Slipcasting my Footsteps: Fort Walton Beach

In 2004, my parents decided we were going to revisit Fort Walton Beach, a town in northwestern Florida where my siblings and I were born.  My parents would be accompanied by me, one of my brothers and his wife.  We were all very excited about returning and, for me, it was not just returning to my birthplace, it was going home.

Hurricane Ivan — I had not been to Fort Walton Beach since I was 5 years old and my memories were of sun, soft rains, the ocean, and playing with my friend Vickie. Mentally and emotionally, I knew I had to prepare myself for this trip. Just beforehand, though, Hurricane Ivan stirred up the Gulf of Mexico. Then, my family was stunned as it bore down on the Florida Pandhandle. I remember tracking the movements of Hurricane Ivan over the NOAA website and feeling panicky as it zeroed in on that little segment of land I called home. We watched in horror as the hurricane made landfall near Fort Walton Beach. And we felt helpless.

Third Culture Kids — Fort Walton Beach has always been important to me,  even though we left when my sibs and I little kids. It was always my earliest point of reference. I called Fort Walton Beach “home” many times, mentally and aloud, but also came to wonder if it really was my home, even if it was my birthplace. This is a typical thought process for an an adult Third Culture Kid (TCK).  A TCK is part of a sub-group called the Third Culture and its members were children when their parents left their children’s birth country. A child who is a member of the Third Culture moves to a another land and culture, usually because of  his or her parent’s work. Eventually, that child may re-enter their birth country (whether or not they leave it again, at some other point).  One of the major side-effects of this lifestyle is wanderlust and like other adult TCKs, I’d been on the move for most of my life.  So the idea of returning to the place I was born was very important. About three weeks after Hurricane Ivan hit, we decided to go anyway. We’d already paid for our tickets, condo and car rental and we all thirsted to see Fort Walton Beach, which had just withstood landfall and was still intact.

Fort Walton Beach — Once we were there, I initially experienced the place with adult eyes and a child’s senses.  When I stepped off the plane, I immediately recognized the scent of home and millions of puzzle pieces started falling together in my conscious and subconscious mind. I recognized the taste of the air, the sound of the surf, the color of the water and sand.  All of the things that a child would be able to remember at that age. But, you might ask, “what in the world does any of this have to do with clay or ceramics?”

Well, what I was not able know in any defined way, as a child, was that the town of Fort Walton Beach is quite literally built around an earthen mound.  Or that ceramic artifacts had been found inside this huge mound of earth, circa the First Millennium AD.  I, someone who’d started working in clay at age seven, was absolutely stunned to see these works of pottery in the museum next to the Fort Walton Temple Mound. To learn that I was born in a town in which ceramics had played such a huge role with the original inhabitants was amazing.  I brought home all the books I could buy from the museum on the ceramics I had seen on display.

Ancient Germany — Add to this my astonishment at recently learning that the place we moved to from Florida was also an area where ceramics had played a very pivotal role.  I learned of this by chance. Over a year ago, I became interested in ancient history and, subsequently, have read many books about Etruscans, Minoans, ancient Greeks, Romans and the Ptolemies in Egypt. About three months ago, while reading about Rome’s failed conquest of Germany, I found out that the area to which my family moved, the Eifel region,  was an important hub of ceramics and had been for eons. In fact, the very town to which we moved was itself of importance then and now to the ceramics industry! Utilitarian pieces from this area, made of gray clay embellished with cobalt blue, became an object of export for the Romans and, thus, were dispersed throughout the world.

Again, I was hugely surprised that an area I had lived in had had such a connection to ceramics.  So, with this knowledge, I have decided to create a geographic autobiography based on ceramics.  Beginning with Fort Walton Beach, Florida, I will outline an area’s history regarding ceramics.  From Florida, I will move to Germany, then to the next point on the map, following the wanderings of this Third Culture Kid.

