Artifact Spotlight: The Negative

Short description of negative-painted pottery sherd from Angel Mounds.

by April Sievert, Director

I spotted this pot-sherd as our curation assistant, Hannah Ballard (IU’18), was inventorying our ‘type’ collection of ceramics from Angel Mounds, the 13th century town on the Ohio River near Evansville. The piece, from the broad rim of a large plate, boasts a signature decorating technique—negative painting. Potters at Angel Mounds made plates of clay tempered with fine pieces of shell, and applied multiple layers of slip or pigment to create designs around the rim in black, red and buff-clay colors.  While I’m used to seeing painted sherds with crossed-circle and geometric designs, this was the first time I’d actually seen one of the two sherds from Angel that sport a bi-lobed arrow/bowstring motif. The red arrow shows through a layer of black. The motif is a very special one for Mississippian people, seen far and wide across the Mississippi Valley and Southeast. Finding the design at Angel Mounds underscores how far afield people of Angel communicated.

Seeing this design reminded me of another Mississippian collection that I documented for the Smithsonian Institution’s Repatriation Office nearly 30 years ago. That site is Spiro, located along the Arkansas River in far eastern Oklahoma. Spiro was infamously looted in the 1930s, and later excavated as part of the Works Projects Administration, just like Angel. At Spiro, the motif had been carved into the outsides of whelk shells that hail from the Gulf of Mexico. Bi-lobed designs also show up also on hair ornaments, rock art, and rendered in native copper spread far across the Southeast.  

But what does the motif mean? Association with the bow and arrow seems pretty clear, with a possibility that the lobes reflect back to the atlatl, or spear thrower. It could also be indirectly reflective of a traditional Siouan culture hero known as Redhorn, or ‘he who gets hit with deer lungs’. Professor Robert Hall was an Indigenous symbolic archaeologist from Wisconsin, and one of my graduate mentors, who had made this connection. Could the two lobes in the design harken back to an image of deer lungs attached to a trachea? We can’t really know for sure, but it is clear is that ancient Indigenous people along the Ohio engaged in a system of ceremony, communication, and artistry that far exceeds the confines of an agricultural site in the central Ohio Valley.

Decoration of Pottery

February 19, 2018

by Hannah Rea, Social Media Intern


Humans have used visual means to express themselves, long before words were recorded.  One way of doing this is through painting pottery.  Paint was created with pigments, which came from whatever materials the artist could find.

Different minerals and plants created different colors.  Here are some of the common materials used and the colors they produced:

Charcoal – Gray or Black

Limestone/Crushed Shells – White

Copper – Blue/Green

Ochre/Hematite/Iron ore – Red/Orange

The material was first ground into powder, then mixed with some kind of liquid or other binding agent.  This was then used to decorate the pot, either by being used like paint or mixed into the clay itself.

Negative Painted Pottery

An example of negative painted pottery from an excavation at Angel Mounds.

There was another manner of decoration which focused less on the color of the paint, and more on the color of the pot itself.

Negative painted pottery, demonstrated on some sherds of pottery found at Angel Mounds, used the natural color of the pottery to create the pattern.

In a master’s thesis from 1950, Hilda J. Curry gives the most commonly proposed explanation –wax or some similar material was used to block out the desired designs, and the entire pot was covered in paint, usually black in color.  Once placed in a heat source to fire the clay, the wax would melt away, leaving sections of the vessel uncovered by paint.

In an article published in the Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, negative painted pottery is described as being found “almost exclusively” during the Middle Mississippian period, which dates from 1200-1500 CE.  Most sherds and pots demonstrating the process have been found in the Lower Ohio River Valley; near Nashville, Tennessee; and in southeast Missouri.  It is a rare find, but is considered to be a signature item of the Angel Mounds site since large quantities of negative painted pottery have been found there.  The exact origins are unclear, and there is some evidence to suggest the process was originally used on fabric.

Though many samples of negative painted plates, vessels and bowls have been found, a debate is underway on the precise purpose and origin of the process.


Baumann, Timothy E., Tammie L. Gerke and Eleanora A. Reber. “Sun Circles and Science: Negative Painted Pottery from Angel Mounds (12Vg1).” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology, 38:2 (2013). 219-244.

Curry, Hilda J. “Negative Painted Pottery of Angel Mounds Site and Its Distribution in the New World.” Master’s thesis, Indiana University, 1950.

“Prehistoric Pigments,” Royal Society of Chemistry.