Powhatan Pottery

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A great abundance of pottery fragments commands the attention of the observer who passes over the open ground almost anywhere on high, dry land near the river. The gathering of quantities of this material and its subjection to scrutiny as to frequency, location, and texture, permit us to draw a conclusion, making use of Nelson’s theory of horizontal stratification, an ingenious discovery that will be of great advantage to explorers everywhere in America. On the reservation and in adjacent territory outside there is considerable variation in the prevailing types of potsherds. In eastern Virginia at large, the earthenware is of the coarse, pebbly, heavy, clay variety, often reddish in color, showing the so-called net-marks which have been identified and described by Holmes. This ware abounds along all the inhabitable shores of the river and is abundant on the reservation. Yet at certain points of the reservation it gives place, in respect to abundance, to a thinner, light drab ware, very smooth both inside and outside and otherwise characterized by an absence of incisions or impressions of any kind on the body. And besides these characteristics, the clay out of which the latter ware was made contains no pebbles and no grit, but, on the other hand, a large proportion of powdered shells. For convenience I shall label the reddish, pebbly, net impressed material, of general distribution in the tidewater region, the Coarse Ware; and the unmarked, gritless, refined material which is so abundant on the reservation, the Smooth Ware,

The matter of explanation becomes quite simple after a thorough survey of the tidewater region material has been made. A distributional question, a problem of material, one also of technique, develop under our gaze and finally resolve themselves before us into a culture-historical question involving the southeast, all of which again emphasizes the singular importance of pottery as a recording element in eastern archeology.

First let us look over the material from the Virginia tidewater area. Everywhere here from the southern boundary of Virginia by actual observation, north-ward even through the Delaware valley, the pot-sherds are almost identical in material, decoration and color. Holmes has appropriately called the ceramics of the tidewater “the Algonquian type.” On the Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, James, and Chickahominy rivers it is all the same, the rims, decorations, and ingredients being practically uniform within a certain range of variation. Net and cord impressions characterize this work, while the so-called roulette impression, the stick-end indentation, and the ”comb” indented decorations are familiar. Incised-line patterns are also sparingly found (figs. 99, 100).

This is evidently the older Algonquian ware. There is little doubt of the homogeneity, even in minor particulars, of the early pottery of eastern Virginia. It is not necessary here to figure or to describe this and its decorations further, even that which comes from the immediate Pamunkey region, since it has been so completely covered by Holmes’s study.

We find, however, in several places within this territory, a great abundance, in small centers, of the smooth ware. Its sporadic occurrence, its localized abundance, and some historical circumstances, as well as the ethnological conditions among the present Indians of the region, point clearly to the conclusion that the ware of this type came into being after the natives had changed their economic habits resulting from contact with the English.

Let us examine some series of these smooth sherds from the places where they abound on the present Pamunkey and Mattaponi reservations. In the first place, the fragments from both places are exactly alike; hence the conditions of development in both loci are correspondent (figs. 101, 102). The ware is characterized by being very smooth, hard, and fine-grained, the clay free entirely from sand and grit, yet full of powdered mussel-shell. Its color is light-brown or uniform drab or gray. No incised or depressed decorations are found in the body. A few rims only show any attempt at embellishment, which then consists of fine impressions or dents, sometimes of finger marks. Next is the most important thing: numerous angular bottoms, parts of curved handles or lugs, legs and knobbed lids, together with evidence of flat bottoms and the exclusive lipped rim style (fig. 102), are indications of a modification in form, bringing them into correspondence with the common European forms.1 Here then is the secret, and, comparing this material with the historic Pamunkey ware, we are forced to conclude that the later archeological material is transitional, forming the link between the pre-European and the modern pottery.

Having now established this chronological connection, we may consider in detail the modern ware of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, interesting in a sentimental sense besides, because here are the last Algonquian potteries.

Several writers have dealt with the method of ceramic manufactures of the Pamunkey in as much detail as was obtainable in a case where the industry was already early on the wane.

To the descriptions of Pollard (1894) and Holmes (1899), I cannot add much.

