Articles

A WONDERFUL SMOKING FROG

The region of the United States that is known as the Commonwealth of Virginia has a long and storied history and is rich in archaeological sites that date from ten thousand years BC to the many battle grounds of our War of Independence and the American Civil War.  There are so many sites to explore in the eastern half of the state, that most of the modern scientific research has been done on the many village locations and arenas of conflict that date from Jamestown in 1604 to the end of the War Between the States in 1865.  Little archaeological work has been accomplished in the long finger of land that is the southwestern portion of the state.  But it should have since the ancient American people have lived and died in the mountains and valleys of that region for many thousands of years and researchers have missed a great opportunity to further our knowledge of these humans by ignoring them and their territorial homes.  Because these regional inhabitants apparently lived very devout religious existences and made many ceremonial items to assist them in their worship, they left some beautiful and reverent objects for us to see today.  Such is the case with this wonderful smoking frog.

The people we call American Indians have lived in this continent for at least 12,000 years and for much of that time they have smoked tobacco and herbs and various hallucinogenic materials for personal pleasure and for ceremonial functions.  They would originally have most likely used straight tubular pipes made of stone, and later of ceramics, in order to burn plant materials so as to inhale the intoxicating smoke.  These long cylindrical implements were eventually replaced by pipes with the receptacle for the tobacco mixture, called a bowl, placed at an angle to the stem.  These so called elbow pipes were evidently used by the natives from a few thousand years ago until the Europeans began trading kaolin clay pipes to the natives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  They were simple and plain stone and ceramic pipes that functioned well for their intended purposes but the natives, who lived in close relationships with many animals and birds of their home lands, were evidently desirous of smoking implements that were related more to nature.  The artisans of the great Hopewell Culture, which existed from about 200 BC to about AD 500, certainly incorporated duplications of their animal neighbors into their pipe motifs.  These indigenous people, who lived in the area that is modern day Ohio and Illinois, were among the first American natives to make exact facsimiles of faunal species in their crafts.   Later, beginning around AD 1,000, many of the aborigines, especially the ones living along the large riverine systems in the Southeast, began to produce pipe art similar to the more ancient Hopewell people.  These ancient Southerners formed economic and religious alliances that were ruled by elite groups of related natives and today these socio-economic bands of inhabitants are known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.  They built towns and empires, both large and small, from current Texas/Arkansas/Missouri eastward to Georgia and north into Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.  The daily lives of these people revolved around much ceremonialism and religious commitment and they certainly made and used smoking pipes in these activities.  The smoking apparatuses were simple tube and elbow types as well as images of humans and many creatures of the wild animal world.  Bird effigies were especially used for these pipes because birds were free of being land bound and could soar into the heavens and visit with the gods.  After the avian fauna, almost every known species of living beastie was replicated in the smoking devices with the frogs and toads being near or at the top of the list of preferred zoomorphic effigies.  This was probably because these amphibians were prophets of spring time and the new corn growing season – that necessary food stuff which the natives needed for annual survival.  Frog effigies, in smoking pipe form, have run the gamut from small and crude examples to highly stylized models of the cold-bloodied vertebrates to large and almost exact copies of the living amphibians.  The pipe making materials used by the natives, for these effigy frogs, included limestone, chlorite, granite, sandstone, quartz, ceramics and, especially in the Southeast, the common mineral soapstone or steatite.

During the period of AD 1300 – 1700, the natives of the Appalachian Southeastern Ceremonial Complex began building permanent villages in western Virginia along the three branches of the Holston River as well as other large streams.  In the area that was to become Smyth County, the natives found some very unusual natural features – salt marshes.  Millions of years ago, that region was a shallow inland salt water sea and as the land was transformed geologically and the briny water evaporated, the salt settled to the bottom of the sea and remained there.  When the natives moved into the area and discovered the almost unlimited supply of this raw sodium chloride, they developed salt kingdoms which traded the valuable resource to others, many of whom, doubtlessly, lived hundreds of miles away.  Some of these salt trafficking principalities existed only until AD 1567 when soldiers, from the expedition of the Spaniard Juan Pardo, invaded the territory in search of gold and killed many natives in the territory and probably scattered many more into the surrounding countryside.   During the period of perhaps AD 1400 to 1567, along the banks of the North Holston River, the Amerinds built a village that was later named the Buchanan Site in honor of James Buchanan, who was one of the earliest Europeans to move into the area in 1743.  This alluvial plains village, which was only a few miles east of the current town of Broadford, would have incorporated many acres for the growing of corn and most likely became wealthy from the salt trading economy. There the villagers would have honored their deities with various maize growing ceremonies as well as smoking their diverse weeds in religious exercises.  Based on the types of artifacts found on the site, these natives made many styles of pipes from mostly ceramics and steatite, but there was one made that probably stood out from the others.  At some point in the life cycle of the village, an artisan decided to honor the spring planting season forecasters – the amphibians – with this almost life size replication of apparently a bull frog.  A high grade piece of steatite was carved and abraded and polished into a somewhat stylized and squarish frog effigy.  The head and eyes as well as the typical large rear legs are modeled into the stone. The front legs, feet and mouth were never actually carved on the figurine and are merely suggestive because of the outline of the statuary.  The recessed eye sockets possibly held freshwater pearls or pieces of mussel shell glued in place with pine rosin.   The effigy is 3 ¼ inches long head to tail and is exactly two inches tall.  The half inch diameter tobacco bowl orifice is enclosed in a carved raised square in the middle of the frogs back.   It was bored straight down and connects to the smaller stem hole that was drilled through the anal region of the pseudo animal.  The original grey steatite has been altered to a polished black color from being rubbed and handled by many ancient human hands during the time the village was in existence.  After the AD 1567 attack by the Spaniards, the Buchanan Site villagers most likely abandoned their homes and quickly moved away to escape the wrath of these violent invaders.  Many of their daily use items would have probably been left lying on the ground or perhaps quickly buried with the hope of a later return to reclaim them.  This unusual pipe was among the items left behind by the probable hasty retreat of the villagers.  It is tragedy that the lust for gold by the European invaders destroyed this ancient Indian town, but today we are lucky that the defeated natives did leave behind, for us to enjoy, a rare and beautiful example of their prowess in artful stonework – this wonderful smoking frog.

 

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