Fort Walton Culture — As it turns out, Northwestern Florida has much naturally occurring clay.  The clays that are found are mainly used for industrial purposes in modern-day Florida.  “Kaolin (China clay), ball clay, fire clay, fuller’s earth, and earthen clays,” according to the Northwestern Florida Ecological Characterization: An Ecological Atlas.  Evidently, there were a number of brick manufacturers in the area and these grew along with increasing population at the close of the 1970s. “The clays are mined by first removing the overburden” states the atlas, then “the clay bed is then carefully cleaned and the clay is then loaded onto trucks.” So,  early peoples living in the area that became known as Florida’s Panhandle probably had little trouble finding sources of clay with which to make pottery for daily and ceremonial use.

The historical museum at Fort Walton Beach has a terrific exhibit which displays a number of these ancient pieces, giving the visitor much background knowledge about the temple mound, which is 12′ tall and 223′ across.  “The museum houses…the finest collection of Fort Walton Period ceramics in the southeastern United States,” according to the museum. The mound itself was “built as a ceremonial and political center by the Mound Builder Culture between 800 to 1400 AD,” states the museum website.  “This mound,” it continues, “is the largest on salt water and possibly the largest prehistoric earth work on the Gulf Coast.”  Today, Fort Walton Beach’s  Temple Mound is listed on the National Historic Register and is a National Historic Landmark.

A Florida artist named Theodore Morris carefully researches anthropological and archaeological data, using this material for his paintings of Florida’s Lost Tribes. One Morris painting, named “The Potter,” depicts a man and pottery from the Fort Walton Culture, which, from a scientific standpoint, is part of the broader Mississippian Culture, which spans 800 to 1500 AD.  The Fort Walton Culture was “part of an elaborate trade network,” the painting description states, “linking peoples from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes and extending to Oklahoma.” Morris says the material these peoples used was created “from clay that contained sand.” Later, he said it “was made from clay containing ground up potsherds (temper) which made the finished pottery stronger and less likely to crack during drying. The indigenous Americans from this particular area made pieces with the coil method, which Morris said were “elaborately shaped and decorated vessels…generally made for religious and ceremonial purposes.”

As I began writing this blog piece, I was hard put to know how to show you images of the pieces found in the Temple Mound, but knew it was important.  Nor did I want to take the time to ask the museum for permission to use their photos.  Luckily, I was able to find photographs and descriptions from the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian website. The site shows a five or so pieces from the Fort Walton culture and I’ve chosen to highlight three.

These pieces were excavated by Clarence B. Moore in the early 1900s.  The first is a bowl, circa 1350-1500 AD, found in the Fort Walton Temple Mound.  The museum website describes this coil-built piece, but I don’t know if this note is attributed to Moore or the museum. “A large flat bowl with six points on rim,” it states,” ‘killed’ brown ware, incised and punctuate decoration.” It is such a beautifully designed piece, so elegant. The next one, from the same time period, is a beautiful bowl “representing half a gourd, perforation in end, black ware,” according to the description, with “incised decoration.” This is such a fine piece of work, artistic and utilitarian. The last piece is a Frog Effigy Bowl from the same period. The description states it is a “large bowl representing a frog, ‘killed’, cream ware, incised decoration.”  Like the other two, it is coil built and incised.  This effigy is of interest; it makes me recall that many pieces in the museum in Fort Walton Beach are depictions of animals from the surrounding area. The first two pieces look like they could have been created recently, their designs and execution are so timeless. Only the frog effigy bowl has the look of ancient pottery.

The potters from the Fort Walton Culture were adept artisans, master craftsmen or women. These three pieces alone, cream, black and brown, show they used different clay beds to make their pieces.  I’m so intrigued, I know I’m going to continue studying the fine utilitarian pieces these people made so long ago on the Florida Panhandle, along what is now called the Emerald Coast. I am so glad I was able to visit my birthplace, feel the flour fine, brilliant white sand and reacquaint myself with the place I was born. Little did I know I would also find something dear to my heart and I conclude today’s post by saying I have the highest regard for these ancient peoples who were so talented and skilled.

My next installment will be about the Eifel….

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About Jan

I have a background in ceramics, graphic design and journalism.
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