discovery of the miniature pot at the bottom of the page. “A pottery bowl of pottery probably used as paint bowl was found….” NJSM collection.

The development of pottery began in New Jersey by the ancestors of the current day Lenape Native Americans during, what archaeologists refer to as, the Early Woodland Period (c. 1000 BCE – 0 CE). Ceramic vessels of this period evolved from flat bottomed pots to being cone shaped. These were made by first mixing a temper into the clay, such as sand, shell, or crushed stone to help prevent thermal shock. Thermal shock occurs when the clay heats up too quickly, causing the vessel to crack or even explode. Then the clay was formed into coils and layered on top of each other around a pinch-pot base. The coils were then fused together with water and smoothed, usually with a cord wrapped paddle. After being fired in an open pit hearth, the completed vessel could be used for various tasks including cooking and storage.

What makes this vessel so unique is its size. The vast majority of pottery vessels from the Abbott Farm site range from being 5-10 inches tall and having a rim diameter of 7-11 inches wide. This piece measures to be only 1 ¾ inches tall and has a rim diameter of 1 ¼ inches wide and has a volume of approximately 0.5 oz. Why would the Native Americans make a vessel so small?

AF EX 11_1
Photos of archaeologists digging at Abbott Farm excavation unit 11, where miniature pot was recovered (1939). NJSM collection.

One theory is that it was used as a children’s toy. Based on the gender roles of Historic tribes, children, especially young girls, would observe adults making ceramic vessels and imitate their work by making smaller versions. The pot size would increase as their skill level did. One of the largest pots from Abbot Farm is about 21 inches tall and has a rim diameter of 28 inches wide. As they played with the miniature vessels, they would gain knowledge about pottery construction. Making miniature vessels acted as a form of play, as well as a teaching method and as a form of child care while the adults worked.

Another theory is that it could have been a type of ritual object. In some Native American cultures in the Midwest, mini pots have been found to be used as prayer items or good luck charms in firing pits to symbolize the success of their larger counterparts and to ward off bad luck. They are also associated with burial goods. In a burial, they may have contained food or drink for the dead, offerings to deities, or were simply left as tokens. These miniature vessels could have also been used to hold ritualistic materials such as oil, paint, herbs, ointments or medicine. Another, more practical, theory is that it would have been used as a tool for volume measurements.

A fingernail impression from the pot’s maker can be seen near the rim (top, center). NJSM # AE98089.

This specific pot was most likely made by or for a child as a toy. The finger impressions, fingernail marks, organic material indentations and surface cracks are all signs of a novice’s crude workmanship. Such carelessness in construction would not have been accepted if the purpose of the vessel was intended for anything other than as a child’s plaything, where breakage was less consequential. Although the pot was found about 5 feet away from a burial, there is no archaeological evidence that associates it with the burial. It was also not found near a hearth feature, so it could not have been a charm or prayer item used in the firing process, as it would have been left in the pit. Further analysis would have to be done to determine if it was used as a measuring tool or if it held substances like paint or medicine. However, the cracks make both of those possibilities unlikely. This pot was probably made by a young Lenape girl, while she observed her mother making a full sized cooking vessel, leaving behind imperfections due to her lack of expertise. Afterwards, she played with it until it became of no further use and neglected it as her tribe migrated to their new home.



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