Ceramics have great utility for archaeologists because they tend to last for a long time even after they are buried. They also contain a high degree of information: decorative styles and construction characteristics can tell us about group affiliation, group interaction, and identity; clay sourcing can help us understand manufacturing production, distribution, and group movements; and residue analysis can even tell us what people were storing or cooking in the pots! Ceramics were used in many different social situations from domestic spaces to ceremonial functions so they can help us interpret class status and/or archaeological context.
Ceramics are also good temporal markers because certain types only appear at certain times in prehistory. While pottery is very common and much more ubiquitous in regions like the Eastern Woodlands and the Plains, ceramics do not appear in such large quantities in Wyoming and their manufacturing characteristics do not match the level of technical sophistication reached by groups that lived in Hopewell or Cahokian pottery making communities, for example. Pottery making is a later development in Wyoming prehistory than in other regions. Pottery found here starts to occur in prehistoric sites at the transition from the Late Archaic to the Late Prehistoric, approximately AD 200.
However, Wyoming ceramics are well-made and certainly took a considerable amount of manufacturing knowledge. Many of the ceramics tend to be more utilitarian in nature and are probably vessels used as general containers or cooking pots. Many different groups of people manufactured pottery. Some pots were locally made, while others may have been brought into the state after they were fired. Ceramics are found across Wyoming- with close to 700 ceramic-bearing sites in the state. However, different varieties are often found clustered in different regions.
In southeast Wyoming, especially near the Pine Bluffs area, we find ceramics with Plains affiliations like Upper Republican (AD 1020-1250) or Dismal River (AD 1600-1750) pottery. Upper Republican pottery in Wyoming could represent seasonal movement of people between the High Plains and more easterly locations. Dismal River pottery, with its characteristic globular jars and micaceous temper and clay, is interpreted as the movement of peoples from the southwestern US to locations on the central Plains.
Woodland vessels are also found in the eastern half of Wyoming and occur earlier than Upper Republican and Dismal River varieties, approximately AD 200-1000. Yet not all Woodland vessels look the same. The Woodland pot recovered from the Gray Rocks site in Platte County looks very different from the vessels found at Butler-Rissler site in Natrona County or the Elk Mountain site in Carbon County. It is likely that the reality is multiple different groups living in different times and places manufactured pottery in a similar way, but archaeologists today call these all Woodland as a general term. Woodland vessels are sometimes found in Late Archaic Besant sites as well, and may represent a seasonal use of ceramics by these bison hunting groups.
In southwestern and south-central Wyoming, we find pottery with more southerly roots. These include Fremont or Promontory pottery, and the Uncompaghre or Brownwares often attributed to the Ute. They are often not found in well-dated, or even datable, contexts. A large Uncompaghre pot with multiple rows fingernail impressions encircling the vessel was found at the Castle Gardens site in Fremont County. It dates to approximately AD 1780. Even some Black-on-White ceramics, probably made by Puebloan groups and traded into Wyoming, have been located in Carbon County and other locales along the southwestern Wyoming border. The relationship between the Wyoming ceramics and groups from the southwestern United States is not well understood, and there needs to be a considerable amount of further research.
Intermountain pottery, associated with Shoshonean groups, was made by local potters and is mostly found across western Wyoming. Often with flat, flanged bases and smoothed exteriors, these vessels leave one with an impression of looking at a modern “flowerpot”. Sometimes, they have curved shoulders and folded rims, but are mostly still undecorated. They occur from AD 1200-1500. Examples include ceramics found at the Eden-Farson site in Sublette County. Intermountain ceramics are probably the most frequently reported ceramics, and like Woodland vessels, there may be spatial and temporal variation.
Crow pottery can be often found in northeastern Wyoming counties and probably represent a connection to Mandan culture in the Dakotas. These vessels are fairly contemporaneous with Intermountain ware, AD 1200- 1500, and are found at sites like Big Goose Creek and Piney Creek sites in Sheridan and Johnson Counties respectively, or the Crow component at the Medicine Lodge Creek site in Big Horn County. Some archaeological sites have both Crow and Intermountain pottery in the same campsite. The reasons for these occurrences are still under investigation, but could be related to inter-marriage or trade.
A few other types of ceramics occur infrequently. Some ceramics from the Wardell Bison Trap site in Sublette County are classified as Avonlea/Athabaskan, and may have origins with Canadian groups moving into Wyoming from the north. These vessels are Woodland in shape- conoidal with pointed bottoms- but have a different surface treatment. Other sites around Pinedale and Rock Springs may also have ceramics with Athabaskan affiliations. Middle Missouri and Extended Coalescent ceramics are sometimes found in northeastern Wyoming, as well. These can date anywhere from approximately AD 1000-1780 and may also represent Mandan influences. Examples can be found at the Harrier Nest site in Campbell County and other sites around the Black Hills area.