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Mississippian, Quapaw & CADDO POTTERY
From "The Mississippian Moundbuilders and Their Artifacts":


Human Stirrup Bottle.
H: 10"
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.

Archaeologists have 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.
H: 10"
Scott Co. MO.

The Mississippian 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 forms.

Head Pot. Red and buff painted surfaces with tattooed features.
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

Screaming Quapaw.
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.

Human Effigy.
H: 5.5"
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.

Human Effigy.
Crittenden Co., AR.

Human Effigy.
Mississippi Co., AR.

Human Effigy.
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.
H: 10.75"
State of Mississippi.

Painted Bottle.
H: 10.5"
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 Mississippi.

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.
H: 7"
State of Arkansas.

Engraved Caddo Bottle.
H: 8"
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.


From "The Mississippian Moundbuilders and Their Artifacts: