First Tennesseans: Pottery Making

DURATION: Two sessions

  • Access to internet
  • Magic Mud Natural Clay or self-hardening clay


Indians made their pottery using several steps. First, they rolled wet clay with another ingredient that would “temper” the clay. Temper means to make it stronger or a better quality.  Sand, clay, fiber and broken shells were all used as tempers. Once the clay and tempering ingredient was mixed together, the clay would be rolled into long coils. These coils would then be stacked on top of each other to make a vessel shape. The stacked coils would then be pressed and shaped together to make smooth sides on the insides and outsides of the container.
Once they had the shape the way they wanted, the Indians then placed it next to an open fire. The fire dried the clay and hardened it. The last step would be to place the piece of pottery directly in the fire to finish hardening it.
The Indians did not make pottery just for practical use. Much of their pottery shows artistic expression. Some vessels were shaped to form human or animal effigies; others were painted or stamped with an artistic design.

Guiding Question:

  • How did the Indians in Tennessee make pottery?


  • Students will make a clay artifact.


  • Have the students write a journal entry about their experience. What artistic shapes and designs are popular today? Which are popular in the home? In school? In a Church? Are their similarities/differences?


Session 1:
1.      Divide the students into groups of 3 to 5.
2.      Review the material on pottery and pottery making on the website.
3.      Pass out or show pictures of decorated and/or effigy pottery.
4.      Allow students time to discuss in their groups what type of pottery they would like to make.
5.      Pass out the clay.
6.      Have students create an animal effigy or a decorated pot using examples from the website. 
7.      Set the pottery aside to dry overnight.
Session 2:
  1. Allow the students to display their pottery and to explain why they chose to make that particular design.


  • 4.1.01 Understand the diversity of human cultures.
    a. Describe cultures of Native American tribes.
  • 4.1.spi.1. identify pre-Colonial Native American groups (i.e., Cherokee, Creek,
    Chickasaw, Aztec, Mayans, Olmec, Mississippi Mound Builders).
  • 4.2.01b. Describe how Native Americans in Tennessee and the Western Hemisphere met
    their basic economic needs
  • 4.2.02a. Explain the economic patterns of various early Native American groups in
    Tennessee and the Western Hemisphere.
  • 3.01 Understand how to use maps, globes, and other geographic representations,
    tools, and technologies to acquire, process and report information from a spatial
  • 4.5.01 Identify the ancient civilizations of the Americas.
    a. Identify the ancient civilizations of the Americas at the time of European arrival.
    b. Explain the cultures of the Western Hemisphere's native peoples prior to
    European contact