More on Clay Balls from PNW

Post by Dianna Woolsey, PSU Graduate Student and PNW clay/pottery project Research Assistant 

Last month Shelby posted about the remarkable spread of clay ball artifacts in both prehistoric and historic contexts, and the spread just keeps on spreading.  Two weeks ago I went to Lewis and Clark National Park in Astoria as part of our continuing research on PNW clay and ceramic technology.  There I looked through the park’s collection of clay artifacts recovered from the seasonal Chinook settlement known as Middle Village, on the north side of the Columbia River.  To my surprise, the collection consisted primarily of several hundred clay balls.

Middle Village clay ball artifacts (Wilson et al 2009:277)

Middle Village clay ball artifacts (Wilson et al 2009:277)

Some are smooth and spherical, some are roughly egg-shaped; some are hard fired clay, while others appear crumbly and unfired; they cover a range of grey, red, buff, and black colors; some are even coarse and sandy while others are smooth.  The one thing that is remarkably consistent about them is their size – except for one massive outlier, they’re all about the size of a pinky nail, too small to retain much heat for cooking.

As I was leaving the visitor center at the end of the day, I stopped and chatted briefly with a couple of park staffers about the research project.  I described the clay balls and their variety, and mentioned in passing that some of them appeared to be fired – at which one staff member, thinking of the balls as projectiles for hunting or warfare, asked me what they had been fired from.  It was an excellent question, as it turns out.  A 1950s ethnography of Northern California Pomo people describes clay balls as ammunition for shooting from slings: a small but heavy projectile, quickly made and easily replaced, perhaps comparable to modern lead bird shot.  We don’t have evidence that the clay balls at Middle Village were used for this purpose, but their apparently casual manufacture and the abundance of small game in the vicinity of the village make it another useful hypothesis for us to bear in mind.

Barrett, Samuel Alfred. 1980[1952]. Material Aspects of Pomo Culture. Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee Vol. 20, Parts 1-2.  Milwaukee: Public Museum.

Wilson, Douglas C., et al. 2009. Historical Archaeology at the Middle Village: Station Camp/McGowan Site (45PC106), Station Camp Unit, Lewis & Clark National Park, Pacific County, Washington.  Northwest Cultural Resources Institute Report No. 1.  Vancouver: National Park Service.

3 thoughts on “More on Clay Balls from PNW

  1. my husband collected native american baskets and other artifacts –
    One of his entries says- Clay ball , Pomo – clay ball used with sling in taking water birds. clear lake Ca. Almquist collection pwt — are you familiar with this?

    • Interesting Glenda! I have heard of clay balls being used with various types of slings for hunting. I am not overly familiar with the archaeology of California, although I am working on developing my knowledge as part of this clay/ceramic project. There’s quite a bit out there about Pomo peoples (e.g. the wikipedia entry is informative).

  2. We found a clay ball at a bison processing site during this years field school in western Montana. It weighs 2.36 grams and is 14.86 mm in diameter. Have no idea as to its purpose.

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