Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Amphibian and Reptilian Imagery in Caddo Art

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Amphibian and Reptilian Imagery in Caddo Art

Article excerpt

Pottery from the Caddo archaeological area is well known for its assortment of distinctive designs (Townsend and Walker 2004). The Caddo area incorporates late prehistoric (ca. A.D. 1000 to 1700) societies living in eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas, northeastern Texas, and northwestern Louisiana. These societies shared many practices related to subsistence, settlement, and sociopolitical organization with contemporary societies in the Southeast, but they developed distinct traditions along the course of their own historical trajectory (Perttula 1992:6-7). Artists in this area combined engraved, punctate, and appliqué elements into frequently complex configurations, generally adhering to a cultural tradition that emphasized the geometric division of the design field and nonrepresentational patterns. These designs and their embedded elements and motifs may have had symbolic significance, but very few have been recognized as depicting any naturalistic phenomena.

While the majority of Caddo pottery is situated within this nonrepresentational tradition, a number of potters also decorated their vessels with zoomorphic figurai components that frequently exhibited amphibian or reptilian characteristics (Figure 1), and sometimes characteristics of birds and occasionally certain mammals. Here I use the term zoomorphic to describe the depiction of some form of animal, partial or whole, which may or may not have had symbolic or iconic significance. Although these zoomorphic pottery designs have been identified and discussed for particular localities (Early 1988; Hart and Perttula 2010; Walker 2006), their significance and interpretive potential have not been considered within the broader tradition of figurai art in the Caddo area. This paper gathers the corpus of amphibian and reptilian depictions within this area together for the first time, contributing to the recent region-up studies of late prehistoric symbolism across the Eastern Woodlands through the analysis of an unrecognized body of archaeological material (King, ed. 2007; Reilly and Garber, eds. 2007).

Amphibian and reptilian forms appear not only on pottery but also on several other artistic genres across the Caddo area, spanning a broad range of time (ca. A.D. 1100 to 1700). I focus on this particular set of zoomorphic forms because of their temporal and geographic pervasiveness, while acknowledging that other zoomorphic depictions, especially of avian forms, also occur in the Caddo area. Based on archaeological, historic, and ethnographic evidence, I propose that these diverse depictions of amphibian and reptilian forms represent a unified subject matter central to Caddo cosmology. These depictions likely represent expressions of the Beneath World creatures that play a prominent role in many traditional Caddo stories (Dorsey 1997). The various zoomorphic figures probably did not manifest a single or fixed set of characters but instead represented different local expressions of the powers attributed to creatures that inhabited underwater and underground spaces.

The significance of this regional iconographie analysis is multifold. First, the analysis highlights a tradition of symbolic expression that has been generally overlooked in the Caddo area, opening a path to examining not only the history of cosmological understandings in this area but also the way in which those beliefs intersected with daily practices and sociopolitical structures. This detailed analysis of a particular set of material culture uluminates these broader anthropological concerns in an examination of the meanings embedded in social behavior. This Caddo iconographie and archaeological study also provides comparative material that complements ongoing regional analyses across the Southeast. Together these regional iconographie studies in the Southeast and in other parts of the world help us compare how different societies engaged the natural and cultural world around them through cosmological expression. …

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