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Digging into one of Mobile Bay’s oldest industries

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The city of Mobile may be best known for creating Mardi Gras. It’s also home to the North American factory for European airplane builder Airbus. That’s what’s going on right now. Back in 1700’s, pottery was big business in what would become Alabama’s port city.

It’s a clear spring day in Daphne. The tide is out on Mobile Bay. Local ceramics artist Zach Sierke leads a group of aspiring potters on a trip along the shore.

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“Along the whole beach, we'll be seeing lots of potshards, lots of kiln bricks and wadding,” he told the group.

They’re looking for clay in some of the same locations where colonial potters dug up to three hundred years ago and Native Americans used for centuries before that.

“This is our annual wild-clay expedition that brings people into a hands-on experience of the story of our ceramic history and geology,” he observed.

Sierke points out that signs of that past work are right underfoot. Broken pieces of pottery cover the sand in places. Bricks covered in barnacles at the water’s edge mark where kilns stood more than 100 years ago.

“It's real important to me that people know the story of the earth beneath their feet, to experience a glimpse of geologic time and to understand how those forces come into our daily lives through pottery and ceramic work and empower them to do that for themselves, dig clay, understand what they're finding in the earth.”

Sierke points out a vein of clay on a bayshore bluff. If you look close, you can see signs of marine life that lived in the Mobile area long-ago

“This same kind of stuff forms the floor of our bay all the way across,” he said. “There might be shrimp burrows and stuff like that happening now, but chances are, especially since there's this really tight clay on top of this that goes up that this stuff was very ancient, Miocene age is pretty much what I'm thinking, ten to fifteen million years.”

The Mobile Bay region was under water back then. Later on, Mobile bay was a river delta when the sea moved farther south. Sierke says you can find signs of all that.

“One of our friends who lives on top of the bluff just past the Big Bear area where we're going to go, dug a well and went down below the beach level another like fifty feet or something, eighty feet and the core brought up a whole section of coral reef, which was like chunks of coral, which we never see. This was an ocean for a while,” said Sierke.

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Millions of years later, the result was clay. Sierke’s says that led to a cottage industry for the people found the clay and put it to use.

“Mobile Bay has a really rich ceramic tradition dating back to the 1700 and 1800s with European descended potters that flocked to the area because of the market in Mobile, the pure, easily accessible clay and the water transport. Before that, the Native American cultures that lived here have potshards lining the banks of the bay as well,” he said.

And Mobile’s clay making industry didn’t end with native Americans or people living in colonial times.

“I started pottery in college and became obsessed,” recalled Sierke

One generation of potters led to another, and that includes one artist who inspired Sierke to take up the art form.

“Immediately upon become obsessed with pottery, I came back home and found my great-great grandfather's kiln site from the 1800s. He was jug maker,” Sierke recalled. “I dug the clay from the vein next to his pottery in rural Baldwin County, brought the clay to school, started testing it and every time I would come home after that, I would find new clay veins, discover more kiln sites from the 1800s, 1700s created a sort of niche career.”

“I don't recommend this. It's dangerous. I felt like I was going to fall,” Sierke observed.

“OK. We're not going to follow you,” responded one of his students.

Down the beach, the class stops at the base of a tall steep bluff. Sierke goes to the top. The best clay is up there. At one point, he inches along the cliff face holding tree roots about fifty feet above the beach.

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“Um, super sandy clay,” he said as he swirled the clay in his mouth. “But you have to get some in your mouth.

“And at first you think, oh, this isn't as sandy as I thought because it all kind of dissolves, but then after the clay portion coats your mouth and dissolves, you're left with this like little abrasive layer on your tongue like really fine, fine silica, too fine to even sieve out. That's just a really high silica clay.”

“I just started reconnecting with pottery,” said Sarah Chandler. She’s one of the students digging on the bluff. Chandler moved to Fairhope from New Orleans about a year and half ago.

“I’m trying to put my finger on it. I've been in the corporate workplace for about 15 years and sometimes I don't see a tangible outlet like I do when I sit down at the wheel and then create something thirty minutes later,” recalled Chandler. “I like the tactile. I like making a product quickly and then seeing the result.”

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The group following Sierke around isn’t limited to people eager to make clay pottery of their own. Several University of New Orleans geology students are also part of the group.

“I brought a class full of students out here to investigate some of the sedimentology and stratigraphy that are deposited along the bluffs here,” said UNO Professor Robert Mahon. He learned about the site from Sierke when he was looking for clay for his own ceramics work. He says it’s also a great place to study geology.

“We kind of came out here partly because of the exposure here is pretty good relative to where we're from in New Orleans,” said Mahon. “There's not a lot of outcrop that we can look at.”

The students sketch the layers of clay and sand, recording millions of years of deposition.

Mobile Bay and the bluffs around it certainly do record a variety of different sea level cycles and these deposits may have been laid down in somewhere higher sea level conditions and have been subsequently eroded down into these bluffs during the last few hundred thousand years.” said Mahon.

Using those millennia of geology for art and utility is something that humans have done for about as long as humans have been around. Pottery is still a strong tradition on the Gulf Coast that’s still going on.

“For me the enduring allure of ceramics, it feels like it taps, ceramics and pottery taps into a fundamental part of human history,” said Zack Sierke.

“Ceramics was the first high-technology, the first process by which we really changed a material from one to another. Every one of my students comes to clay from a different set of experiences but almost everyone connects with it in that same primal way.”

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