Human Stirrup Bottle.
Mississippi Co., MO.
The Mississippian, Quapaw
and Caddo moundbuilders produced the finest pottery of prehistoric
North America. Although pottery began appearing in North America a
thousand years before the Mississippians, this pre-Mississippian
pottery tended to be utilitarian bowls with limited ornamentation. By
contrast, the Mississippians produced pottery of great durability and
high artistic merit.
suggested that the women of the Mississippian culture were the
pottery makers. These ancient potters had no benefit of a potter’s
wheel or modern kilns to produce their pottery. The Mississippians
did learn to improve the strength and durability of their finished
pottery by adding a tempering mixture with their wet clay. These
ceramic artists began using crushed mussel shells, crushed dry clay,
bone and sand to give the pottery mixture greater strength after
firing. With greater strength, the potters were able to vary the
appearance of their pottery, and they were no longer limited to
producing pottery with only a utilitarian function.
Tripod Compound Bottle.
Scott Co. MO.
potters followed very specific steps in making their pottery. The
potters would take their mixture of wet clay and temper to make wet
clay rolls. These tempered wet clay rolls were coiled and smoothed
freehand with little technical aid to assist their artistic eyes and
skillful hands. After fashioning the final pottery vessel, it would
be left to dry. After drying, it was placed on an open fire with
little protection from the direct flames. The Mississippians lacked
any pottery kilns as we understand them today. They simply fired the
vessel in open fires until it hardened to a durable strength.
Depending on the relative heat of the fire and the color of the
local clay, the finished pottery ranged in colors from gray, brown,
black and tan. Most pottery vessels cooled to varying shades of
gray, which explains why it is called “grayware” pottery. As
artistic expression developed, the Mississippians learned to make
paints from natural materials, and these paints were used to paint
the pottery surfaces prior to firing. As the natural red, tan, black
and white paints began being used to decorate the pottery, the
vessels became more aesthetically pleasing.
As the Mississippians continued to improve their pottery making,
their ceramics began taking on greater artistic expression
reflecting their various cultural beliefs. Effigies began appearing
as an integral part of the potters’ work. Although effigy pots are
relatively rare, there are a great variety of human and animal
Head Pot. Red and buff painted surfaces with tattooed
This famous head pot was excavated in 1909 by John Crowfoot, a
well-known Native American archaeologist of his day. It was
found in Mississippi Co., AR. H:7.5"
The most important of
the effigy forms was the head pot vessel or trophy head vessel,
which depicts the human head. They are often shown with painted
surfaces and engraved lines depicting tattooing. These head pots
were made in a relatively limited area of northeast Arkansas and
southeast Missouri and by relatively few potters. Most are painted
in red and buff paint colors but some are basic grayware. By
comparing the similarities of many surviving head pots, it seems
that most of the surviving head pots were made by a limited number
of potters. Many head pots show definite signs of use before burial,
which further suggests that these important vessels were made for
more than just ceremonial purposes. The Quapaw who adopted
Mississippian styling techniques also
Red and buff.
White Co., AR.
produced a limited
number of head pot vessels. One such Quapaw head pot is known today
at the “Screaming Quapaw”. It has painted swirl designs and ear
spools. Because the Quapaw appeared in late Mississippian times,
they benefited from centuries of Mississippian pottery advances. The
Quapaw certainly existed in small mound groups when the Spanish
traveled through Arkansas under de Soto. The first Spanish explorers
to reach Arkansas had an impact on the Quapaw because the mid-16th
Century Quapaw began making pottery vessels resembling European tea
pots. The total known population of surviving head pots is less than
150 making them extremely rare. Unfortunately, most head pots
vessels were already broken or damaged when they were found by
archaeologists, so they required reconstruction and repair. Head
pots range in size from 4 inches to over 8 inches in height. A head
pot taller than 7 inches is a large one. It is remarkable for a
large, painted head pot to survive undamaged after being in the
ground for hundreds of years.
Independence Co., AR.
The human vessels also
represent a high achievement in Mississippian art. These vessels
usually depict a kneeling human figure, usually a female, in full
body form with a pronounced hunched back. The legs and feet are
tucked under the bottom of the vessel forming its base. Some from
southeastern Missouri have an open top. The male figure is rarely
exhibited and very rarely shown with genitalia. There has been much
speculation to explain why these human vessels have a hunched back
with vertebrae shown on the back exterior of the pottery vessels.
Some have suggested that there was a cultural belief that a hunched
back person had some mysterious influence and power in Mississippian
society. Perhaps that is true, or perhaps the hunched back form was
simply used to increase the volume capacity of the pot itself.
