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A VIRGINIA SNAKE HEAD PIPE

 

Southwest Virginia is a large triangle of land in which native peoples have lived for many thousands of years.  There they thrived among the fertile valleys and along the multitude of rivers and streams that cut through the tall mountain peaks.  Around AD 1300 an ethnic group that is today called Radford (named by Clifford Evans in 1955 for the town of Radford, Virginia) existed in the region and produced their distinctive crushed limestone tempered pottery until around AD 1700, though onward from AD 1500 they were only in some isolated locales.  Around AD 1500 the grouping of people that is called the South Appalachian Mississippian Culture seems to have taken over much of the region.  It is not known whether these people, generally called the Dallas Culture (named by T. M. N. Lewis and Madeline Kneberg in 1946 for the little town of Dallas, Tennessee which is now at the bottom of the Chickamauga TVA lake), moved into and defeated the indigenous people already living there or if many of the Radford natives decided to change their religious beliefs and become part of this Southern Cult.  We do know, though, that the Dallas natives were in the region beginning around AD 1500 and lasted until shortly after AD 1700 when the Europeans began arriving with their guns and diseases.  These Dallas Cultural aborigines, being a part of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex with its inherent stylized and ritualistic art, produced many types of creative devices used in their daily worship.  One such was this very unusual Virginia snake head pipe.

 

There are 35 distinct species and sub-species of serpents naturally found in the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The ancient natives would surely have encountered these animals and possibly even worshipped some of them.  They did show their adoration for reptiles, particularly the rattlesnake, by capturing the serpent-like legacy in their art, especially in the rattlesnake engraved shell gorgets.  The name Washington County was given to a part of this territory by early regional European-Americans to show their respect and admiration for our first President.  This Blue Ridge Mountain province is immediately east of Scott, west of Smyth and just south of Russell counties in Virginia.  Through Washington County flows the North Fork of the Holston River and the native Dallas people apparently decided, five hundred or so years ago, to build a village adjacent to this stream.  Today the location of this town is known as the Kinderhook Site or occasionally the Mendota Site since it is situated just south of the modern town named Mendota.  In this village the natives made and used many styles of pottery, as well as small triangular shaped arrowheads, stone axes, shell gorgets and pendants, ceremonial discoidals, cannel coal animal effigies, native copper beads and ceramic and steatite smoking pipes.  Though some of these items were obviously used in everyday cooking and hunting, many were mainly for religious applications to show their adoration to their various deities.

 

At some point during the two hundred or so year reign of the Dallas heritage at the Kinderhook Site, a native craftsman created this unique snake effigy pipe.  It is four inches long and is made of brown well-polished and non-tempered local ceramics.  This dark color probably comes from many ancient naturally oily hands holding the pipe since the original color of the clay was probably more of a tan hue.  The lack of a tempering medium is somewhat perplexing since all the pottery vessels made by these Mississippian people used strengthening materials, mostly in the form of crushed mussel shell. The tapered and circular in cross-section stem clearly shows ancient abrasions from being clinched in the smoker’s teeth.  This is an odd effigy style of pipe for the region and for the Dallas people even though they did make use of the snake icon in their art.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the style of pipe images made by the Iroquois people further north, in what is now New York State, during the AD 1580 to 1700 time period.  This Iroquoian group, which refers to a language rather than a people, was comprised of native tribal units who called themselves Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga and Onondaga.  They made many clay pipes in effigies of their natural local animals including otters, bears, quail, wolves, ravens and even humans as well as snakes.  Since the overall structure of the Iroquoian pipes and this Dallas pipes are similar, one most certainly should wonder if a visitor from the north was at Kinderhook and lent some stylistic expertise to the Southern Cult pipe craftsman.  But inasmuch as the overall form of the pipe is very consistent with most all clay pipes made throughout the riverine systems in northern NC and southern VA during this time period, it was probably fashioned by a local Dallas pipe maker but with maybe having some Iroquois effigy styling assistance.    

 

 This pipe must be inverted with the bowl opening turned downward so as to understand the effigy.  When viewed from either side of the pipe the snake’s eye is easily visible at the top of the head (or bottom of the bowl) while the open mouth contains fifteen bluntly shaped teeth on each side of the bowl.  The pipe tobacco receptacle, extending out from the serpents mouth could very well be a stylized replica of a bird egg being devoured by the serpent.  Blacksnakes, rat snakes, corn snakes and many other types are known to swallow bird eggs whole and to later regurgitate the crushed egg shell.  But we will probably never know just what the maker intended or exactly when it was made.  We do know that in AD 1567 soldiers, from the gold seeking explorations of the Spaniard Juan Pardo , destroyed a town they called Chiska (near modern Saltville, VA), which was only a short  distance from the Kinderhook village but we do not know if this had any effect on the  natives at the Holston River town.  We also know that the German explorer, John Lederer, visited a large village on the river periphery (probably Kinderhook since it was reputedly the most sizeable town in the region) in AD 1669  and he used, in his writings, the native name Ahkonshuck, but we do not  know if that referred to the village or to the people.  This could show that the Mendota village was maybe not destroyed by the Spaniards a hundred years earlier or if it was, it denotes that the natives had rebuilt it.  So again, we do not know exactly when this smoking instrument was made but we can say it was probably crafted by a Dallas Cultural inhabitant sometime between AD 1500 and AD 1700.  And we can say it is a very uncommon regional style in its serpent effigy form.  We can also say, in spite of the toothy and almost scary open mouth, it is an extremely well made and beautiful Virginia snake head pipe.

 

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