Around 800-1,000 years ago, the ancient natives in parts of the Southeast foothills and mountains made a style of smoking pipe that is now commonly called an obtuse angle alate pipe.  The “obtuse angle” part of the name is because the bowl that held the tobacco mixture was made at an angle of more than 90 degrees but less than 145 degrees to the stem.  The alate portion comes from the Latin word alatus which means winged.  These pipes normally have a flat and wide or winged stem along with the low angle bowl– thus an obtuse angle alate pipe.  These implements were normally made in a somewhat set pattern and usually were made of steatite, but not all fit that norm, such as this very odd Virginia pipe.

The Indians, who made pipes of this type, lived in modern day eastern Tennessee through southwestern Virginia and south through the western half of North Carolina.  They often buried their dead in sink holes or sunken caves in the hilly sections of these states and thusly were given their unusual name – the Sunken Cave Culture.  Some of these interments were in carefully dug graves while others seem to have been bodies that were simply thrown into the sink holes. The obtuse angle smoking instruments, made by these people, have been found as short as about four inches in length and as long as over twelve inches but usually fall in the five to eight inches range.  They are normally very well made and well polished and are typically made of grey or green steatite which is often stained black from being handled by countless naturally oily human hands over generations of ancient Indian ownership. Some very few, though, were made of sandstone, serpentine or other minerals that would have been considerably harder than steatite to fabricate into a pipe shape.  The alate stems of these pipes usually are around one to two inches wide and around three to four inches long and they are often called “trowel pipes” because the wide stem resembles a modern gardening trowel blade with the pipe bowl appearing to be the tool handle.  The stems are usually plain but occasionally include engraving on top and bottom in concentric rectangles, zigzags, circles and squares.

Sometime during the life of a Sunken Cave Culture pipe artisan, he or she made this 4 ¾ inch long obtuse angle alate pipe that is certainly one-of-a-kind for several reasons.  First the alate stem is short and wide for the overall length, being only  2 5/8 inches long and 3 11/16 inches wide which is very odd for this pipe style – that is the winged stem being much wider than long. Another anomaly is that the bowl is set at a very low angle to the stem – almost in a straight line such as would be seen on a tube pipe.   An additional oddity was that the craftsman while making the pipe, or perhaps someone later, drilled two small holes into one side of the winged stem probably for the purpose of hanging some objects such as feathers or for suspending the pipe around the smoker’s neck. These three things make this pipe very unusual but then to make this pipe absolutely top of the line in terms of rarity, the maker used what appears to be a very hard piece of diabase to fabricate the piece. Diabase, also know as dolerite, is a grey to black grainy intrusive igneous rock.   Steatite or soapstone, which was usually the material of choice for these pipes, is a talc based soft stone being a 1 on the MOHS mineral hardness scale. As an understanding of just how soft steatite actually is, your fingernails are around a 2.5 on the scale while a diamond, being the hardest mineral on earth, is at a 10 on the system.  Diabase, while not as hard as a diamond, is certainly very dense and difficult to work because it is a 7 on the MOHS scale.  So instead of easily carving a steatite implement using a chipped stone knife, the pipe maker would have pecked or pounded away at the unyielding diabase using a hard hammer stone in order to very slowly achieve the final shape.  Then he would have had to laboriously drill the hole for the pipe bowl and the tiny inlet for the stem and then polish the pipe overall.  It is difficult for us to comprehend just how long the artisan might have taken to make this pipe – a month or maybe six months or maybe even a year.  It is impossible to know the time period involved in crafting this pipe but it was surely of a lengthy duration.  So why would this pipe maker choose such a hard rock rather than the softer soapstone to create his pipe?  Was the artisan in an area where steatite was not found?  Was he/she such a master at making smoking instruments, that to display those skills with a very hard mineral the ultimate achievement?  Or did diabase have some unknown religious/ceremonial meaning to the pipe maker? This pipe was uncovered in hilly southern Henry County, Virginia, very near the Smith River, by a man while raking leaves.  It appears to have been underwater for some time and may have been made and interred near the stream in that location of the Old Dominion state or may have been made further west and then swept a considerable distance downstream by river floods.  Where made, when made, by whom made and most certainly why made with diabase?  These are the typical questions one wrestles with in this perplexing avocation.  Perhaps I should stop this insane hobby and take up an easier to understand pastime such as building helicopters.  But regardless of just where the maker lived and worked and why such a hard mineral was chosen for this smoking implement, the ancient craftsman certainly made an extremely rare and unusual item and I am certainly overjoyed today to have it in my collection. There is certainly a distinct possibility that it is the only obtuse angle alate pipe to ever be made of the dense mineral diabase.  The size, style and quality of manufacture along with this unusual stone certainly do make this a very odd Virginia pipe.




Coe, Joffre L.                                                  1964

            “The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont”, TRANSACTIONS OF THE



Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman    1957



Hart, Gordon                                                  1976



Hothem, Lar                                                    1999



Litton, Ralph                                                  1924



Maus, James E.                                               1991

            “An Engraved Obtuse Angle Alate Pipe”, CENTRAL STATES     

            ARCHAEOLOGICAL JOURNAL, Vol. 39, No. 1


Maus, James E.                                               2005

            “The Marion Alate-Stemmed Monitor Pipe”, CENTRAL STATES

            ARCHAEOLOGICAL Journal, Vol. 52, No. 4

Maus, James E.                                               2010

            “A Unique Obtuse Angle Pipe”,  JIMMAUSARTIFACTS.COM


West, George                                                  1934