Articles

A Lady and Her Birthing Basket

 

Any attempt to analyze and interpret many of the religious/ceremonial artifacts of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex Period, circa AD 1000-1700, is a very difficult task.  The ideas that the native crafts men and women had in creating given art objects will never be known much less understood.  But we can, today, empathize with the possible emotions of the potter who made this extremely rare duo – A Lady and Her Birthing Basket.

 

The Amerinds living in the Mississippi River Valley,  during this time, made many types of earthenware vessels, most of which were probably of ordinary utilitarian usage for preparing and consuming their meals and/or for the storage of various foodstuffs.  Some pots, though, were too elaborate of these mundane functions and were probably made for usage in various religious and ceremonial themes.  A bottle, jar or bowl, made as a realistic or a stylistic effigy of a plant or animal or human, would certainly have functioned for food preparation and consumption but why would the artisan expend the extra time and energy required if it was only for simple daily eating or drinking.  Perhaps it was made as a talisman to placate the unknown.  Or maybe for belief of a supernatural deity.  Or for the non-comprehension of the vast natural world.  Or maybe for the love of a fellow human being.

 

The two earthenware vessels, about which this article is written, were found on the Campbell Site which is near the Mississippi River in Pemiscot County, Missouri.  They are both considered miniatures since the hooded human effigy bottle is only three and one half inches tall and the bowl is merely two and one-eighth inches across.  Human effigy bottles are quite rare but within this pottery type there are certain traits that are considered ordinary and this vessel possesses some of these characteristics.    This effigy is in the kneeling position with the legs and feet tucked under the body and it has a well modeled head with eyes, nose, mouth, filtrum, ears with ear lobe ornaments and an elaborate hairline.   The body features long arms and hands, each with five fingers and a thumb.  There are also prominent collar bones just below the front of the shoulders and shoulder blades across the upper back.  The arms are folded across the belly which is theorized to be a sign of pregnancy or fertility and there are two raised breast nipples just above the hands.  After these prosaic qualities, though, the vessel becomes more unordinary with the following two peculiarities - it is a miniature while most human effigy bottles fall within the six to nine inches tall range and the face of this human image is tilted upward toward the sky which is certainly not common.

 

The Rhodes Incised bowl, found beside the diminutive human statuette, is also not ordinary because of its tiny size and because most vessels, of this incising design, are bottles and jars – not bowls.  Incising of pottery was a technique of altering the surface of the green or un-fired clay.  Using this method, the potter could cut fine, close and deep line incisions in the green or semi-dry clay before hardening the vessel in hot coals.  In the Rhodes Incised designs, the decoration takes the form of spiraling lines, triskeles and swastikas.  This three-quarters inch tall bowl has four sets of deeply cut spirals and an incised rectangle on the inside hollow.  The outer or bottom side also has four sets of spirals centered around two incised lines.  All these carved slits, together, give the appearance of a woven basket.

 

These two individual pottery artifacts are unusual in their own right but since they were found together, they are extremely rare.  It is theorized that the bowl represents a birthing basket for the pregnant woman who is looking skyward for guidance and assistance from a supreme being, maybe during childbirth.  They conjure up more questions. Were these two vessels made as fertility symbols in wishing for an easy birth?  Or were they made to assist a mother into the afterlife - a mother who died giving birth?  Or were they simply playthings made for a child?  The thoughts of the artisan who made these two beautiful vessels will never be known but the thoughts, today, are that they were made by someone with adoration for a Lady and Her Birthing Basket.

 

REFERENCES:

Chapman, Carl H. & Leo A. Anderson                                                1955

    “The Campbell Site: A Late Mississippian Town Site and Cemetery in Southeast Missouri”,

    MISSOURI ARCHAEOLGIST, Vol. 17, Nos. 2 & 3

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                             1957

    SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Galloway, Patricia, Editor                                                       1989

    THE SOUTHEASTERN CEREMONIAL COMPLEX: ARTIFACTS AND ANALYSIS

Griffin, James B., Editor                                                          1952

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE EASTERN UNITED STATES

Hathcock, Roy                                                                         1976

    ANCIENT INDIAN POTTERY OF THE EASTERN UNIED STATES

Maus, James E.                                                                       2004

    “A Lady and Her Basket”, Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol. 51, No. 4

Morse, Dan F. & Phyllis A. Morse                                           1983

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI VALLEY    

O’Brien, Michael J.                                                                   1994

    CAT MONSTERS AND HEAD POTS

Phillips, Phillip, James Ford & James Griffin                          1951

    ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI ALLUVIAL VALLEY, 1940-47

Reilly, F. Kent & James F. Garber                                           2007

    ANCIENT OBJECTS AND SACRED REALMS

Townsend, Robert F., Editor                                                   2004

            HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND

Westbrook, Kent C.                                                                 1982

    LEGACY IN CLAY: PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS