Gifts of the Great River: Arkansas Effigy Pottery from the Edwin Curtiss Collection

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Gifts of the Great River: Arkansas Effigy Pottery from the Edwin Curtiss Collection. By John H. House. (Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, 2003. Pp. xii, 108. Foreword, acknowledgments, illustrations, color plates, notes, suggested readings. $21.95, paper.)

The St. Francis River runs from the Ozarks in Missouri south along the east side of Crowley's Ridge until it flows into the Mississippi River just above Helena. With the Black and White Rivers at the Ozark Escarpment to the west and the Mississippi River to the east, the St. Francis is the major drainage system of northeast Arkansas. The banks of this beautiful and placid river were thickly inhabited by people long before Europeans arrived, and archaeologists have learned a great deal about their lives and culture.

The final archaeological manifestation before Europeans made contact is known as Late Mississippian, roughly dating from 1350 to 1650 A.D. Even though ethnic identities cannot be agreed upon for these ancestors of historic Native American peoples, the details of their daily lives and even some of the broad "historical" circumstances of their times are known, since they were visited by Spanish explorers who kept records. The St. Francis River was home to three major cultural clusters: Kent Phase around the mouth, Parkin Phase in the middle range, and Nodena Phase from the headwaters over to the Mississippi.

Hernando de Solo's touring Spanish army got pulled into an ongoing conflict between little Parkin (introduced to the Spanish as "Casqui") and giant Nodena (known as "Pacaha"), more than three times Parkin's size and, probably, population. Their observations and a large amount of archaeology in the area have permitted a surprising amount of cultural reconstruction of the lives and histories of these prehistoric peoples.

The result for modern peoples is that both the Parkin site and museum and the Nodena museum in Wilson are Arkansas state parks, outstanding must-sees for anyone passing through the Central Mississippi Valley. Despite the excellent museums and their educational programs as well as their artifact displays, however, there is a sense of incompleteness. The fact is that the visible collections, even including the artifacts stored at the Arkansas Archeological Survey headquarters in Fayetteville, are only a small portion of what has come from the ground in the last two centuries. "No one knows how many tens of thousands of pots have been dug from graves during the past century and a half in this area," survey archaeologists have noted (Dan F. Morse and Phyllis A. Morse, "Northeast Arkansas," in Pre-history of the Central Mississippi Valley, ed. Charles H. McNutt [1996], p. 128). Many of those were taken by treasure-seekers; they are in private collections and scattered widely, unavailable for viewing. In addition, northeast Arkansas, known early as a important region for archaeological sites, has been visited throughout the decades by many institutional explorers, surveyors, and archaeologists. Their resulting collections are in many cases in significant repositories, well cared for but far away.

One example of this latter type of diffusion is the collection dug by Edwin Curtiss in 1879-1880. Sponsored by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, Curtiss was an active learner and practitioner in the early development of archaeology as a scientific way of recovering knowledge and reconstructing culture. He focused on the middle area of the St. Francis, digging at least seven sites of what is now known as the Parkin Phase but then known only as "Indian sites." The artifacts he recovered were shipped, along with his research notes, back to the Peabody for curation, a process that continues unabated to the present (it should be remembered that Arkansas would have no museums or repositories for such things for many more decades).

Many of the artifacts have been illustrated in various archaeological studies through the years, and the collection has been available for study in Cambridge upon request. …