Townsend/Rappahannock Ware Type Prehistoric Ceramics

by Emily ReebArchaeological Field and Lab Intern

The appearance of pottery in the mid-Atlantic region of Native America marks what archeologists see as the transition from the Archaic cultural period to the Woodland cultural period around 1250 BC. As opposed to the steatite vessels that the Native Americans used before, the ceramics that appeared in the Woodland period were soft, porous earthenware vessels made by coils of clay that created the shape of the vessel and then were pressed together and fired. As the Woodland period progressed, so did the complexity of the ceramics. The ceramics of the Late Woodland Period between 950 AD and 1600 AD were more thinly potted, fired at a hotter temperature making them more durable, had more complex decorating techniques and were more likely to exhibit characteristics unique to individual cultures (Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory 2012).

An example of these Late Woodland ceramics would be Townsend/ Rappahannock ware types that were recently discovered in Fairfax County. Although this particular type of ceramic ware was originally discovered and cataloged in Delaware, the definition was later expanded to include types of ceramic found in the coastal plain of Virginia and Maryland (Ogborne 2006). This ceramic type is dated to the Late Woodland period between 950 AD and 1600 AD and into the Early Contact period starting around 1600 AD. Certain distinguishing features of the Rappahannock/Townsend ware make fragments identifiable when they are studied either out in the field or in our archeological lab.

Townsend/Rappahannock ware is typically shell tempered, meaning that the clay is mixed with finely crushed oyster or mussel shell in order to increase its durability. It has a Mohs hardness scale of 2.0-2.5 and the vessel wall thickness ranges between 5 mm to 10 mm.

The Rappahannock/Townsend ware can be a variety of colors but is most commonly reddish-tan. The exterior of the surface is fabric-impressed meaning the clay coils were pressed together using a fabric-wrapped paddle that left impressions. The interior of the vessel is usually smooth. The many different decoration types found on this ware help further classification and identification. Rappahannock Incised decorations include marks made with a blunt tool that creates geometric patterns such as lines, triangles and squares. The Townsend Herringbone style consists of pseudo-cord impressions (meaning a stick or paddle wrapped in chord was used) that are made over incised zig zag patterns. Townsend Corded has cord patterns made with twisted-cord or pseudo-cord patterns made by cord-wrapped paddles. In addition to these decorations, there is also Rappahannock Plain with no decorations and Rappahannock Fabric-Impressed that just have the fabric-impressed patterns (Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory 2012).

For more information about this type of ceramic see:



Maryland Archeological Conservation Laboratory. 2012. Prehistoric Ceramics in Maryland. Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Electronic Document., Accessed July 17, 2018

Ogborne, Jennifer. 2006. Virginia Ceramic Studies, A Brief Overview. National Park Service. Electronic Document., Accessed, July 17, 2018


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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