Paddle-stamped pottery: The paddles

Submitted by Sammy Smith (


Have you ever wondered what the paddles Native Americans made to stamp decorations on the outside of pottery looked like? W.H. Holmes included a plate illustrating three paddles made by Cherokees probably in the late nineteenth century in his report “Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern United States,” which was printed in the Twentieth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1898–1899 (published in 1903). This report has many many plates, including images of whole pots and broken sherds. On page 132–133, Holmes describes stamped pottery from southeastern North America:

As has been mentioned, the remarkable style of decoration, more than any other feature, characterizes this pottery. Elaborately figured stamps were rarely used elsewhere, except in Central and South America. The exact form of the stamping tool or die is, of course, not easily determined, as the imprint upon the rounded surface of the vases represents usually only the middle portion of the figured surface of the implement. It is highly probable, however, that the stamp had a handle and therefore assumed the shape of a paddle, as do the stamps used by the Cherokees at the present time. Occasionally partial impressions of a small portion of the square or round margin of the stamp are seen. It was the usual practice to apply the stamp at random over the entire exterior surface of the vessel, and thus it happened that the impressions encroached upon one another, rendering an analysis of the design, where it is complex, extremely difficult. In many localities the design was simple, consisting of two series of shallow lines or grooves crossing the paddle surface at right angles, leaving squarish interspaces in relief, so that the imprint on the clay gave the reverse—that is, low ridges with shallow rectangular depressions in the interspaces. The lines vary from 3 to 10 to the inch, and, when covering the surface of a vessel, give a hatched or checkered effect closely resembling that made by imprinting a coarse fabric or a cord-wrapped tool. These iigures have occasionally been regarded as impressions resulting from modeling the vessel in a basket or net, but close examination shows that the imprintings are in small, disconnected areas, not coinciding or joining at the edges where the impressions overlap, and that the arrangement of parts is really not that of woven strands.

The character of the work is fully elucidated by the Cherokee wooden paddles which are shown [above]. One side of the broad part of the implement is covered with deeply engraved lines, carved no doubt with steel knives, but the work is not so neat and the grouping is not so artistic as in the ancient work.

If you are curious about paddle-stamping, or interested in reading Holmes’s text, you’re in luck. The Internet Archive provides a downloadable PDF of the whole volume here. The section on Southern Appalachia, including Georgia, begins on page 130 (page 604 of the PDF). There is separate access to just the text, stripped from the volume and the plates, which also may be useful, especially if you have a slow Internet connection.

Perhaps you’re interesting in making your own paddle and stamping some pottery? Give it a try! (Make sure you have permission to do this if you’re not an adult.)