Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Margaret Beck in the field
Margaret Beck

An anthropological archaeologist, Margaret Beck is continually searching—sometimes physically, for artifacts or geological samples, but always intellectually—to understand how people once lived, how they prepared and served food, taught and learned craftwork, used local resources, moved within their landscapes, and spread their traditions. Currently, she’s studying red-painted archeological ceramics and iron-rich geological samples to discover how Native peoples created and applied the color red in the central United States. The answers aren't always easy to find centuries later.

The power of red

"Throughout Native North America," says Beck, Associate Professor of Anthropology and a Fall 2021 Obermann Fellow-in-Residence, "red is a powerful, strong, and often sacred color.” Indigenous people in the Midwest and Great Plains used red paint for daily grooming, to ornament household objects, and to make the mundane sacred in religious ceremonies. When Beck moved to Iowa in 2007 and began looking at archeological ceramics from Iowa and Illinois, she noticed that their red pigments differed from those found in archeological sites elsewhere in North America. The red coatings (paints or slips) were often thinner and more powdery, with lighter or more yellow shades of red. Beck surmised that these differences were due to regionally distinct raw materials and pigment application techniques—but this was something she’d have to find out for herself. "In the Great Plains and the American Bottom, I found that this was an overlooked subject," she says. "Scholars know relatively little about sources of red pigment or ochre there"—in contrast to, say, chippable stone, the location of which has been widely studied in the region.

Scholars do know that red pigment appeared on ceramics in the American Bottom (specifically, in the Cahokia area near St. Louis) around AD 900. During the next 150 years, red-painted vessels spread into the Upper Mississippi Valley and across Iowa, along with other aspects of "Mississippian" culture from the American Bottom, including ceremonial practices.

"When people interact," Beck says, "religious beliefs and practices are often exchanged. And when this happens, new adherents recreate religious practices begun elsewhere—often practices that require special objects—in their own settings. Such objects must somehow be imported or else made locally in a way that does not diminish their symbolism and power." In northwest Iowa, for instance, red-colored vessels were sometimes acquired from other parts of the Mississippian world and sometimes made locally. 

All of this compels Beck to wonder: How did people in northwest Iowa find and process red pigment to copy red ceramics from the American Bottom? What geological raw materials are available for pigment in the eastern Great Plains? What did other Indigenous Plains people use later in time?  

Unearthing the materials

Nebraska ochre deposit
Nebraska ochre deposit

To answer these questions, Beck has been collecting and comparing red-painted ceramic samples and iron-rich geological samples in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Kansas. For ceramic artifacts, she turns to archaeological collections such as those at the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, and the Kansas Historical Society. To evaluate color, she removes a tiny bit of painted material from an artifact and refires it in a high-temperature pottery kiln. She also fires geological samples to the same temperature, which allows her to compare the fully oxidized colors. Some browns and yellows, for example, refire to red. She also regularly sends red-pigmented ceramic fragments and geological samples to the University of Missouri's Research Reactor for chemical analysis.

To find geological samples, she turns to literature and aerial photography to look for areas of exposed red deposits or formations that might contain such deposits. "Abandoned clay pits or brick mines are great exposures," she says; “so are local road cuts." After obtaining the necessary permissions, she ventures out, sampling equipment in hand. "I went out often during the first year of the pandemic," she recalls. "Sometimes I felt like I was just stumbling around, because even when I'd studied photos of a deposit, I didn't necessarily recognize it when I was there." When she finds a promising spot, she collects a small sample of earth. These samples are carefully archived and compared in color and chemistry to archaeological materials. They are also used for experimental attempts to recreate ancient pigments. For one recent public presentation, samples were prepared as watercolors so that the audience could see the differences in color and texture between source materials for themselves.

So far, Beck has found one match. “We found that the Cretaceous Dakota formation was a source of pigment at least occasionally used by the Pawnee in [what is now] Kansas,” she says.

Finding the people

Beck is eager to share her research with the public, especially those with ancestral ties to her areas of study. In summer 2021, she gave a public outreach talk at the Pawnee Indian Museum State Historic Site in Kansas, and in the spring, she’ll give another at the University of Oklahoma. “Ultimately,” she says, "it's about investing in where we live. To live here respectfully, we’re obligated to understand the history of our place. Many Iowans are profoundly unaware of some resources that Indigenous people have used here for thousands of years. The United States displaced many Native people, often severing or weakening their connections to resources in their traditional territories. We are all poorer for the loss of such connections and knowledge. My work addresses a very small part of what people knew here.”

Ceramic bowl
Nineteenth-century Pawnee bowl from Nebraska with red pigment in the interior

For her part, Beck practices building and painting pots by hand, as Native peoples did in the Great Plains and Midwest. She also visits families elsewhere, in the Philippines and in India, who still use handcrafted ceramics for cooking and water storage. "Archeologists tend to study materials removed from our own current cultural experience," she says, smiling; “I like to close the gap a little." She also follows the work of contemporary artists who make pigments from natural materials. One such artist, Heidi Gustafson from Washington state, maintains a physical archive of red ochres and pigments found worldwide, describing red ochre as “the heartbeat of the earth.”

Working across disciplines is clearly intuitive to Margaret Beck, whose work connects fields as disparate as chemistry and art. She was a member of the 2020–21 Obermann Working Group on Environmental Futures, working with UI faculty and students from Anthropology, Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, Urban Planning, and Engineering on wood and cookstove use in India. The Obermann Center is a natural place for her to land: “I’m so inspired by the work of people in other departments—and I also want to know how my writing is perceived by non-anthropologists, so sharing my work with the other Fellows is important, especially as I try to engage more fully with different communities.”

And how grateful we are to be a dot on her map, a waypoint in her journey of connecting people with history and place.