Articles

A Beautiful Chlorite Pipe

We know that the ancient Americans made and used smoking pipes beginning in the Archaic Period and extending into the Historic Period.  In the Southeast, the majority of these smoking instruments were manufactured from soapstone or steatite because it was reasonably plentiful and was very easy to carve into pipe shapes.  There were alternative materials used, though, including limestone, quartzite, ceramics and the odd green stone found in certain locales - the material that was used to make this beautiful chlorite pipe.

To be absolutely correct there is not a single material called chlorite.  Instead there is a Chlorite Group which encompasses several difficult to pronounce minerals, such as Nimite, Chamosite, Sudoite and Franklinfurnaceite, within this silicate or clay family.  A very good geologist can possibly distinguish between and name these various minerals but for the remainder of us, we will probably need to continue to use the generic name chlorite for any strongly green colored soft stone.  Chlorite can be other colors including red, yellow, lavender, black and white but in most regions of the world it will normally be green.  The name is derived from the Greek word for green and all the various chlorites are monoclinic minerals meaning the individual crystals have three axes of unequal length of which two of them will intersect at other than right angles to one another.  And they all have a silicate layered structure which means it forms in distinct layers like that of the common mineral mica.  The various minerals of the chlorite group will crystallize in the monoclinic symmetry system and with a good hand lens (or much better eyesight than mine) the swirling and erratic crystalline formations can often be seen. The chlorite family members will normally be found as inclusions or fissures inside clay rich sedimentary rocks such as calcite or in silicate type metamorphic or igneous rocks such as quartz or topaz – rarely alone and by themselves.  It is a soft mineral being in the 2 to 2 ½ range on the MOHS hardness scale with the diamond being the hardest mineral at a 10.  Chlorite is normally vitreous (glassy) or pearly and is so soft it can actually be scratched with your fingernail so it would have been easy to manipulate by ancient man into various shapes including the many forms of smoking implements.

At some point in time a prehistoric American native, in the region that would become North Carolina, acquired a chunk of chlorite stone and decided to make a smoking pipe.  The choice mineral could have come from most anywhere in the mountains of the Tar Heel state but there is a good chance that it was found in the area north of current Asheville where much of this stone is found.   With the beautiful green color and crystalline structure, the rock was probably calling out to the artisan to make something beautiful – and he did so.  The resulting elbow pipe, which could have been made anytime during the Late Woodland to Mississippian Periods or circa AD 500 to 1500, certainly did turn out beautifully.  It is 4 13/16 inches long and 1 7/8 inches high at the bowl and is extremely well polished.  There are four narrow raised segments on the bowl that are today called “bird’s beaks” by many collectors.  These raised ridges are in the back, front and both sides of the bowl and had the distinction of being called the “cardinal points” by the ancient people meaning north, south, east and west.  The pipe was found in Surry County, NC, which is in the north-western foothills of the state and is bordered on the north by the east-west flowing Dan River which means the mother stone could have been washed from the mountains into the area by one or more heavy floods or it could have been found in the more westerly part of the state by a native and carried to the area or it even could have been formed millions of years ago in Surry.  There is a very small chip in the everted bowl rim which was possibly caused by a modern agricultural machine and other than that there is only wear and polish over the entire pipe that simply denotes that numerous ancient hands held the pipe for numerous ancient years, and maybe even centuries, as it was being smoked.  While chlorite pipes are not terribly rare, like most any prehistoric American Indian pipes, they are not terribly common either.  It is believed that many, if not most, pipes used by the prehistoric Indians in this country were smoked for religious/ceremonial reasons.  If that is true, some prehistoric resident of modern Surry County must have been the center of attention at an ancient ritual when he brought forth his beautiful religious/ceremonial implement – this beautiful chlorite pipe.

 

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