Last week I was the the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History to do some research for my PNW clay and ceramic technology project. The goal was to look through the museum’s archival materials to identify sites where clay and/or ceramic features, objects, or vessels were reported. I also finally had a chance to see various regional clay and ceramic objects in person, including vessels from southern Oregon, clay figurines, clay pipes, clay blogs and lumps, clay beads, and a few formed clay balls. Even though I have read quite a bit of the limited literature on PNW clay and ceramics, it was helpful to actually see and touch some of the objects. As others have observed, the vessels, pipes, and modeled objects are all very different in terms of technique and characteristics (trying to avoid the word “quality” here, but that does kind of sum it up). More about what I saw at the museum later…other than to say that the extent and diversity of clay ball objects around the world amazes me (here and here, just for example).
The clay balls from Oregon were similar in size (less than 2 cm diameter) to some I am analyzing from Cape Espenberg, in northern Alaska. No historical connection of course between the Oregon and Alaska objects, just similar in form. The archaeological clay balls from Cape Espenberg are very much like those in an ethnographic collection from a Yupik village on the Lower Yukon south of my research area (see Fienup-Riordan 2005:252).
The ethnographic examples are apparently from a game that involved throwing the balls up into the air and trying to juggle/catch them. Whoever lost a ball, lost the game. Which brings me to the clay marbles that my colleague, Doug, gave me the other day. Apparently kids in colonial America made and played with these marbles, which were first commercially manufactured in 1884 by Samuel Dyke. The similarities between these clay marbles and the much older Alaskan and Oregon clay balls is striking. I have no idea at this point what the function of the Oregon clay balls may be, but the examples I looked at were clearly not used for cooking. Perhaps marbles?
Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 2005. Yup’ik elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin: fieldwork turned on its head. Seattle: University of Washington Press in association with Calista Elders Council, Bethel, Alaska.