Although human vessels were made rather uniformly, there were many
stylistic variations. Some have engraving to suggest tattooing, some
have holes in the ears for ear ornamentation, while still others
have elaborate hairstyles. Most human effigy vessels are grayware,
but some are painted with red and tan paints. Although not as rare
as the head vessels, the human effigy vessels are rare and very
interesting. Human effigy vessels range in size from 3 inches in
over 10 inches in height. Many were broken or damaged while in the
ground from heavy agricultural machinery, earthquakes and other
ground moving events that have occurred over the last several
hundred years. An undamaged human effigy vessel over 7 inches in
height is very rare. It is often thought that the head vessels and
human effigy vessels present the best image of how these prehistoric
people may have looked.
Crittenden Co., AR.
Mississippi Co., AR.
Pemiscot Co., MO.
Deer Effigy Teapot. Quapaw.
Lee Co., AR.
The Mississippians and
Quapaw also produced a great variety of animal effigy vessels. The
frog, deer, fish, dog, turtle, bird and rabbit effigies have been
found. Supernatural effigies have also been found such as the corn
god and wild looking cat-serpents. The cultural significance of
these effigy forms is unclear, but many of the effigies appear in
other Mississippian artifacts. For instance, the frog seems to have
been popular as it appears as the subject
Double-Headed Dog Teapot.
Quapaw. H: 9"
Lee Co., AR.
of pottery vessels
and stone pipes. Animal effigy vessels were made both in grayware
and painted varieties. The highest concentration of effigy pottery
has been found in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. A
lesser amount of effigy pottery has been found in Illinois, western
Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee. The Quapaw of central Arkansas
were close neighbors and trading partners with the Mississippians
and shared close cultural ties. Appearing at the end of the
Mississippian period, the Quapaw adopted the high artistic pottery
styles of their late Mississippian neighbors. Some splendid painted
animal effigies have been found at proto-historic Quapaw sites in
east central Arkansas and western Mississippi. One highly unusual
16th Century Quapaw vessel from Lee County, Arkansas is that of two
intertwined dogs with opposing red and tan painted swirls.
Painted Bottle. Quapaw.
State of Mississippi.
Poinsette Co., AR
The Mississippians of
southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas and the Quapaw of central
Arkansas and western Mississippi also produced highly decorated
painted bottles and jars. Although many lack any effigy forms, these
bottles and jars are richly adorned with fantastic painted patterns
that are uniquely Mississippian. Many exhibit painted swirls,
crosses, and geometric patterns that perhaps carry a cultural or
religious meaning. The finest of the painted Mississippian bottles
and jars were found from the Missouri boot heel to northern
Pottery making was not limited to the Mississippi River Valley. The
Mississippians in the present-day southeast United States and the
Caddo in southwest Arkansas, east Texas and southeast Oklahoma also
produced some exceptional pottery. Although the southeastern
Mississippians and Caddo are not well known for making effigy
pottery, they did produce some of the most exceptional and delicate
pottery ever produced by any pre-Columbian culture.
Incised Caddo Bottle.
State of Arkansas.
Engraved Caddo Bottle.
State of Arkansas.
Where the Caddo lacked
in painted and effigy pottery, they excelled in the making of very
thin and well-proportioned pottery vessels that often exhibited
elaborate surface incising or engraving. These delicate vessels
ranged in colors from dark gray, brown and black, and the potters
often highlighted the engraved areas by embedding red ochre paint.
Caddo pottery has the same history of shell tempering as
Mississippian pottery found along the Mississippi River Valley, but
Caddo pottery tends to be smoother, thinner and more symmetrical
than pottery from along the Mississippi River. The Caddo produced
three major pottery varieties: bowls, jars and bottles. The high
water mark in Caddo pottery is found in the engraved Caddo tripod
bottles and compound bottles, and when the Caddo did produce an
effigy vessel, the quality was normally very high.
The southeastern Mississippians also lacked a tradition of producing
painted or effigy pottery, but they did produce some the finest and
most delicate pottery vessels ever made by any Mississippian
potters. Many sites in northern Georgia have produced some
exceptional, well-proportioned urns and other ceramic containers
with intricate designs stamped onto the exterior surface of the
vessels. Some of these Mississippian pottery vessels from Georgia
exceed 13 inches in height and width.
No other artifacts have so thoroughly preserved Mississippian
artistry as the ceramic works of these ancient potters. In looking
at some of the exceptional head vessels and human effigy vessels,
the present-day viewer has a rare opportunity to look into the eyes
of a people lost to history.