About the first observer, however, to mention Pamunkey pottery was Mason. He wrote:

The most interesting feature of their [the Pamunkey] present condition is the preservation of their ancient modes of making pottery. It will be news to some that the shells are calcined before mixing with the clay, and that at least one-third of the compound is triturated shell.2

Pollard, who has recorded the most complete details, says:

Of their aboriginal arts none are now retained by them except that of making earthenware and “dugout” canoes.

Until recent years they engaged quite extensively in the making of pottery, which they sold to their white neighbors, but since earthenware has become so cheap they have abandoned its manufacture, so that now only the oldest of the tribe retain the art, and even these cannot be said to be skillful. The clay used is of a dirty white color, and is found about 6 feet beneath the surface. It is taken from the Potomac formation of the geologic series, which yields valuable pottery clays at different localities in Virginia and Maryland, and particularly in New Jersey. Mr. Terrill Bradby, one of the best informed members of the tribe, furnished, in substance, the following account of the processes followed and the materials used in the manufacture of this pottery.

In former times the opening of a clay mine was a great feast day with the Pamunkey. The whole tribe, men, women, and children, were present, and each family took home a share of the clay. The first steps in preparing the clay are to dry it, beat it up, pass it through a sieve, and pound it in a mortar. Fresh-water mussels, flesh as well as shell, having been burnt and ground up, are mixed with the clay prepared as above, and the two are then saturated with water and kneaded together. This substance is then shaped with a mussel shell to the form of the article desired and placed in the sun and dried; then shaped with a mussel shell and rubbed with a stone for the purpose of producing a gloss. The dishes, bowls, jars, etc., as the case may be, are then placed in a circle and tempered with a slow fire; then placed in the kiln and covered with dry pine bark and: burnt until the smoke comes out in a clear volume. This is taken as an indication that the ware has been burnt sufficiently. It is then taken out and is ready for use. The reasons for the successive steps in this process, even the Indians are unable to explain satisfactorily.

The collection above referred to as having been made for the Smithsonian Institution was put on exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition. It consists almost altogether of earthenware. Besides the various articles for table and kitchen use, there are in the collection

(1) a “sora horse” made of clay, and already described under the head of mode of subsistence, and

(2) a “pipe-for-joy,” also made of clay. In the bowl of this pipe are five holes made for the insertion of five stems, one for the chief and one each for the four council men. Before the days of peace these leaders used to celebrate their victories by arranging themselves in a circle and together smoking the ”pipe-for-joy.” The collection comprised also a “dugout” canoe, made of a log of wood, hollowed out with metal tools of white man’s manufacture. Such canoes were formerly dug out by burning, and chopping with a stone axe.

A mortar, used in pounding dry clay as above referred to, could not be obtained for the collection. They are, however, made of short gum logs, in one end of which the basin of the mortar is burnt out. The pestle accompanying it is made of stone.3

Holmes dealt rather briefly with the matter. He wrote:

Before we pass on to the ware of particular localities it may be mentioned that while the art practiced by the tribes of this province when first visited by the English colonists was soon practically abandoned, at least one community, a remnant of the Pamunkey Indians, residing on their reservation on the Pamunkey river adjoining King William county, Virginia, was practicing a degenerate form of it as late as 1878. At about that time Dr. Dalyrimple, of Baltimore, visited these people and made collections of their ware, numerous specimens of which are now preserved in the National Museum.4 A few of the vases then gathered are shown in plate cxxxvi.

The modeling of these vessels is rude, though the surfaces are neatly polished. They are very slightly baked, and the light-gray surface is mottled with clouds of black. The paste lacks coherency, and several of the specimens have crumbled and fallen to pieces on the shelves, probably as a result of the slaking of the shell particles. Ornament is confined to slight crimping and notching of the rim margins. None of the pieces bear evidence of use, and it seems probable that in recent years the art has been practiced solely or largely to supply the demands of curiosity hunters. The very marked defects of manufacture and the crudeness of shape suggest the idea that possibly the potters were really unacquainted with aboriginal methods. It will be seen by reference to the illustrations presented in this and the preceding section that this pottery corresponds somewhat closely in general appearance with that of the Cherokees and Catawbas.5

The problem, however, was not quite so simple as it appeared to the author of this monograph. The Pamunkey industry undoubtedly had some relation to that of the Catawba, as he shrewdly surmised, and we shall soon see why.

