People have always left things here.
Large connected families, wandering, came and stayed awhile. They found ways to survive without plastic and metal and complicated wireless services.
I pulled a piece of Pawmunkey Indian pottery out of the riverbank believing it was somebody’s broken picnic plate. It barely covers my palm, and the slight weight of it belies the strength of the 1500 year-old bowl it was once part of.
Photos by Ben Mason
The natives rolled gummy river clay into long strands and wound them in spiraling circles to form containers that were baked to a burnished red over slow fires to harden. I don’t know why they broke them, but I’ve heard that they always did before they left an area.
I found a flint arrowhead with a streak of red jasper at its base. Kentucky is the nearest state with flint. Maybe I live on an old trade route. So far there’s no sign of any loading docks or malls on this ground. But people have lived here for centuries. They fished and hunted and leaned back against these trees and burped and laughed and wondered if the kids would come home late from the raid on that new tribe two zip codes away.
These orangey red bowls were for everyday use, but they were artfully created. Carefully grooved paddles of wood were used to imprint the wet clay with decorative patterns: I see cross hatching, bands of parallel curving lines, and the logo of an upcoming artist who marked the bowl with a small finger print — a snappy signature on ancient art.
Was she or he as inspired by the land as I am now, smearing creamy brown clay on myself and squatting in the sun, watching an eel twisting in the water?
Pawmunkey Indians living today in southern Virginia make their pottery using this same weaving method. When I took my potshards to the Native American Museum I saw exact replicas behind glass. Centuries old. And looking like they were made last week by living craftsman on Pawmunkey land on a southern Virginia river.
I have stumbled onto a path which leads me back and forth between times. I lose my way when I think this is the only time that matters. Sienna shadows rise from bones long buried when light bends a certain way though these trees. Something brushes past me then and reminds me that I am as temporary as river clay bowls.
Artist Ben Mason’s home and studio are said to sit atop a former Native American village site (circa 1,000 B.C.) near Castleton.