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  • Ian Thompson

Turning Dry Bones into Choctaw Bowls

A couple of months back, while planting some seed bombs on the farm, we came across something unusual. Out in the tall grass, the skeletons of two young deer were lying only a few steps away from each other. Both animals appeared to have died in the fall. With the deer being too small to have been likely poaching victims, we're still scratching our heads as to what events could have lead to these bones being there. Not ones to waste resources, after we finished planting the seed bombs, we filled the box that we had carried the bombs in with the bones.

We'd been wanting to make traditional pottery that was connected with the landscape of the farm for a long time, but unfortunately the deposits of clay on this land are not suitable for making it. The bones represented an opportunity. First, Ian carved a pottery knife out of the biggest cannon bone in the pile. This sharp-edged tool is invaluable in the traditional pottery-making process (top image). From now on, every pot that we make with it will be connected with the farm.

In order to make most natural clays suitable for making pottery, you have to add in temper - small pieces of aplastic material, which help to keep the pottery from cracking while it dries, during the firing process, and also in use. Over the course of a pottery tradition that dates back well over 100 generations, Choctaw potters have used a wide variety of different tempering materials, ranging from Spanish moss to sand to burned mussel shell. Around the time period of the Trail of Tears, one of the most common tempering materials in Choctaw pottery was burned bone.

Ian burned the rest of the bones in a small fire (second image). This changed the bone physically and also killed any pathogens that might have been in it Next, he crushed and sifted the burned bone fragments to the right size for making eating bowls (third image). He mixed these with Tombigbee River clay from the Choctaw homeland and shaped them into 1830s-style Choctaw eating bowls. After some weeks of drying, we fired them traditionally in a well-controlled bond fire, up to about 1200 Fahrenheit (fourth image). Shiny, hard, and ready for years of use, you'd never know that these traditional Choctaw bowls are about 1/3 deer bone just by looking at them.

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