Primitive technology in a modern world: The art of Brian Floyd

Submitted by Kelly Woodard (kelly@thesga.org)

Lamar Cazuela Punctate Incised Bowl created by Brian Floyd. Notice the color variation in the piece as a result of the firing process.

The idea of locality is continually gaining respect throughout our modern society. We value fruits and vegetables grown in our communities, and are beginning to dismiss the sameness found in large supermarkets. Nowadays, many like to decorate their homes with art found at festivals and neighborhood galleries. The greater knowledge and understanding we have behind how an object is created, the more appreciation is possible as to what it represents.

Georgia archaeologist and member of the Society for Georgia Archaeology (SGA), Brian Floyd produces art which falls into its own category of local authenticity. His work is not designed through the lens of modern interpretation on past artifacts but rather creates a more accurate looking replica of the past based on intensive research. A major focus within his art is not only placed on the physical appearance, which is what a majority of artists do, but the construction method, material, and cultural context associated with each piece. Floyd acknowledges that sometimes a realistic replication may not be as attractive to a potential buyer as what are produced using modern technologies that do not coincide with the purity of past representation. He explains that there is a difference between modern interpretation and an authentic looking, thoroughly researched replica.

Screech Owl Effigy Pipe replica inspired by The Nacoochee Mound site located along the banks of the upper Chattahoochee River in northeast Georgia.

At the age of five, Floyd, who lived on a farm under parental restriction, could not use modern technologies such as a pocket knife to create objects, resulting in his fascination that ancient Native Americans used resources found within their environment. As a young boy, he kept the notion of the Natives in his mind as he began to rely on limited raw materials found within his local environment to create replica bows and arrows as well as basic pottery.

As a young adult, he was introduced to the Powwow at Chehaw Park in Albany, Georgia. There he met other craftspeople including Scott Jones, Ben Kirkland, and Michael Stuckey. After his newfound friendship and discovery, he immediately set forth in search of raw materials that were used by Native Americans to create artifacts.

After obtaining numerous bodily cuts associated with breaking the equivalent to a truckload of rock, his replica projectile points began to look less like amorphous lumps and more like what was used in Native American artifacts. He began reading books written by John and Geri McPherson, as well as publications produced by the Society of Primitive Technology, which gave a down-to-earth approach to Primitive Technology that he used to delve deeper into the art of bow making, brain tanning deerskins, cordage, fire by friction as well as many other primitive technological skills.

Mississippian Bottle replica. The Mississippian period lasted from about AD 800-1600.

For Floyd, shaping the pottery is not a difficult process, but rather finding the right type of clay to hold together without cracking while forming the vessel is. Also, challenges arise during the firing process because methods not carried out in the correct manner can lead to object blow-ups. Although frustrating at times, Floyd continued to replicate primitive technology reminding himself this is not an impossible task, because primitive people were successful using their technologies without the use of modern tools or equipment.

In recent years, Dennis Blanton, Native American Curator at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, has given much encouragement to the success of Floyd’s work. Blanton has allowed the opportunity for Floyd to teach other archaeologists the importance of understanding primitive technology through his techniques using experimental archaeology.

I had the privilege to work under Brian Floyd several years ago and learn from his teachings in the field. My comrades and I were able to understand simple artifacts at an entirely new level as he would show us a chert flake and explain the process the object went through to get to its current form. More excitingly, he would show us a small pottery sherd unearthed from the site and explain the technology behind how it was made, the decorative motifs, down to the understanding that each individual potter was an artist and had their individualized characteristics which can be found through their work. At night we would all sit around a campfire as he made objects depicting what we found at the site earlier in the day.

Frog Effigy Bowl. Floyd replicates the design using the same methods and techniques originally used to make these bowls. Notice the rim.

Today’s art market is flooded with dream catchers, cheap arrowheads made from flakes ground with a tile saw, well fired and refined pottery, lacquered bows made with laminated wood, and extremely long, thin projectile points made from exotic materials using modern tools and methods. Floyd’s edge in the art world is that he does not use modern technologies to increase the durability and longevity of his work; rather he strives to produce an object as accurate as possible to what was created in the past. Ethically speaking, he does not pass off replicas that have his own artistic twist as being authentic, but he rather markets them in a different manner.

Crystal Garner, Store Buyer and Manager of the Fernbank Museum of Natural History gift shop, is excited to bring Floyd’s artwork into the store. Like many others, she is interested in the fact that all the materials used for Floyd’s art are native to the southeast and are most likely the same materials the original makers used. What makes Floyd’s work unique is that he does not smooth over or improve upon the appearance of the replicas in any way; in other words he does not use varnish, stains, or other modern means to make the product look refined.

His work has been highly prized among Georgia archaeologists who understand the labor and intensity that Floyd puts into his pieces. At Ferbank, his replicas adorn the laboratory tables where Fernbank’s techs, archaeologists, and volunteers continually study their beauty in an effort to understand past technologies as they mend ancient pottery.

Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, is moving into a new direction by bringing what has been used as a scholarly and educational tool into its store as a means for customers to take home a part of Georgia archaeology. The pottery produced by Floyd is made with 100% natural clay dug near rivers throughout Georgia. They are formed through a hand building and coiling process, then are fired outdoors using a wood fire. In the Fernbank Store, the pieces range from $35-120 depending on the size, time, and detail involved.

In Floyd’s own words:

There are a lot of artifact replicas in the market. By comparison my work may seem a little rough around the edges. The difference is that I am not strictly a potter, basket maker, bowyer, or sculptor, creating my own artwork, but I am a replicator. The work I create is not of my own design so I try to make it look like the original as closely as possible. I do not try to artificially age the objects I make. That would seem like I am trying to defraud the public with fake antiquities and is not my goal. Instead, my replicas look like the original artifacts did when they were freshly made. I also sign and date every piece I create in an inconspicuous spot to remove any doubt as to the age of the replica. I mark them in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the object when placed in a display.

Brian Floyd’s ceramic work is presently on display at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History gift shop and other replicas can be viewed here.