26 March 2013

Bird-Effigy Pipes Indicate Iowa Birds Two Millennia Ago

Nearly 2,000 years ago, an Indian interested in local fauna, perhaps along with others of his clan were drawn to the loud, spring-time expressions of some prairie chickens gathered at a barren prairie space atop bluffs nearby their village close to the "Father of Waters."

It must have been an impressive sight, as the male birds crouched, moved with stamping feet, while booming expressively during their timeless and dramatic presentation to attract females to mate with and create another generation.

Whether it was a personal observation during one particular spring, or the outcome of repeated observations and appreciation, the result created was certainly due to continued thought and careful expression. In a manner suited to tribal tradition, an exquisite hand-made object vividly captures the spirit of the prairie birds.

For the loud chickens among the grass, features for a ceremonial smoking pipe are of a displaying prairie chicken, and indicatively a male. The features are diagnostic, including the body shape, characteristic heads tufts and upturned tail, swept-back wings and also, the beak size and shape.

This particular pipe bowl was among three bird-effigy creations taken from the ancient mounds at Toolesboro, along the edge of a bluff, over-looking the lower Iowa River, only two to three miles west of the confluence of the Mississippi River.

An initial intrusion into the burial mounds occurred in 1875, by a party of three consisting of W.H. Pratt, his son and Charles E. Harrison.

According to the results, the pipes were carved from pipe-stone. This seems to indicate the use of "catlinite" from the diggings in south-western Minnesota.

One of the other two pipes might possibly be some sort of waterfowl, perhaps representing a goose or maybe some sort of duck, because there is no long neck indicated. The pipe bowl "was furnished with eyes of pure native copper, which, doubtless, had answered all purposes to the satisfaction of the artist," according to W.H. Pratt, author of the article in the Proceedings of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences, issued in 1876. Especially exquisite is the subtle indication of movement, shown by the forward placement of its right leg.

The use of native copper, might indicate the use of trade material, as metals might not ave been mined at the tribal village associated with the mounds.

The third bird-effigy pipe is less definitive in its indication of a particular species. Because of the prominent and massive size of the bill, it might convey an American White Pelican, which would have regularly occurred along the Mississippi, and been prominent during their seasonal migrations, when large and expressive, whether on the waters or moving across the sky.

Image from Pratt's article.

Other zoomorphic representations created as pipes included a frog, something similar to a dog, and a larger four-legged animal.

These bird effigy pipes are among the oldest known for North America.

According to details as now known and indicated online, these mounds are associated with the Hopewell Tradition, and were created between 100 B.C. to A.D. 200. There are still seven mounds present at this public, protected site, with perhaps twelve having originally been present. One of them is known for being the largest Hopewell Tradition mound in Iowa.