Making pottery the Indigenous American way

However, there is one mystery that I never solved! A band of black clay in the sub-soil can be found at the southern tip of the Appalachians. When fired in a kiln, it produces pink marble pottery!

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect and City Planner

In the Lower Etowah River Valley, which is underlain by sedimentary rocks, thick bands of black sand and clay are deposits of manganese ore, which until recently were mined commercially. In Pre-Columbian times, the ancestors of the Creeks and Chickasaws made beautiful metallic black pottery from these strata. Still today, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs of Oaxaca State, Mexico produce such ware from manganese rich clays.

A Zapotec woman hand-making pottery in Oaxaca. Note the wooden container, full of dry black clay on the upper right corner of my photo. This color slide was taken while I was on the Barrett Fellowship.

However, to the east of Cartersville Fault Line, the rocks change to being Metamorphic. The Upper Etowah River Basin contains the largest known deposit of marble in the world. While living in the Upper Etowah Basin from 2000 to 2009 and again from 2012 to 2018, I found much thinner bands of black clay, which were not manganese. They were only 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) thick. Instead, they turned out to be the charcoal vestiges of a massive catastrophe. They were far to widespread and thick to be merely a forest fire.

Etowah Pink Marble

The black clay, I dug from a stream ravine near the Jasper, GA post office, turned out to be excellent ceramic clay, but when I fired it to a full vitrification level (stone ware) it looked exactly like the famous Etowah Pink Marble from Georgia. Indeed, the ceramics were as hard as stone. The jars and statues had a “ping” to them like the finest porcelain.

This 14″ (36 cm) tall jar was made with black clay!

I called the Geology Departments of Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Georgia State University. None of the professors were from the Southeast and none knew anything about the geological history of Georgia. The Georgia Tech geologist did suggest that I call the Department of Material Sciences, which included professors, who were Ceramic Science specialists.

Back when I was a student at Georgia Tech, I had been required to take two courses from the (then) Department of Ceramics Engineering, prior to going on the fellowship in Mexico. One course in Ceramic Science and another in Lime, Mortar & Concrete Science. Both professors were also experts in the geology of the Lower Southeastern United States. Those days were gone with the wind.

Instead, I was connected with Georgia Tech professors from India, Brazil, Egypt and Germany . . . none of whom knew anything about Georgia’s geology other than South Georgia’s world-class deposits of kaolin, bentonite and attapulgite. Also, none of them even knew that most of the monuments in Washington, DC were constructed with pure white Georgia marble.

So, I am looking for a geologist out there, who can explain why there is a band of carbon-saturated clay in the sub-soil under the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, where the Appalachian Trail begins.

These Zapotec (left) and Maya (right) style hollow statues were created by mixing a little red ocher from the banks of the Etowah River with the black clay that turns pink in the Georgia Marble Belt. The white jewelry is made of white kaolin clay that I mined from the banks of the Altamaha River, just south of the confluence of the Ocmulgee and Oconee Rivers. The Maya doll on right was to be a birthday gift for Susan Karlson in July 6, 2006, but she disappeared before arriving at my home.

Hand-making colorful pottery with indigenous minerals

I was required to take classes in Ceramic Science, Indigenous American pottery-making techniques and Ceramic History of the Americas, prior to going to Mexico. For the next 30 years, I occasionally made small bowls and statues as Christmas gifts for relatives and friends. They were fired in wood coals. In a haphazard sort of way, I learned which minerals in the Southern Highlands produced bright colors, when fired to a high temperature.

This is the first pottery that I ever made. It was for a class in hand-making Native American pottery that was required for my fellowship in Mexico. The jar was fired just before I left for Mexico. That’s a unique method for learning Maya artistic traditions, the good ole fashion way . . . by creating it!

Then in the fall of 2000, I began receiving threats from strangers in Jasper, GA, where I lived, that I would have, “no money, no friends, no girlfriends, no wife or no children, unless I joined the Republican Party.” I already had biological children via Vivi and Susan, plus a fertility clinic in Asheville, selling my vital body fluids . . . but the folks in Georgia didn’t know that.

In November 2001, someone in Homeland Security scared off all seven of my municipal clients by saying that I was an Al Queda agent. State and local cops then called my private architecture clients to tell them that I was a serial killer and they would have “problems” if they continued to utilize my services. I then went seven months without any professional income and was not eligible for unemployment checks.

Hand-made bowls and figurines, drying in my basement during February 2002

To keep my sanity, I dabbled with the clay next to a little spring in my back yard. I then built a kiln out of clay and stones. I burned fallen limbs to fire the first creations. I sold these creations at flea markets. My longtime lady friend, Susan Karlson, bought some of the figurines then began taking orders from friends in Washington, DC , where she was apparently based. With money earned from Susan’s affluent friends in Washington and at festivals during March 2022, I was able to buy a propane gas fired kiln.

By that time, I was being invited to Native American arts festivals around the Southeast, where I could make several hundred dollars in a weekend throughout the summer. By September 2002 at the Ocmulgee American Indian Festival, I was making about $1200 a day.

During the period from 2002 to 2012, I hand-made Creek and Mesoamerican ceramics as way of supplementing my architectural income. However, the majority of pottery was made during 2002 through 2005 . . . then again while I was homeless in 2010 and 2011. After Susan disappeared just before moving in with me in July 2006, my creative urge toward ceramics withered on the vine. However, when homeless, I had very few options for making income other than making pottery again.

Lizella, GA red clay (near Ocmulgee Mounds) jar with traditional Etowah Sun Cross design, made with iron oxide from near the site of Kusa. Carters Dam is constructed with dense iron ore boulders.
South Georgia kaolin plate with barium carbonate (blue) and manganese oxide (black) from near Etowah Mounds.
This large vase was made for a traditional Creek wedding in Auburn, Alabama. The blue glaze motif was created with barium carbonate from a deposit on the Etowah River near Cartersville, GA I made the wedding vase while living in the chicken house near Track Rock Gap.
This is the last batch of pottery that I ever fired. I was living near Track Rock Gap in a chicken house at the time. All colors were achieved with minerals found near Track Rock Gap!

In the autumn of 2009, I donated many of my best examples of Creek style pottery to be placed on exhibit in the new museum, constructed by the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe in Pensacola, FL. Someone in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, who was monitoring my phone calls, contacted the US Drug Enforcement Agency and told them (lying as usual) that I was shipping cocaine inside the statues.

The DEA agents in Florida seized the boxes from UPS, broke all of the pieces of pottery, then dumped the box on the steps of the tribal offices. UPS refused to pay the insurance fee since they had not been in possession of the boxes, when the pottery was intentionally broken.

My kiln was stolen while I was moving from Union County, GA to Lumpkin County, GA in March 2012. That occurred exactly 10 years after I bought it. (no accident). I didn’t have money to buy another kiln and really couldn’t justify the investment anyway. The demand for Native American pottery has plummeted during the past decade.

During those ten years, I made well over a thousand figurines, statues, bowls, plates, jars, smoking pipe and cups. Well . . . just like the main character in the movie, “Little Big Man,” I can now say, “That was the hand-made Creek and Maya-style pottery phase in my life.” LOL

1 Comment

  1. WOW This is especially interesting to me Richard. Love your pottery. I only know about most periods of pottery made in England from the Neolithic, Bronze Age,Iron Age, Roman and Medieval. And the Minoan and Mycenaean periods here in Crete. Thanks for sharing your work. Enjoy your weekend.

    Liked by 1 person

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