by Andrew Krawczyk
S.C. Department of Natural Resources Archaeology Intern
Art is a defining part of the human experience. Shared across all cultures, art connects us as a species and serves as a fantastic way to connect us to our past. What would our lives be without the brilliant, recognized masterpieces of van Gogh, Cassatt, Monet, Basquiat, and others? The messages and meanings that artwork conveys can captivate any viewer, but determining the story behind each piece of art might not be as easy as reading the diaries or interviews that these greats left behind. How do we determine the story behind each work’s creation when we don’t have the creators’ words to rely on? With a newer program, the archaeology team at SCDNR hopes to reconstruct the stories and processes of Native American potters and their art from over a thousand years ago.
After being afforded the wonderful opportunity of interning with the SCDNR Heritage Trust archaeology team, the artistic ingenuity of Indigenous Peoples gripped me as I began examining pottery sherds and designs from the Woodland Period, AD 100 – 800.
At the same time that the Roman Empire was reaching its greatest expanse in the Old World, Indigenous Peoples of Southeastern North America began decorating their pottery with concentric circles and rectilinear figures that sparked a stylistic tradition known among archaeologists as “Swift Creek complicated-stamped” – a pottery type that would last for 900 years. By impressing the vessel’s moist clay with a wooden paddle that was carved with a design, Woodland Period potters were able to transfer their intricate designs onto vessels used for cooking and storing goods.
During my internship, I was able to join Dr. Karen Smith, SCDNR archaeologist, and Sam McDorman, SCDNR archaeologist and MA student at the University of South Carolina, on the Snowvision project that seeks to help researchers identify and match the artistic impressions found on Swift Creek complicated-stamped pottery to reconstructed Native American designs from up to 1,500 years ago. Fortunately, over the course of a few decades in the twentieth century, scholars Bettye Broyles and Frankie Snow dedicated their research to reconstructing these designs from a sample of complicated-stamped pottery sherds found on archaeological sites in present-day Georgia.
For my internship project, I was tasked with digitally recreating some of Broyles’ 400 Swift Creek design reconstructions so that they can be read by the Snowvision matching algorithm. By taking their reconstructed physical designs, digitizing them, and then using a free graphic editing software called Gimp, we have been able to digitally manipulate line segments to form the designs that once existed on these ancestral paddles. I was able to successfully recreate 25 of these designs and contribute to the Snowvision project. These reconstructions will be uploaded to a digital database, called World Engraved, along with pictures and scans of the actual sherds allowing archaeologists, Indigenous scholars, and the public to cross-analyze and match designs on sherds from other sites.
The Snowvision matching process involves employing a laser scanner to “read” the depths and heights of the carved grooves, also known as topographic relief, and the curvature of the remaining designs on excavated sherds. Each design found on these sherds acts like a fingerprint; while one design may have variations, no design is the exact same! Imagine an episode of Criminal Minds or NCIS that features a scene of an agent in a lab running a fingerprint through a fingerprint database to match it to its owner. That is similar to what Snowvision seeks to do, but in this case the fingerprints being scanned through the system are pottery sherds and the owner is a similar paddle design. As you can imagine, spending time manually comparing a single fingerprint to thousands of others would take forever! Since this automated program drastically reduces the amount of time needed to compare these patterns, it was time for this computer vision technology to be integrated into the field of archaeology. When successfully utilized, Snowvision will reduce a multi-year process to a matter of days.
So, what will archaeologists do with all this extra time? To put it simply, they will do what archaeologists do best: determine the story behind each paddle and sherd! By finding the original paddle design that this sherd was produced from, archaeologists can trace the story of the paddle and the potters who used it across time and space. It may have been traded to other groups or transported to another site miles away from where it was originally created and where other sherds had been excavated. Specific differences or imperfections that appear on sherds at separate sites, such as a crack in the wooden paddle from wear, are the best way to determine where the paddle had been and who had used it. While Snowvision narrows down the list of possible designs that might match the crack or imperfection based on the curve structure similarity, human experts are essential to finding a true match. Experts will conduct a sherd-to-sherd comparison to confirm if there is a true match between the opposing sherds and determine if it is the same paddle used on pottery at a different site. Through this process and Snowvision, the story behind the paddles, their designs, and their creators are slowly being revealed and allows us to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of past lifeways in our region.
Note from author, Andrew Krawczyk:
“I would like to thank Meg Gaillard, Dr. Karen Smith, and Sam McDorman for affording me the fantastic opportunity of helping with this project while also continuing to fuel my love for archaeological research.”
Sources and references for images in research article:
Figure 1: Modern examples of Carved Paddles that would be used to produce Swift Creek designs. Source: Project Gutenberg’s Ocmulgee National Monument, G.D. Pope
Figure 2: An example of one of my redrawn designs. This specific example was redrawn based on Bettye J. Broyles’ design BBK622.
Figure 3: Example of Swift Creek pottery sherds. Image courtesy Florida Museum of Natural History; floridamuseum.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/34/2017/03/540cb0d90005909cd02582955f9bc185_f3434.jpg
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.