About Prehistoric Ceramics: Artifact Highlight, Accokeek ware


by Elizabeth PaynterArchaeological Laboratory Director

The earliest fired clay storage and cooking vessels that have been recovered in this area of North America are approximately 3000 years old.  They were low fired and unglazed while vessel shape and size emulated earlier vessels that were carved from soap stone. The transition from the Archaic period (ca. 8000 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E.) to the Woodland period (ca. 1200 B.C.E. to 1600 C.E.) is primarily defined by the arrival of ceramic technology. While the first ceramics were hand molded from slabs of clay, the method of forming the pots by using coiled strips of clay “quickly” became used. Before building the vessel, clay was prepared with both water and temper. Temper is material such as shell, crushed rock, or sand that is mixed into the clay in order to increase workability and reduce cracking as well as breakage while drying and firing. The type of temper used is one of the most important keys to determine the type of ceramic and therefore the time period it was created. Combined with other characteristics, such as vessel wall thickness and hardness, surface treatment or decoration, archaeologists are able to determine when a ceramic was likely made. The overall vessel form would be helpful, but it is rare for us to find enough of a pot to reconstruct its shape.

One of the types of ceramic that we find in Fairfax County is Accokeek ware. It is associated with the early Woodland and has been found in stratigraphic layers that date to 900 B.C.E. to 300 B.C.E. The temper in Accokeek ceramics is sand and crushed quartz sometimes with small bits of angular quartz. You can see in the picture below the bits of quartz within the paste of the ceramic.

The vessels tend to be medium to hard with a Moh’s hardness scale of 2.0 to 2.0. Wall thickness ranges from 9 mm to 21 mm thick. Accokeek ceramics were made with the coil method, and individual coils range from 8 mm to 12 mm. The exterior surface is typically cord marked in a diagonal pattern as seen in the picture below.44fx1670_44fx2409_0504-0001cerunhquaack_2-2

Interior surfaces are smoothed and sometimes uneven.


Often recovered as an individual fragment of its former vessel, prehistoric ceramics can be difficult to identify because they are usually similar in color and feel to local hardened clays. Accokeek wares can range in color from tan to orange or reddish-brown. When an artifact is dirty it may be impossible to properly see the temper or the surface of a ceramic. As a rule, if an archaeologist is unsure when collecting in the field, it is saved to identify in the lab.

See more on stratigraphy: Archaeo-puzzle

See more on dating an artifact and on Accokeek: Let’s Get to the Point about Typologies


Keith, Egloff and Deborah Woodard. 1992. First People, The Early Indians of Virginia. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Richmond, Virginia

Egloff, Keith T and Stephen R Potter. 1982. Indian Ceramics From Coastal Plain Virginia. Archaeology of Eastern North America. Vol 10

MAC Lab. 2012. Diagnostic Artifacts in Maryland. Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab (MAC Lab). Originally Published 2002. Electronic. http://www.jefpat.org/diagnostic/index.htm accessed December 8, 2016


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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One Response to About Prehistoric Ceramics: Artifact Highlight, Accokeek ware

  1. Julian Burley says:

    I have a complete Accokeek Storage Vessel that was recovered in a riverbank in 182 pieces and expertly reassembled. It was featured in a Maryland Archaeology publication after restoration. It is currently on display in our museum. It is really neat because it cracked on the bottom during it’s original lifetime from use and it has several drilled repair marks on the bottom where rawhide/sinew would have held it back together….A great piece. I purchased it many years ago from the father of the archaeologist who recovered it…the archaeologist was killed in a car wreck. It is currently on display in our museum of Indian Artifacts here in Pa. I would send you some photos if you would be interested in seeing them for reference. P.S. nice little information article above…I am going to add some of the details about Accokeek Ware to the Museum label. Greetings from Pa.!!


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