Articles

A SUNFISH EFFIGY BOTTLE

 

There are reputedly over one hundred species of freshwater fishes in the lower Mississippi River and its tributaries.  The American Indians, living during the period of time known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or circa AD 1000-1700, would have eaten many if not all varieties of them.  One of the species that would have been consumed because they were so plentiful, is called the sunfish.  And because of this food abundance, a native revered the animal by creating this sunfish effigy bottle.

The sunfish is so named because they are more or less circular in overall shape, as viewed from the side, and brightly colored like the sun but not in the yellow color of our star.  Instead the sunfish is normally shaded in vibrant hues of red, green and blue.  It is a member of a fish group more commonly known as freshwater panfish.  They are called by that name because they are flat and are normally small enough to fit into a frying pan.  These fish are usually not more than six inches in length but can grow to as much as twelve inches long and they can weigh more than two pounds, though that is extreme. They are easy to catch using hook and bait and can also be easily captured, in shallow water, by using the bow and arrow or a small spear or a basket trap.  The ancient natives would have caught or ensnared these fish and eaten them and possibly used un-digestible parts for fertilizers in their corn fields.  Supposedly the Indian Squanto taught the Pilgrims in New England how to used fish for fertilizer in 1621 but that is most likely just a fairy tale.  Other early Europeans, though, made note of the occurrences of the natives using pulverized fish bones and uneatable parts for plant supplements.

The early Historic Period Indians had a belief in heaven and hell and the prehistoric natives probably also had these faiths.  They used the names “Above World” and “Below World” to describe them and designated the earth, on which they lived, as “This World”.  According to their religious beliefs, all creatures, both real and mythological, lived in one of these realms.  The humans and animals, such as deer and rabbits, inhabited “This World” while birds and beneficial deities lived in “Above World”.  The “Below World” inhabitants were frogs and turtles and fishes as well as the powerful and spiteful creatures such as the Horned Water Serpent.  And these Indians made pottery effigies of all these beings using clay dug from the stream banks.  Utilitarian jars, bottles and bowls were obviously made in massive quantities for everyday cooking and eating.  After that came the various zoomorphic and anthropomorphic vessels with the fish effigies being the most plentiful.

Fish effigy vessels were probably made in large quantities because these water dwelling animals were a usable and easily captured source of dietary protein.  Most fish likeness pots were made in the bowl and jar forms and there were probably many thousands of them actually constructed during the seven hundred or so years that the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex existed.  Occasionally, though, the ancient potters made vessels of the fish representation in the bottle form.  Some of these were very stylized while others were realistic images of the cold blooded vertebrates.  Most of the fish effigy bottles are wider than tall and had short to long necks projecting from the pseudo animals side or back and they ae normally in natural grey fired ceramics, though some were colored with red or red and white paint slips.

This particular sunfish replica bottle was found on the famous Campbell Site in Pemiscot County, Missouri.  This ancient site is in the southeastern part of the county near the Arkansas/Missouri boundary line and the Mississippi River.   It is currently believed that the natives lived in this town location during the AD 1400-1700 time period.  It was a large site covering many acres and included an earthen temple mound, village housing complex and sizable cemetery.  It has given up the largest quantity of early Spanish artifacts of any site in southeastern Missouri which possibly means that the Hernando de Soto expedition visited the village in AD 1541 while exploring the region.  This fish effigy is in the rarer bottle form and according to the archaeological type description, would actually be called a Campbell Applique Fish Effigy Bottle.  This definition includes the vessel being shell tempered and of Bell Plain burnished greyware as well as having thin strips of clay applied vertically from the vessel shoulder to the neck rim.  These ceramics strips can be small and narrow or reasonably large and may or may not include notches or hash marks.  This pottery style also often includes many small punctated dimples poked into the neck with small sticks.  All the modeling and incising would have been done before the pot had been fired.  This symbolic piscine effigy bottle has a realistically modeled head with eyes and mouth.  It also has a tail and several representational fins including a long tally marked dorsal fin that encircles most of the back of the fish. The effigy dimensions are six and three-quarters inches tall, to the top of the neck, by nine and one-eight inches across the body from head to tail.  The two and five-eighths inches tall vessel neck, which extends out from the side of the sunfish body, has three applied notched ceramics strips and many tiny punched dimples.  The entire solid vessel is well polished and since almost all Campbell Applique pottery will date from about AD 1400 to 1700, this one probably was made during that time period.  Earthenware artifacts in this motif have been found in several sites in southeastern Missouri into northwestern Arkansas and even across the big river into northwestern Tennessee.  This is a relatively small area for the production of a pottery style and should make one question whether all these ceramics were made in a single town and then traded to others or whether numerous villages in the region fabricated the sunfish effigy vessels.

Few ceramics vessels, that were made during the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex era, have survived unbroken or as collectors say – intact.  Most pottery vessels made from AD 1000 to AD 1700 are found shattered from contact with modern agricultural machinery, seasonal soil contraction and expansion or intentional/accidental breakage by the ancient natives.  Many collectors estimate that as much as eighty to ninety per cent of ceramics pots that have been found, are damaged in some manner.  But luckily this clay effigy is solid and is in the more rare bottle form.  It is a vessel that a potter was probably proud to have made.  It is a vessel that maybe quenched a natives thirst.  It is a vessel that showed reverence to a valuable food source.  It is a vessel that is called a sunfish effigy bottle.

 

REFREENCES:

Chapman, Carl H. & Leo A. Anderson                                                1955

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

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

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                             1957

    SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Galloway, Patricia, Editor                                                       1989

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Griffin, James B. Editor                                                           1952

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE EASTERN UNIED STATES

Hathcock, Roy                                                                         1976

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House, John H.                                                                        2003

    GIFTS OF THE GREAT RIVER

Maus. Jim                                                                                2000

    “The Campbell Fish”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4

Milner, George                                                                       2004

    THE MOUNDBUILDERS: ANCIENT PEOPLE OF THE EASTERN NOTH AMERICA

Morse, Dan F & Phyllis A. Morse                                            1983

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Phillips, Phillip, James Ford & James Griffin                          1951

    ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF THE LOWER MISSISSIPPI ALLUVIAL VALLEY, 1940-1947

Reilly, F. Kent & James F. Garber                                           2007

    ANCEINT OBJECTS AND SACRED REALMS 

Townsend, Richard F., Editor                                                  2004

    HERO, HAWK ND OPEN HAND