Studying Techniques: Soapstone Bowls in Rhode Island
Essay by Rebecca Marisseau, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Brown University
Imagine you are an archaeologist digging at an ancient Native American site, and you come across a piece of a heavy stone bowl. What are some of the questions you might ask about the bowl? Certainly, you would want to know about how the bowl was used in everyday life, perhaps in meal preparation. But you might also want to know how the bowl was made in the first place. What is the material that is it made out of? What techniques did the bowl maker use? Where is it from? Archaeologists are interested not only in how things were used, but also in the technologies and resources ancient people used to make their material culture.
Sometimes, archaeologists are able to study sources of materials like stone or clay to get clues about how early peoples made their objects. As an example, archaeologists of early New England can study quarries (or mines) of soapstone, which is a type of stone that early Native Americans used to make things like bowls and pipes. Soapstone gets its name for its soapy or greasy feel, and can range in color from white to green to brown. Early Native Americans likely used soapstone because it is easy to carve and can hold heat, which is helpful in cooking.1 W.A. Turnbaugh, S.P. Turnbaugh, and T.H. Keifer, “Characterization of Selected Soapstone Sources in Southern New England,” in Prehistoric Quarries and Lithic Production, ed. Jonathon E. Ericson and Barbara A. Purdy (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 130. However, beginning about 3000 years ago, early New England Natives stopped using soapstone bowls for cooking and food storage and instead used clay pots, likely because clay pots are easier to make and are lighter to carry.2Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, (E.A. Johnson Company: 2002), 14. There are two known soapstone quarries in Rhode Island and they are located in Johnston and Oaklawn.
The Johnston soapstone quarry – also known as the Ochee Springs site – is an exciting site for archaeologists because it contains evidence about how early soapstone bowls were made. Circle-like marks in the quarry suggest that the stoneworker chiseled out the shape of the bowl, bottom-side up, from the main rock. Then, they split the bowl from the rock and carved out the center.3Ibid., 10. Sometimes, archaeologists find tools near soapstone quarries, like scrapers, chisels, and picks, that offer more clues about the process.4Turnbaugh, Turnbaugh, and Keifer, “Characterization of Selected Soapstone Sources in Southern New England,” 130.
At the Oaklawn soapstone quarry, archaeologists have uncovered many unfinished soapstone smoking pipes. Archaeologists guess that there are so many pipes because stoneworkers were not only making pipes for themselves, but also for trade with other groups.5Ibid. Archaeologists have found soapstone objects that were made at the Oaklawn quarry in places far away, which supports the idea that stoneworkers traded their soapstone objects. Recently, a soapstone pipe made sometime between 800-1100 AD was uncovered in Indiana, and archaeologists trace the pipe to the Oaklawn quarry in Rhode Island based on the stone’s color and its other attributes.6Ibid., 137. Archaeologists have also found Oaklawn soapstone bowls at a site in Jamestown, Rhode Island. Ancient stoneworkers made these bowls a little more than 3000 years ago and must have transported them over water by canoe.7Ibid.,136.
Material culture: anything made, used, or shaped by humans, including things like clothing, jewelry, architecture, eating implements, and even landscapes
Quarry: a mine; a pit where raw materials, like stone, can be extracted
What can archaeologists gain by studying the sources of materials that early people used to make artifacts, like the stone used in making stone bowls?
Imagine you are an archaeologist excavating an ancient Native American site, and you find a piece of clay pottery. What are some things you would want to know about it? How might you find out?
- 1W.A. Turnbaugh, S.P. Turnbaugh, and T.H. Keifer, “Characterization of Selected Soapstone Sources in Southern New England,” in Prehistoric Quarries and Lithic Production, ed. Jonathon E. Ericson and Barbara A. Purdy (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 130.
- 2Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, Native American Archaeology in Rhode Island, (E.A. Johnson Company: 2002), 14.
- 3Ibid., 10.
- 4Turnbaugh, Turnbaugh, and Keifer, “Characterization of Selected Soapstone Sources in Southern New England,” 130.
- 6Ibid., 137.