Since a few years prior to the commencement of the Civil War, when the railroad was first operated over the country between Richmond and West Point, opening eastern Virginian woods to modern enterprise, the Pamunkey have not manufactured earthenware for their own use. Mrs. Allie Page is probably the oldest woman now living at the Pamunkey village. She remembers in her girlhood how the women constructed clay pots, milk-pans, and stewing jars, and carried them to the trading stores in the country, bearing the crockery upon their backs in cloth sacks and exchanging it for small wares, groceries, or cash. The coming of the railroad strangled the Pamunkey potter’s trade by placing within the reach of the countryside the tin and crockery ware of commerce. Nevertheless, Mrs. Page, Mrs. Cook, and Mrs. Margaret Adams, the latter formerly of Mattaponi, all remember well the details of the ceramic industry and are still able to fashion small pottery vessels and jars, though not with the adroit hands of their grandmothers or even their mothers. The particulars which I have to add to the processes quoted are the following:

The living native authorities, whose names I have just mentioned, tell us about the process. The constitution of the clay material is about one-fourth powdered mussel-shell and three-fourths clay.

The mussel-shells are gathered from the feeding grounds of the muskrat along the runways of the animal by the river. Quantities of the whole shells lie in such places, where they are easily picked up. The shells must then be burned, as the earlier observers correctly stated. But they did not describe the method, probably not having observed it. The procedure is interesting. The shells are placed in layers alternating with dry cornstalks, forming a pile the size of which depends on the quantity of shells. The combustible pile, the top layer being stalks, is then fired and allowed to burn out. The burnt shells are then pounded with a stone. Often, being very much softened, they may be crushed in the hands. Pollard correctly noted the stone pounder used by the Pamunkey in powdering the shells as well as the clay. The Catawba do not employ a stone, but a wooden pounder. Specimens of Pamunkey stone pounders for clay and shell were obtained from the old women (fig. 103).

The clay is dug on the shore of the river near Bradby’s landing. Fig. 104 shows some of the men at the old Pamunkey clay-hole digging clay as of old. The clay is selected to be free of sand. Then it is dried for a few days. Next it is beaten into a powder with the stone pounder. Then when the day of pot-making comes, this clay is made wet to the proper consistency, a matter to be judged only by the expert. Then on a smooth board the bottom is laid out in the form of a disc and the walls built up by adding thin layers of clay paste, or, if the vessel is a small one, by pressing it into shape from a soft lump of material. The coiling was not followed in recent times. This is a noteworthy fact. Next comes the smoothing, which, on the inside, is done with the edge of a mussel-shell (fig. 105). The outside, after being so scraped down with the shell, is rubbed with a smooth pebble, which process adds an irregular polish to the surface. Specimens of the rubbing-stones are not uncommon on Pamunkey and Mattaponi sites, and a few have been handed me by the same women previously spoken of (fig. 106, a-g). The Catawba use similar rubbing-stones and polish their pots likewise (fig. 106, h-l). This also is noteworthy.

Next comes the burning of the pots in the open fire-hearth (fig. 107). The Pamunkey cover the jars with corn-stalks and pieces of dry pine-bark to give them a light-gray color. The stalks and bark are piled over them to cover them in burning. Occasionally the pots are fired by allowing them to stand close to the embers. The same is done by the Catawba.

Among the few native words preserved to us at Pamunkey comes the name pandja for a vessel used in boiling fruit. Perhaps this word is not Indian, even though it appears like an Algonquian term. It may be a corruption of ”pitcher,” yet it does not refer to an object of pitcher form.

The smooth ware which finally usurped the style and technique at Pamunkey was known to the natives over much of the east. Sherds of the same texture and surface are found in the Cherokee region, among the Catawba, and all over the tidewater Algonquian habitat from the North Carolina Virginia boundary to the head of Chesapeake Bay. We have specimens to illustrate this from the Chickahominy through the country to the Nanticoke area of Delaware.

