Articles

AN EXCEPTIONAL DEER HEAD BOTTLE

 

Among the rarest of all ancient North American Indian earthenware pottery vessels are the head effigies from the human and animal world.  The favored head forms, beginning with possibly the largest quantity produced, seem to be humans, raccoons/opossums, bears and lastly ruminants such as this exceptional deer head bottle.

 

Animal/human head effigy vessels were primarily made in the territory known as the Lower Mississippi River Valley.  They were normally fabricated by the ancient people we call Mississippians during the AD 1400-1700 time period and by the Quapaw natives during the AD 1600-1800 era.  These vessels were usually made in the jar form rather than the bowl or bottle shapes and were made in polished grey ceramics as well as being finished in monochrome or polychrome colors. Most of these rare pottery configurations are realistic to the being – thus the human effigy vessels heads look like humans, the bear heads are easily recognized as that animal and so on and so forth.

 

This very rare deer head bottle, which is just slightly over five inches tall by seven and one-quarter inches from the tip of the snout to the back of the head, was found in Lee County, Arkansas near the Mississippi River.  Lee County is a locale that was inhabited by both the Mississippian Indians and later the Quapaw natives, which makes it more difficult to determine just who made individual vessels and exactly when they were made.  Of all the animal/human head effigies, the deer heads are among the rarest with possibly fewer than one hundred known to exist and the number may very well be considerably lower than that.  That in itself is quite strange considering the population of the white tail deer is considered to have been around sixty million just before the invasion of the Europeans in AD 1500 and was most likely the number one meat source to the natives. This vessel was probably made by a Quapaw potter because the finish is a red iron ore (hematite) clay slip, called Avenue Polychrome, over buff colored ceramics and also because the soft ceramics and light weight, both of which are indicative of Quapaw vessels. The well modeled ears, eyes and interior mouth were probably once coated with black paint that would have been made from a plant or carbon based matter versus the mineral based red paint.  This black paint or slip, which is also indicative of the Quapaw natives, was not stable and on many Quapaw vessels that once had the finish, it has now faded and vanished or almost vanished as is the case with this vessel.  There are faint traces of the original black slip in this ruminant’s ears and since the mouth and eyes are the same buff color as the ears, a good guess is they were also coated with the black slip a few hundred years ago.  If indeed it was made by a Quapaw ceramist, it would be considered rarer than if were made by a Mississippian artisan simply because the Quapaw people were in the region for a shorter period of time and there was fewer of them.  Of the maybe a hundred or fewer deer head effigy vessels known to exist, only a much smaller number are in the bottle form which makes this vessel even less common.  And then there is the tongue. The tongue hanging out from the side of the mouth of a head vessel is theorized to indicate a dead animal and very few pots with the exposed tongue are in existence.  That makes this liquid container even rarer and when combined with it being a bottle means that there are probably very small number (ten? twenty?) of the type known in museums and private collections.

 

So why did an ancient ceramist make this unusual vessel?  Was it a simulated trophy of an exceptionally large white tail deer taken by a native hunter?  Or was it made to designate a much desired food source in times of famine?  Or was it simply formed as thanks to the animal deities for giving deer to the people for their sustenance?  It is generally believed, by many scholars today, that most, if not all, ancient American Indian pottery effigies were meant to be used in ceremonies of worship to their gods rather than simply being culinary pots.  If that is true, this vessel was probably made and used in one or more religious exercises, though for sure we will never know the exact purpose of its manufacture and usage.  It is this enigmatic quality of the unknown themes used by these ancient craftsmen that draws us today to their art whether we understand the original meanings or not. What we do believe and understand is that the vessel was made to emulate a deer head, most likely a deceased deer head, and it was probably made by a Quapaw potter.  Anything else would be complete unfounded speculations.  These are the usual guesses concerning the wonderful ancient American Indian artifacts.  But queries will suffice when they are used in an attempt to understand a unique pottery item such as this exceptional deer head effigy bottle.

 

REFERFFENCES:

 

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                                        1957

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Hathcock, Roy                                                                                                1976

            ANCIENT INDIAN POTTERY OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY

Hathcock, Roy                                                                                                1982

            THE QUAPAW AND THEIR POTTERY

Hudson, Charles                                                                                 1976

            THE SOUTHEASTERN INDIANS

Morse, Dan F. & Phyllis A. Morse                                                     1983

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O’Brien, Michael J.                                                                             1994

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Phillips, Phillip, James A. Ford & James B. Griffin                           1951

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            VALLEY, 1940-47

Phillips, Phillip                                                                                    1970

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Westbrook, Kent C.                                                                            1982

            LEGACY IN CLAY:  PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS