Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Taxa Represented by Fish Effigy Ceramic Vessels in the Midsouth

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Taxa Represented by Fish Effigy Ceramic Vessels in the Midsouth

Article excerpt

Since the mid-1870s, the central Mississippi Valley (sensu Griffin 1952; Morse and Morse 1983; hereafter CMV) has been a favored target of institutions and private individuals seeking to bolster their collections of prehistoric pottery vessels (Mainfort 2008:15-38; Morse and Morse 1983:17-^49). In the early 1900s, Warren K. Moorehead (1904:114) noted that Arkansas in particular had suffered depredations by pothunters, "especially the 'pottery belt' of that state" (i.e., northeast Arkansas). Many vessels "of this district are modified in such a way as to resemble, more or less closely, the form of some living creature-bird, beast, or reptile" (Holmes 1886:141), and it was these effigy forms, along with painted vessels, that attracted the most attention. In fact, effigy pottery is sufficiently common in the CMV that participants in the 1932 Conference on Southern Pre-History referred to the St. Francis Basin of northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri as the "Effigy Ware Area" (National Research Council 1932:Figure 7). This appellation was apt, as the frequency of effigy vessels from burial contexts in the region typically is about 10 percent (e.g., Bradley, 55/496; Neeley's Ferry, 32/308; Pecan Point, 55/548; Rose Mound, 46/563), though 120 (18.5 percent) of the 647 vessels placed with recorded burials at Upper Nodena are effigies (see Fisher-Carroll 2001a; Fisher-Carroll and Mainfort 2000, 2010).

Our focus here is on fish effigies, the most common zoomorphic form in the CMV (Phillips et al. 1951:162163). Based on original tabulations by Phillips (1939:589), Phillips et al. (1951:162) reported a total of 70 (37 percent) fish out of 189 zoomorphic vessels from the region. Our much larger sample of vessels confirms the primacy of fish, though in a lower frequency. For example, at the Upper Nodena site in northeastern Arkansas (Mainfort 2010; Morse 1989), 120 of 647 ceramic vessels found with over 800 human burials are zoomorphic effigies, the greatest single percentage of which (25 percent; ? = 25) represents fish (see FisherCarroll 2001a, 2001b; Fisher-Carroll and Mainfort 2000).

Although Caddoan potters produced ceramic fish effigies, their ceramic tradition differs markedly from that seen in the study area, so we did not include Caddoan vessels in this study. Our sample is not exhaustive, which would be impossible insofar as tens of thousands of ceramic vessels have been excavated by relic hunters in the CMV alone during the last 150 years (Morse and Morse 1983:17-33). Our search of the literature (including avocational publications), online collections, and communication with colleagues throughout the region allows us to state with confidence that sample sizes from states and regions are representative. Most vessels in our sample are funerary objects excavated in the 1930s and earlier, although there are associated burial records for less than 130 of the vessels (see FisherCarroll 2001a:46).

In his unpublished doctoral dissertation, Phillips (1939:425-426, 547) discussed various ceramic effigy forms from the study area, including fish. Rather than viewing the creatures portrayed as naturalistic, following Moore (1910:334-335), his interest was centered upon how various features might have become "conventionalized" over time, e.g., fins evolving into nodes and tails into lugs. Not surprisingly, this view carried over into his signal collaboration with Ford and Griffin, wherein he stated that "in the St. Francis, the fish is pretty well conventionalized, and the deep bowl form so typical of the area did not lend itself too well to the production of a naturalistic fish effigy" (Phillips et al. 1951:163). The notion that prehistoric Native American portrayal of animals, including fish, is conventionalized and not naturalistic has gone largely unchallenged (at least in print) by Southeastern archaeologists and is shared by some North American archaeologists outside the region (e.g., Brody 1978). But as we demonstrate below, many of the fish effigy vessels from our study area are sufficiently detailed to permit identification to at least the family taxon and, in some instances, to genus and species. …

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