Monday, January 14, 2008

Still more on Ochre / Ocher usage in the Northeast

As most of you know - we have been trying to get all of the information that we can possibly get concerning the usage of red ochre ( ocher ) in the Northeast. See the previous posts below:
  1. Red Ocher usage in the Northeast (11/27/2007)
  2. More on Red Ocher (12/15/2007)
Since then I have had a couple of responses that I think are very informative and that I wanted to share the information with all of you:

I was contacted by Martha Otto of the Ohio with the following tip:

Dear Ms. Twigg:

Your inquiry about the use of red and yellow ocher by American Indians in the Northeast found its way to me. The first thing that comes to mind is the so-called Red Paint people, a Late Archaic period society in Maine . One person who has done considerable research in this area is Dr. William Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian ( You can see a resume of his research at

Martha Otto
Martha Potter Otto
Senior Curator of Archaeology
Ohio Historical Society
1982 Velma Avenue
Columbus, OH 43211

When I contacted Dr. William Fitzhugh at the Smithsonian as suggested, he gave me the following comments:

"There's a long-standing tradition of the use of red ocher in ceremonial contexts in northeastern Indian cultures, especially the earliest cultures. In the far northeast it's used especially in Maritime Archaic graves, ca. 7500-3500 BP, but is also very common in their living sites as well, where it appears to have been used as a grinding medium in producing ground slate tools. In the raw state it can be yellow (produced from limonite) which if fired hot enough turns red. The other source is hematite, also red with fire. I've never seen yellow limonite used in sites; it's always bright red. But perhaps under certain conditions the oxidized red state might be reduced to the yellow limonite version.

The northern cultures are all 'archaic' hunting cultures and have no ceramics. Red ocher is spread all over the graves -- the bones and the tool deposits. You should look at James A. Tuck's "Ancient People of Port aux Choix" for a good picture of how this works in the north. And in the living sites, it's found around fireplaces and in patches elsewhere." ~ Dr. William Fitzhugh

However, this again does not fit what was found in the burials at the Englebert site in Nichols, NY nor the Murray site in Athens, PA described here because the red and yellow ocher were found in conjunction with the pottery...

I also received this comment from Lucianne Lavin, Ph.D., Director of Research & Collections Institute for American Indian Studies, Washington, CT:

"The early-mid-20th century collector Edward Rogers had in his collection a cake of red ochre (powdered, then formed into a small brick-like cake) and powdered red ochre. Much of his collection is housed at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT. All were recovered from Gulf of Maine Late Archaic sites (i.e., the Red Paint culture), except a small vial containing soil mixed with red ochre grains from Cayuga, NY (no other information was given for the latter).

The cake of red ochre was partially chipped (powder present in box with cake), and came from Ellsworth , ME.

One small jar of finely ground paint powder, light to medium red-brown derived from Stevens' Cemetery site in North Warren , ME.

We have small cobbles identified as yellow ochre from the Lovers Leap camp site in New Milford, CT.

Also, Dr. John Pfeiffer found red ochre powder associated with Late Archaic Laurentian and Terminal Archaic Broad Spear cremation burials and grave goods at the Bliss and Griffin sites in Old Lyme. Pfeiffer discusses other Terminal Archaic Broad Spear cremation burial sites in CT that also contained red ochre -- see his articles in the Archaeological Society of CT Bulletin (1984), Man in the Northeast (1980), and Experiments and Observations on the Terminal Archaic of the Middle Atlantic Region (1990, edited by Roger Moeller).

The little evidence we have for its use prehistorically appears to be mortuary. I assume that indigenous peoples used it as a pigment for red coloring in a variety of objects, as well as body paint. But given the acidic soils in the Northeast I doubt if much evidence for this would have survived." ~Lucianne Lavin, Ph.D.

Lucianne Lavin, Ph.D.
Director of Research & Collections
Institute for American Indian Studies
38 Curtis Road
Washington, CT 06793
(860) 868-0518
FAX (860) 868-1649

Thanks to all that have added helpful information to this conversation! I think it is worth continuing, and hope that we can get more responses concerning this usage for all of us to share here and to see the broad uses it had since archaic times.

Please help me spread the word about this request for information.

Please send me your comments at, or use the "Post a Comment" link at the bottom of this post or click here. If you wish to remain anonymous, please let me know!

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