Sunday, November 25, 2007

Red and Yellow Ochre ( Ocher ) Use in the Northeast

SRAC is doing a little research and have a question we'd like to ask of our of our readers. We are looking for the frequency that red ochre has been found in the northeast and in association with a.) historic and b.) prehistoric sites. Any info or references we could use would be greatly appreciated and shared by all using this forum!

Ochre (Ocher) :
the common name for hematite, iron oxide (FeH3O,) a naturally occurring element. Hematite occurs in two colors: red and yellow. Ochre was used for painting and coloring purposes as well as in ceremonial and burials into historic times.

However, the study of it's use in the Northeast has never been studied deeply enough to help us understand what culture was using it in our region, or for what purpose. The following is one person's description of the use of Red ochre and it's significance in the Mound -Builder cultures:

Barbara Mann, "Native Americans, Archaeologists, ad the Mounds"

"White and red are the colors of the east and prayer. Thus east facing burials smeared with red indicate the prayerful repose of the dead. It interesting to think that part of the work of the red daub in Mound-Builder burials was to ensure that the spiritual wishes of the deceased were secured..."

Yet, the use of ochre outlived the Mound-Builders culture, and is found right here in the Twin Teirs region on NY and PA...Here are just a couple of references to red and yellow ochre that have been noted within a 10 mile radius of Spanish Hill and Waverly, NY that were easy for me to get my hands on:

Englebert Site Report, Nichols, NY (Burial 92)
"..after the removal of the stones and the pit fill surrounding the bones, revealed the skelton of the middle aged male. He is accompanied by two shell-tempered pottery vessels lying on his left arm...associated with the pots were large masses of red and yellow ochre, the significance of which is unknown."

Louise Welles Murray: Murray Farm, 1916
"In another grave beside the flexed skeletons were six bundle burials, a whole pot with them, and near the skeleton a smaller pot filled with oxide of iron..."

Amulet found on the flats below Spanish Hill, South Waverly, PA smeared with red ochre: (more pictures can be found here)

Here is also a historic reference of red ochre being used in a burial by a witness (John Heckwelder) in PA in 1762:

"The lid was then fastened on the coffin with three straps, and three handsome round poles, five or six feet long, were laid across it, near each other, and one in the middle, which were fastened with straps cut up from a tanned elk hide; and a small bag of vermilion paint, with some flannel to lay it on, was then thrust into the coffin through the hole cut out at the head of it. "

Please use the comments link at the bottom of this page to send any info or comments you might have. By adding more accounts and/or reports, you will be adding to the understanding of the use of red ochre in the northeast, that will be available to all.

Thanks in advance for your help in this effort. Use the link below to subscribe to this discussion forum:

Note - the following information was sent to me by Brad Seymour, Office of Cartography & Publications, New York State Museum :

"I had to consult one of our archeologists to answer your question.

The following publications touch on this issue:

Ritchie, W. A., and D. W. Dragoo. 1960. The Eastern Dispersal of Adena. New York State Museum Bulletin 379. The University of the State of New York, Albany, New York.

Ritchie, W.A. Recent discoveries suggesting an Early Woodland Burial Cult in the northeast. New York State Museum Circular 40.

Funk, R. Upper Susquehanna Valley Volume (Volume I) "

Thanks to the NYS Museum for the info!

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  1. Your passion for this is exhilarating, Deb. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and am truly excited to see all that is in store. Stone Soup is a great story of teamwork for a common cause and purpose. Ellsworth would be so proud of you. You and your team are continuing his legacy and making it a reality for people today and tomorrow. You are definitely taking what you have today and making it better...Keep up the great work!

  2. thanks for the great IS alot of work - but knowing we have made a difference is what inspires us at SRAC to keep our noses to the grindstone!