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Burnishing/Polishing Stones

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  • Burnishing/Polishing Stones


    Polishing stones are a neglected class of artefact Maybe it’s hard to get excited about a polished stone. I also suspect it’s related to the difficulty of identification and possibility of misidentification. Geib & Callahan [1988] reported on other possible uses for such stones and the identification difficulties – even when found in areas known for manufacture of polished pottery. The indisputable evidence (accumulation of clay around the margins of the polishing surface) is frequently scrubbed off such artefacts before they can be properly examined in archaeological conditions.

    [from member tomclark]: … they are commonly found on/in middens and at village/habitation sites. Flat, polished they used wood, too. The ones I've found look like flat pebbles. They worked the outside and inside along with their fingers to condense/take out bubbles and make surface shiny and "harder".

    [from member Butch Wilson]: … I have seen burnishing stones used by Catawba Indian potters - most of them passed down for generations and are as smooth as glass! The Catawba Indian Potters of York County SC still use this traditional method for making pottery today. The dried clay pot is polished during the "green stage" prior to firing.

    In addition to stone and wood mentioned above, bone and ivory examples can also be found but they are nowhere near as long-lasting and less likely to survive long periods of burial in wet conditions. Simpson comments in “Making Native American Pottery” that some of the stones being used by a Catawba potter, (handed down by her grandmothers) were found to be fossilized mastodon teeth. There are also reports of dinosaur gastroliths (the gizzard stones that assisted digestion in herbivorous dinosaurs) being used, since they have such a smooth surface to begin with. At their simplest in native North American contexts, pictures - to be completely honest – might not show you very much.

    For the most part we’re talking about stones with differential polishing that can be any shape or size (a potter would probably have a range of these), often not purpose made as such – just conveniently shaped pebbles and cobbles. These are often impossible to differentiate from stones that have seen use for leather smoothing or as laundry stones. Larger stones with this kind of differential wear are also believed to have been used as “floor polishers” within adobe dwellings.

    In potting, these were used wet, moving them quickly over the surface of the pot before a “slip” of fine, watery clay was applied with a rag and further polished. The process was repeated many times to build up a layer of the right depth ready for drying and firing. Sometimes the dried pot was then further polished (often with applications of grease) before firing – more in the manner of burnishing.

    O’odham pottery of Arizona exhibits sophisticated polishing techniques and there are some nice pictures here showing modern use of traditional techniques:

    Pueblo Cultures

    Pueblo pottery polishing was also sophisticated. Pots were “sanded” (often using a dried corn cob) and then burnished with stones that were cherished and handed down through generations of potters.

    Some Pueblo items:

    Cultural Period: Ancestral Puebloan, Atsinna Pueblo (A.D. 1275 – mid-1300s)
    Museum of Northern Arizona [pics by Randy Sullivan]
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2

    The nicest stones of this type come from meso-American cultures – notably Mexico – where they are known as “pulidors”. Here’s a quartz crystal that was used by the legendary Mexican artesan Dona Sofia Reyes until her death in 1980, to produce Oaxacan black pottery:

    [picture from Zanzibar Trading Co]

    Purpose-made Mexican examples are much more frequently encountered and the use of stones such as agate and onyx is commonplace. These are all Mexican pre-conquest pulidors. They may well have been used as jewellery burnishers too.

    [Pics from Metropolitan Museum of Art]
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.