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Kaolin ceramic vessel with ceramic stopper, 10cm x 4 cm

Looking for Answers: Unknown North American Artifact Unearthed in Pennsylvania

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An artifact recovered from a hilltop site overlooking the Delaware River in Eastern Pennsylvania, along with other artifacts recovered during a ten-year investigation reveals there is much to be learned about the history of the region.

The white Kaolin clay vessel serendipitously appeared one day in 2013 outside the entrance of a ground hog hole according to the property owner and researcher. With a professional background in art restoration, pottery and pigments, the type of clay and unique design features caught her attention as something atypical for the region.

As she explained, “Kaolin clay is quartz based and void of impurities, while Native American earthenware pottery used natural muds and pigments from their geographic vicinity” and that “pottery of the Delaware Indians produced a darker ceramic that was filled with natural impurities, such as grass and stones.” Also, the vessel's symmetrical shape may have been created in a mold, which differs from the coiling technique common to North American pottery.

Another significant differentiation between Kaolin and earthenware pottery is Kaolin requires a much higher and consistent firing temperature (2400 F) produced by an enclosed kiln, compared to the lower temperatures produced in the open pit wood firing method traditionally used by Native Americans.

 [Left]Top view of ceramic stopper, [Right] Vessel showing splayed layers

[Left]Top view of ceramic stopper, [Right] Vessel showing splayed layers

It is believed the main section of the vessel may have been manufactured “in a series of stages” as suggested by the splaying of the layers and structural rings around the neck and mid-section. Based upon microscopic examination, the top and bottom sections appear to be joined and sealed by the structural band around the mid-section.

The first use of Kaolin is credited to the ancient Chinese who over the centuries perfected it's use in creating fine porcelains and Kaolin's alternative name, China clay. By the 14 th century, the highly desirable products were being imported into European markets.

In North America, huge deposits of high-quality Kaolin are located in the Augusta and Macon, Georgia region. Despite being adjacent to the raw material, two early 19 th century South Carolina industrial pottery companies failed to make Kaolin products a commercial success.

Ex-Christies Byzantine Ceramic "Greek Fire" Grenade, 10th C. AD

Ex-Christies Byzantine Ceramic "Greek Fire" Grenade, 10th C. AD, photo by

The utilitarian purpose of the artifact remains confusing. A vessel with a stopper suggests it was used for the storage of a liquid or powder, however the stopper has a hole extending thru it which narrows down possible uses.

Results from museum inquiries around the World and other research for similar clay vessels with a small hole in the stopper, and a mid-section ring feature, has proved unsuccessful thus far. Somewhat similar examples were mostly described as perfume vessels and some examples as “Greek Fire” incendiary grenades. There were no examples from the Colonial Period of North America which were remotely similar.

Interior view of ceramic stopper with hole

Interior view of ceramic stopper with hole

From an appearance perspective, it is impossible to differentiate between those described as perfume containers versus a grenade. Scientific literature on such Sphero-Conical vessels shows there is a continuing debate whether they were for storing valuable liquids or had a military application, and only can be determined empirically thru analysis of residue. This may be a possible future course for the owner since there is small area in which it appears liquid has pooled and dehydrated.

Until then, the owner remains curious and hopes that exposure of the artifact in the media will produce provenance information. (Comments can be directed to

[Left] 1.0 mm bas-relief star washed with translucent blue quartz pigment with reflective cartouche [Right] 4.7cm Copper artifact

[Left] 1.0 mm bas-relief star washed with translucent blue quartz pigment with reflective cartouche [Right] 4.7cm Copper artifact

An elevated site above a river is a desirable place to settle regardless of the time period. The ceramic vessel and other unusual artifacts retrieved from the site makes one pause and consider the countless generations and cultural groups that called it home.

Featured image: Kaolin ceramic vessel with ceramic stopper, 10cm x 4 cm, photo by owner

By: Jon R. Haskell

Photos courtesy of author, Jon R. Haskell, Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation ©2015                          

Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation ©2015                  


Jacob Sharvit, Sphero-Conical Vessels-'Greek Fire”?



Gary Moran's picture

What’s with the other pictures, star and cartouche? Are they supposed to be part of this find?  Or mis-placed on the wrong article? Very confusing.

It's clearly Vishnu's conch & broken Chakra ring.

It's not an old artifact much less ancient. It probably dates to the mid-20th century circa 1944. Kaolin vessels of that type were used in chemistry labs to separate isotopes, including labs of the Manhattan Proect.

Why was this assumed to be old?

Could it be a smudge pot? Or some kind of smoking device?

Looks like a magic thing-a-ma-jigger.


Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation's picture

Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation

The Indigenous Peoples Research Foundation was established to protect and research intriguing artifacts recovered from several locations in the Southeastern region of North America, with the goals of more fully understanding the pre-Columbian history of North American indigenous cultures and... Read More

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