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Antiquity Vol 77 No 297 September 2003

Prehistoric soapstone use in northeastern Maryland

Gary D. Shaffer

This paper presents preliminary observations from a study of prehistoric Native American use of soapstone around the northern end of Chesapeake Bay. Quarries for raw material procurement show variability in their association with a mapped belt of talc and may indicate use of both soapstone and rock similar to soapstone.

Research initiated in the mid-1990s has been investigating the prehistoric use of soapstone in the state of Maryland and the neighbouring District of Columbia. Native Americans in the area first employed this relatively soft metamorphic rock, also called steatite, during the Transitional Period (ca. 1300-1000 BC) to fashion bowls and other vessels. During the subsequent Woodland Period (ca. 1000 BC - AD 1600), Indians used soapstone as a temper when making ceramic pots and also carved the rock into bannerstones, beads and pipes. Some preliminary observations from the current project concern the spatial distribution of soapstone quarries and the unique decorations evident on certain vessels.

Archaeologists of the Middle Atlantic region (along the Atlantic coast of the United States) and elsewhere in the eastern United States have for a long time shown interest in soapstone artefacts. In the late 1800s the Smithsonian Institution investigated quarries in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia; and Holmes (1890, 1897) subsequently published observations on vessel reduction and the variability of vessel forms. Mid-twentieth century research on soapstone quarries continued with chemical and mineralogical analyses to link soapstone artefacts from habitation sites with source quarries (e.g. Allen et al. 1975), examinations of the spatial distribution of quarries (Brown 1980), and studies of variability in soapstone vessel manufacture (Ward & Custer 1988).

Figure 1 (Click to enlarge)

Figure 1: Examples of prehistoric soapstone vessels that were abandoned during manufacture at the Blue Mount Nursery quarry (18BA25).
Figure 2 (Click to view)

Figure 2: Two soapstone vessel rim sherds from the Conowingo site (18CE14) with incised exterior decorations.

Unfortunately, there has been little sustained attention to this class of cultural material. The present study aims to remedy this situation with an intensive, long-term investigation of the utilisation of soapstone by prehistoric cultures in Maryland from the Transitional through the Late Woodland periods. Goals include characterising variability in aspects of soapstone use: the procurement of raw material from quarries, the manufacturing processes for vessels and other artefacts, the production and use of soapstone artefacts with respect to the spatial distribution of quarries and other sites, the function of soapstone bowls and their replacement by ceramic vessels, and the chronology of soapstone use. Additionally, this study will help to synthesise data gathered by a range of academic, cultural resource management and amateur archaeological activities.

Current research is first focusing on northeastern Maryland as a pilot project using an inventory of over 300 soapstone-bearing sites in Maryland and the District of Columbia gained through literature and database review. This initial project area includes Cecil and Harford counties, as well as Baltimore County east of Gunpowder Falls (northern Chesapeake Bay region). A computerised form helped in recording information on the provenance of steatite artefacts and their attributes of manufacture. Within the study area there are 59 known prehistoric sites (21 quarries, 38 other occupations) and 10 regional collections with soapstone artefacts but with indistinct provenience. There were approximately 800 artefacts available from these sources for recording.

Most quarries in the sample are clustered near a belt of talc and serpentine (Figure 1). This situation is predicted, since Maryland's soapstone derives geologically from a line of talc and accompanying mineral deposits running along the Appalachian Mountains from New England south to Georgia. The soapstone of Maryland's Piedmont Upland tends to be associated with the magnesian mineral serpentine. A very small percentage of soapstone may form through the alteration of sedimentary carbonate rocks (Pearre & Heyl 1960:793-795). It is noteworthy that two quarries are situated away from mapped sources of soapstone: Harlan Mill/18CE5 (3.8 km) and Susquehanna/18HA135 (10.1 km). Geological surveyors may have overlooked the two sites. On the other hand, Native Americans could have employed an alternative rock from these quarries to fashion vessels because it had properties similar to soapstone. Wilkins (1962:3, 8) noted that Harlan Mill's "steatite" seemed harder than normal. Petrographic research will help to characterise this variability in the project area's soapstone.

Another observation from the research regards the decoration of soapstone vessels. Eight vessel sherds in the sample have systematically notched rims, and another body sherd has a handle with multiple notches. Archaeologists working elsewhere in the eastern United States also have found steatite vessels with decorated rims and handles. However, even more striking than finding the decorative notches was discovering that two of the notched rim sherds and two other body sherds exhibited on exterior vessel walls incised slanting lines, grouped in apparently triangular fields or in crosshatched patterns (Figure 2). This stunning decoration from the end of the Late Archaic is unique in the entire eastern United States. There are few published examples of decorated walls on steatite and other stone vessels from contemporaneous sites in the region (Coe 1964:Figure 109; McLearen 1991:107; Webb 1944). It was not until Middle or Late Woodland times that regional pottery decoration truly flourished, and decorated ceramic pottery of the Early Woodland period in the Middle Atlantic and Northeast America is rare (e.g., Heckenberger et al. 1990:120-123; Wall et al. 2000:40, Plate 2; Wise 1975:23)

Among the ongoing studies of northeastern Maryland's soapstone industry is a closer examination of the distribution of the decorated soapstone vessels. These vessels derive from three non-quarry sites (Conowingo, Octoraro Complex, and Wilbur Iley Site #1) which are clustered in a strategic location on the Susquehanna River just 10 to 15 km up from the river's mouth at Chesapeake Bay (Figure 3). The lower Susquehanna River would have been the easiest corridor for the movement of aboriginal people and goods between eastern Pennsylvania and the lands neighbouring Chesapeake Bay: namely, a waterway for canoes. In this sense, the lower Susquehanna served as a funnel for Indian communication and travel.

Given the lower Susquehanna's use as a corridor, the banks and larger islands of this river may have functioned as meeting places for a number of cultural groups. The more level shorelines also might have contained market-like occupations where there was considerable exchange of goods and ideas. This notion may explain why sites such as Conowingo apparently witnessed the mass production of artefacts like bannerstones (see Stearns 1943). Future analysis and interpretation will consider, inter alia, whether soapstone vessels were decorated to attract intercultural consumers and how the lower Susquehanna may have served as an aboriginal "gateway" (see Burghardt 1971; Hirth 1978).


The Maryland Historical Trust (with its Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory) provided me the opportunity to begin this research. Several other organisations, including Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Archaeological Society of the Northern Chesapeake, the Maryland Geological Survey, the Maryland Historical Society, and R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates, as well as individuals too numerous to mention assisted me in the study.

Figure 3

Figure 3: View towards Wilbur Iley Site #1 (18HA248), located on the northern end of Robert Island in the Susquehanna River.


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Gary Shaffer: USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service, 967 Illinois Avenue, Suite 3, Bangor, Maine 04401, USA

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