It would be interesting to know from similar series of potsherds what the history of Catawba ceramics has been. The Catawba modern ware is not unlike that of the Pamunkey, in both texture and form, except for the mussel-shell tempering of the latter. Vases, pitchers, milk-pans, and pots are still made by the Catawba and have been treated by Harrington6 and Holmes.7 One might venture to suspect, however, that the Catawba did have, in their more advanced southern ceramics, an original smooth ware. And this is further indicated by the recovery of the same hard, smooth ware on old house sites on the Catawba reservation. A discovery further confirming the supposition of relationship was recently made when a broken earthen ware pipe mold was picked up at Pamunkey, its form absolutely identical with one used by the Catawba today. W e know that about the time of the Civil War there was an exchange of population. Some Pamunkey families went to Catawba, inter-married there, and never returned.8 Within the last twenty-five years some of the Catawba descendants of these unions returned to Pamunkey to sojourn there for a few years.

There is little to say in discussion of Pamunkey and Chickahominy pot forms, those surviving today being for the minor services as ash-trays and catchalls only. (See figs. 108-115.)

The question now facing us is one concerning priority. The resemblance in form and technique between the Catawba and Pamunkey manufactures is unavoidably striking, though there are several points of difference that tend to destroy the impression of an out-and-out borrowing. Positive resemblances between the two in modern ware are those of function and form: to wit, handled pitchers, three-legged stew-pans with lids (fig. 114), the canoe-shape dish (fig. 115), the round shallow dish, the human-face pipe, and the four-stemmed ”peace pipe.” Next, the exclusive survival of the smooth ware, rubbed with the pebble, might be suggestive of borrowing were it not for the fact of the archeological evidence of its ubiquity in the east. Moreover, the use of calcined mussel-shells in Pamunkey pottery and the absence of it in Catawba are distinctive features. Nor is it a question of lack of material, inasmuch as freshwater mussels are abundant in the Catawba country and the women employ the shells as scrapers for the inside when thinning down the walls of their pots. Historically, it would seem from tradition that the manufacture of quantities of pottery and pipes was carried on at Pamunkey before contact between them and the Catawba had been opened by the emigration of old John Mush and several of his family from Pamunkey to Catawba. This old man has been dead some sixty-five years and was over seventy at the time. This would make his birth about 1800. He went to Catawba and married, then later brought his wife to Pamunkey. This could not have been earlier than 1820. But Mrs. Cook knows from her mother, who was of Mush’s generation, that her grandmother made and sold pottery like that which is still known. Would it not seem plausible, then, to ascribe an early manufacture of the smooth-ware to both surviving groups?

Pipes, The Pamunkey of early as well as of late times was a busy producer of clay pipes. This is shown by the relatively large number of whole pipes and fragments which the soil of the small reservation has yielded. With the help of some of the natives themselves, especially Miss Pocahontas Cook, I have picked up no fewer than eighty specimens, either whole or in part, all from the surface of the open ground. Of these, eight were entire. The recovery of a portion of the same form of pipe-stem from near the bottom of a refuse-pit furnishes evidence of the usual type of pipe occurring in as ancient a level of Pamunkey industry as we have knowledge of. The frequency ratio of pipes in these immediate Pamunkey environs is undoubtedly high, for, if we compare it with that published by Skinner for the Iroquois of New York, we shall see that Pamunkey yields an abundance of clay-pipe specimens not inferior to many other localities in the east. Skinner mentions re-covering 191 pipes, whole and fragmentary, from an Iroquois (Onondaga) site, and this he considered evidence of extensive pipe manufacture, classing the Onondaga as preeminent among pipe-making groups, judged by existing remains.9

In structure there is a close similarity among the pipe remains from the whole tidewater district. The bowls are small, the walls thin, and the clay is very fine and lacks the grit and pebbles of the older pottery texture. The stems are continuous with the bowl at an angle of about 45 degrees the so called Atlantic coast ”type” or elbow clay pipe of McGuire.10 Then there is the ”tubular” form in which the bowl is an enlargement of the stem standing at a slight angle to it. The proportion of the types is about one tubular form to ten of elbow form.

