Connecting St. Croix River Art, History and Nature

Oneota pottery from the Sheffield Site (courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota)
Oneota pottery from the Sheffield Site (courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota)

Through the story of archaeological research, my most recent article on St. Croix 360 brings together the St. Croix River region’s fascinating but little-known prehistoric culture, its unique and important role as mussel habitat, and its contemporary role as a pottery “Mecca.”

About 700 years ago, someone from a village of Native American people we call the Oneota went down to the St. Croix River near present-day Marine on St. Croix and gathered mussel shells. They ground the shells into a powder, mixed it with clay, and created pottery which was used for storing food or cooking.

The mussel shells were a key innovation of Oneota potters. For a long time, they added crushed rock to their clay to prevent cracking as it dries. Around the year 1100 A.D., they switched to mussels, allowing them to make bigger, lighter pots with thinner walls. Archaeologists estimate that an Oneota pot found near La Crosse, Wisconsin could hold 15 to 20 gallons, with walls that were one-third of an inch thick.

All thanks to clam shells.

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