Coastal Clay

It’s under our feet. It’s on the roofs of our houses. It’s the foundation of an ancient mound city in the Delta, and it’s a modern construction material. It exists deep in the earth, and, in one particular place, towers over Mobile Bay. It’s not a stretch to say that, for an Alabamian, home is where the clay is.

And for those living on Mobile Bay, the sentiment is heightened. Even today,  it’s not unusual for beachcombers to discover fragments of Native American pottery along our sandy shores, remnants from ancient people who utilized the area’s natural clay deposits. Since then, clay has become a building block of our coastal culture; present in our songs, folklore, art and architecture, clay is as integral to our identity as the soil on which we stand.

What’s it made of?

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, “the term ‘clay’ refers to a finely textured mineral material, found in almost all soil types in the state.” In fact, clay is found in every county of Alabama and most of the state’s geological formations. “Clays are generally made up of hydrous aluminum silicates combined in various proportions.” In other words, the ratio of these silicates to other minerals in the clay determines clay type. Different types of clay mined throughout the state include kaolin, common clay, shale, bentonite and fireclay.

Shape Up

When pulverized and mixed with water, clay forms a mass that can be molded and that hardens when heated to a high temperature, a process known as “firing.” Some shards of Native American pottery found along the shores of the Bay still bear the scorch marks of the fire that baked it.

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Seeing Red

Depending on the content of the soil, clay can come in a variety of colors, from white to a deep red. The characteristic red clay we have in the South is the result of iron oxides. All rocks contain minerals, and when rocks containing iron oxide are weathered with acidic rain, it produces red clay. The particles that make up red clay are more than 1, 000 times smaller than grains of sand.

Our History in Clay

  • On an isolated island within the Tensaw River Delta rests 18 man-made mounds of dirt and clay,  the remnants of a Native American civilization from the 14th century. Dr. Greg Waselkov, director of the University of South Alabama Center for Archaeological Studies, believes the largest mound took around 100 years to build, one basket of clay at a time. 
  • When Spaniard Alonso Álvarez de Pineda first sailed into the Bay he named Espiritu Santo (Bay of the Holy Ghost), he noted a red bluff situated high on the Eastern Shore. Ecor Rouge, as it was later named by the French, became an important landmark for sailors within the Bay. The 120-foot red clay bluff, located in present-day Montrose, is the highest point of land that touches saltwater from Maine to Mexico. 
  • Beloved Mobile Renaissance man Eugene Walter traveled the world with a shoebox of red Alabama clay to keep homesickness at bay. He often kept it tucked away underneath his bed, “so I always slept on Alabama soil.” 
  • About 35 percent of the clay used at Tom Jones Pottery in Fairhope is locally sourced. “It’s really a pretty decent clay that often requires no additives, ” Jones says of the local supply. “And the colors run the full spectrum.” It’s not uncommon to find Eastern Shore clay in colors of light yellow, pink, pale peach, light and dark blue and even purple. “This is one of the largest clay deposits in the Southeast region.” Tom Jones Pottery is located in an area known as Clay City, the site of several historic kilns spanning the past couple of centuries.

Text by Breck Pappas

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