In structure they are generally fine. Bowl and stem are often generously ornamented with encircling line indentations which appear to have been placed upon the clay with either a fine comb or the serrated edge of a clam-shell. Figs. 116-121 show whole and reconstructed pipes found at Pamunkey. The series illustrated is actually typical and may be used as a standard for comparison with pipes of other areas and for tracing distribution. I venture even to say that so typical are these forms and ornamentations for Pamunkey, and so abundant are the evidences of persistent industry on the reservation, that whenever we find a closely similar pipe in the lower Chesapeake tidewater area it may be traced to Pamunkey authorship. Such, for instance, I believe is the explanation in the case of a decorated pipe figured by Holmes as coming from a point in the Chesapeake-Potomac area and showing every resemblance to our present ware.11

The tubular form is present at Pamunkey (figs. 117, b; 119, c). From its wide distribution in America, and its occurrence in bone, wood, and stone in regions westward, this has generally been regarded as an early form. If so, then the practice of smoking and the art of clay-pipe making are fundamentals of Pamunkey culture. Specimens similar to every Pamunkey form have been obtained from surface exploration of the whole adjacent tidewater. The Chickahominy has yielded quite a few. Yet it is worth noting that not every tidewater culture area yields pipes in the same abundance, for at Nanticoke, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake, a most extended surface examination continued irregularly, of course, over some ten years has not produced a single perfect clay pipe and only three fragments.

The influencing factors on opposite sides of the Chesapeake were evidently different, for if the Nanticoke of Indian river, Delaware, made pipes in any abundance, their remains would be seen by the observer who knows the sites there as well as he does those on the Pamunkey. In both areas the ceramics are of the old Algonquian type, otherwise similar in quality and decoration.

The modern Pamunkey have not quite left off making pipes. Some of the women, Mrs. Cook and Mrs. Adams, and some of the men, Jim Bradby and Paul Miles, manufacture them as they were made two generations ago. They dig their clay in the same holes along the river. They gather and burn the mussel-shells, and clean and mix the clay with the powdered shell in the same proportion, about one part of shell to five of clay. They burn them in the traditional way by piling a heap of dry fine sticks and a dozen or so dry cornstalks to the height of five or six inches, enough to cover two or three pipes which have been dried four or five days in the shade. Then when one covering of the sticks has been burnt off, the pipes are done and ready for use. Their work is shown in figs. 122-125.

Holmes has a short discussion of the clay pipes of the Chesapeake-Potomac group in his monograph.12

The forms, which he figures and which seem to be general and somewhat exclusive for this region in general, are the same as those discussed here and correspond to the pipe figured by Hariot from Roanoke in 1590. The tubular and the slightly bent elbow patterns prevail. Since in form, finish, and decoration they are generally uniform for this culture area, it brings satisfaction to be able to make a step in progress by defining the pipe characteristics of so wide an area under rather fixed standards. Very few stone pipes have come from the area: only one to my direct knowledge, a fragment of a “monitor” pipe from the Chickahominy River, evidently intrusive.

Among the more peculiar products of eastern pipe-makers we encounter a few forms of the pipe bowl provided with four or five holes for the insertion of stems. This style has been preserved both at Pamunkey and at Catawba, a rather noteworthy coincidence in view of the supposed borrowing of ideas. The occurrence of these forms arouses a question both of antiquity and distribution. Were it not for the fact that similar pipe bowls have been reported from other eastern and southern centers there might be some doubt on the first question. The fact that the four-stemmed pipe is not only Pamunkey and Catawba is proved by a reference to its former use among the Chitimacha by Swanton13 and by the finding of a specimen in the soil at Philadelphia. The latter was described and discussed by Abbott.14)

Manifestly the survival of the unusual form is to be attributed to the irregular course of human interest, illustrated by the persistence of objects of curiosity through a period of culture decline. That there was something in the four-stemmed pipe to appeal to the imagination of the Pamunkey and Catawba is apparent. Pollard was evidently the first to note the ”pipe for joy,” as the Pamunkey called it in his time. He says of this clay pipe:

In the bowl of this pipe are five holes made for the insertion of five stems, one for the chief and one each for the four council men. Before the days of peace these leaders used to celebrate their victories by arranging themselves in a circle and together smoking the “pipe-f or- joy.”15

The Catawba form, called “peace-pipe,” is interesting to us now. At Catawba it is asserted that the four-stemmed pipe was used, at the command of the chief, by men who represented families having a quarrel.16 When the parties had been induced to smoke the pipe, the quarrel was forgotten. The only other approach to this form of pipe is known in the double-bowl pipes from South Carolina and Tennessee, figured by McGuire.17

Putting things side by side, we may divine that the ”peace-pipe” was a native southeastern object surviving at Pamunkey, whose history paralleled that of the smooth pottery ware of both areas.

