Poverty Point Cooking Balls

Subject Areas:
Science, Social Studies

The student will:

One hour

Poverty Point Cooking Balls handout
Division of Archaeology Poverty Point suitcase (1-225-342-8170) or overhead transparency of pictures of cooking balls
Brown play dough or loess soil
Container for soil and water mixture
Paper towels
Geological map of Louisiana

Must Know Info:

Because so many cooking balls were found at various Poverty Point sites, archaeologists named them Poverty Point Objects or PPOs. In fact, these small objects have become one way for archaeologists to identify a Poverty Point Culture site. Poverty Point people used the cooking balls to cook food in their earth ovens. A pit was dug in the ground and a fire heated the Poverty Point cooking balls. The food was placed in the middle of the PPOs and then the entire "oven" was covered with soil.

a fine, yellowish-brown loam deposited by the wind. It consists of tiny material particles picked up by the wind from former glaciated areas and brought to the places where they are now found

The PPOs have been referred to as "clay balls," but they are actually made of a kind of soil known as loess. Loess soil is only found in certain areas of Louisiana because it is a glacial wind blown deposit. The loess soil was mixed with water to form a "mud pie" mixture which was then shaped with the hands and fingers to form one of several common shapes of cooking balls. Some of the cooking balls have small fingerprints in them. This might indicate that they were made by women or children. The cooking balls were probably dried by the side of the fire before being put into the earth oven. Exposing the cooking balls to fire gives them an orange or reddish appearance caused by oxidation.

Archaeologists have identified shapes of PPOs which are the most frequently found types at Poverty Point. These include two variations of cylindrical grooved, two variations of cross grooved, melon shaped, melon shaped with end grooves, biconical, and biconical grooved. Examples of these are shown on the student handout.

If you use loess soil, you may use these cooking balls in the Cooking in an Earth Oven or the Poverty Point Earth Ovens: Getting the Temperature Right! activities. If you intend to do these later activities, be sure to weigh the amount of loess/water mixture in each cooking ball. These activities require cooking balls with a wet weight of 60 grams.


Order a soil map:
Call Wayne Hudnall
LSU Dept. of Agronomy

flint knapper:
someone who shapes stone by chipping it with another stone or tool

a spear throwing device

1. Show overhead transparency of pictures of cooking balls or show students an authentic PPO from the Division of Archaeology Poverty Point suitcase exhibit. Call 1-225-342-8170 to schedule this free display for your class.

2. Ask students to hypothesize about the objects' use. Record responses on the board as students brainstorm. Tell students that archaeologists follow this same deductive procedure when they find a new type of artifact. In fact, some archaeologists originally thought that PPOs may have been game pieces.

3. Tell students that some of the objects have small fingerprints imbedded in their surfaces. Ask students what this might indicate.

4. Tell students that PPOs are often found in the remains of fires and hearths at Poverty Point sites. Ask students how this new information changes their ideas about the objects' use. Each added piece of information helps archaeologists and students discover the origin and use of ancient objects.

5. Hand out the Poverty Point Cooking Balls sheet and ask students to hypothesize how the PPOs were made. What raw materials were used? Tell students that the PPOs were made from a kind of soil called "loess." Class members may use a Louisiana geological map to determine the soil type in their area and discuss the properties of a physical map.

6. Students will attempt to replicate the production of cooking balls with either loess or play dough. They may mix loess soil and water to make a thick mixture which can be rolled in the palms of the hands or use a golf ball sized piece of play dough. Students should try to make several of the different kinds of cooking balls, sharing their techniques with others in the class. If you plan to use these PPOs in the experiments which follow this activity, each PPO should weigh 60 grams while wet.

7. One or more students may become "cooking ball experts" while other students are still struggling with particular shapes. Suggest that specialization may have occurred in prehistory where people took on jobs at which they excelled. For instance, individuals may have become flint knappers or atlatl makers and traded these items for cooking balls made by a PPO expert! Children may also have made PPOs because it was a relatively easy job.

8. If the cooking balls are made from loess soil, dry them in a fire or let them air dry. If play dough is used, follow the directions for this material.