One other point is worth considering for a moment: No stone pipes have been found at Pamunkey. In fact the only specimen of this nature from the neighborhood is the broken base of a soapstone pipe of the ”monitor” type from near Windsor Shades on Chickahominy river. The absence of stone pipes would seem to show either that smoking was contemporaneous here only in a relatively late age of ceramics, or that the Powhatan peoples came into the region smoking only the clay pipes. That they had a recent residence where we find them may be suggested for consideration.

Mention should at least be made of wooden pipes, generally formed of holly roots, made in the region (fig. 126). These have outlived the native clay pipes among the descendants of the tribes – their forms are evidently derived from the clay objects.

Powhatan Pottery Gallery


  1. The collections made for the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, contain hundreds of specimens of these. 

  2. Mason, O. T., Anthropological News, Amer. Naturalist, Boston, 1877, vol. xi, p. 627. 

  3. Pollard, J. G., The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia, Bull. 17, Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Washington, 1894, pp. 17-19. 

  4. It may be well to note in addition that a single specimen, a shallow bowl, is preserved of this collection in the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Va. 

  5. Holmes, W. H., Aboriginal Pottery of the Eastern United States, Twentieth Annual Report Bureau American Ethnology,, 1898-99. 

  6. Harrington, M. R., Catawba Potters and their Work, American Anthropology, vol. x, 1908, pp. 399-407. 

  7. Holmes, W. H., in Twentieth Annual Report Bureau American Ethnology, 1898-99. 

  8. On the Catawba reservation in South Carolina, almost a third of the tribe traces its descent with pride from John Mush and other Pamunkey who formed this movement. 

  9. Skinner, A. B., Notes on Iroquois Archeology, Indian Notes and Monographs, misc. no. 18, New York, 1921, pp. 150-51. Among this large number of fragments Skinner found only four perfect specimens. 

  10. McGuire, J. D., Pipes and Smoking Customs of the American Aborigines, Washington, 1899, pp. 608-09. McGuire mentions the occurrence of the same form from Hudson River to Maryland and perhaps farther south. See also Holmes in 20th Report Bureau American Ethnology,, p. 158, pi. cxlii. 

  11. Holmes, op. cit., pi. cxlii, d. The other pipes shown in the plate are absolutely identical with those from Pamunkey, though the author does not refer to locality. 

  12. Holmes, op. cit., pi. cxlii, d. The other pipes shown in the plate are absolutely identical with those from Pamunkey, though the author does not refer to locality. 

  13. Swanton, J. R., Indian Tribes of the Lower Mississippi Valley, Bull. 43, Bureau American Ethnology,, 1911, p. 349. 

  14. Abbott, C. C, Primitive Industry, Salem, 1881, p. 333; also in American Antiquarian, vol. i, p. 113. Abbott describes the pipe as made of white steatite. It was found in a grave on the almshouse property at West Philadelphia. It was nearly six inches in height. About two inches from the base there was a horizontal groove in which were pierced four equidistant stem-holes. The specimen was in possession of Mr. W. S. Vaux of Philadelphia. (Notes by P. E. Scott. 

  15. Pollard, J. G., The Pamunkey Indians of Virginia, Bull. 17, Bur. Amer. Ethnol., Washington, 1894, p. 18. 

  16. Holmes (op. cit., pi. cxxviii) figures the Catawba peace-pipe and gives an account of Catawba pottery-making, pp. 53-55. Harrington, later in a more detailed study of Catawba methods, mentions the same object (Amer. Anthr., vol. x, no. 3, 1908). 

  17. McGuire, J. D., Pipes and Smoking Customs of the American Aborigines, Washington, 1899, p. 545, figs. 171-72. 

MLA Source Citation:

Speck, Frank Gouldsmith. Chapters on the ethnology of the Powhatan tribes of Virginia. Indian Notes and Monographs, vol. 1, num. 5, pp. 225-455. Editor: Hodge, F. W. Heye Foundation, Museum of the American Indian. 1928. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/powhatan-pottery.htm - Last updated on Feb 10th, 2014

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