Articles

A DOUBLE CORN GOD EFFIGY BOWL

Corn is a crop grown worldwide that feeds millions of people annually but it had humble beginnings thousands of years ago in Southern Mexico and/or Central America.  Maybe five to six millennia in the past, the natives living in that part of the world started harvesting two small wild grains called teosinte and gamagrass.  Gradually over the next few thousand years, they managed, through careful plant selection and inter-breeding, to save and grow the best of these agricultural products until they developed a rudimentary form of the corn as we know it today.  It is a purely human cultivated invention that never existed naturally in the wild. Corn (an old British English term for any cereal crop such as barley, oats, wheat and, of course, corn) is the name used for this botanical wonder in the English speaking part of the world but the word maize (from the Taino Indian word maiz) is used in most of the other portions of the globe.  There is much debate today in the taxonomic identification of maize as to its exact evolutionary history.  Some botanists argue that the grain’s predecessors were being grown and eaten by humans more than ten thousand years ago in the Western Hemisphere while others believe that its usage by people began less than four millennia in the past.  The majority of plant geneticists, though, seem to believe that the five to six thousand years estimate of its initial gathering is correct.  Eventually the seeds of this grass were traded throughout Central and South America and northward through Mexico into what is now the United States.  Here debate begins again over the time period when the natives in our country began to grow and consume maize but it probably was sometime between AD 200 and AD 800 based on archaeological evidence.  By AD 1000 the Indians on the Southeast had begun living in semi-permanent to permanent villages where they grew the “three sisters” – corn, beans and squash – and used that term because they believed that these three eukaryotes should always be grown together.  Over time corn and the other plants became essential to the daily lives of the natives and they developed deities and religious ceremonies based on these crops.  In the native societies during that period, the rulers needed to have large numbers of people to plant, cultivate, water, weed and harvest the crops.  Having an abundance of land on which to grow the cultigens was useless without the laborers to perform the actual work. The development of gods, by these elite individuals, would certainly have assisted in the control of the labor market for the good of the kings and their courts as well as the general populace. By the time Europeans began exploring this country in the sixteenth century the Indians were celebrating the new crop during the summer months with the Green Corn Ceremony.  No newly harvested grain could be eaten before that time and there was great reverence paid to the corn god (or goddess since today the belief is that the deity was female) during this spiritual time.  This mythical plant image, also called Corn Mother, was believed to have her body composed of the necessities of life – the soil was her flesh; the rocks were her bones; the wind was her breath and the grass and trees were her hair.  Sometime between probably AD 1000 and AD 1400 the natives living in the Mississippi River Valley began making stone and pottery effigies of this Corn Mother.  These took the form of smoking pipes, statuary, jars, bottles and bowls and most likely were used to glorify this deity who provided the people with maize.  Today the ceramic portraits are known as Corn God Effigy vessels.

Corn god vessels are very strange appearing pots.  They have the shape of a tall “dunce hat” cone on the top of a human-like head.  The head may or may not include facial features but many do at least include eyes.  The pointed hats or symbolic heads usually include lines of probable appliquéd corn kernels running vertically and ending at the apex of the cone.  As in most effigy vessels from this time period, they are reasonably rare but not nearly as uncommon as many other effigy types.  Apparently the corn deity was so important to these ancient people; they wanted to honor the goddess with a plethora of  commemorative pottery.  Most of the corn god vessels are made in the style of hooded bottles meaning that the pouring spouts of the vessels are on the side slightly below the enclosed conical top.  These bottles are usually well made and highly burnished in grey ware but may be slip covered in red or red and white.  But then there are a few of these vessels that take on entirely different forms such as this double corn god effigy bowl.

The vessel pictured with this article is very unusual because it is a bowl and not the more common hooded bottle motif and because it has two corn god rim effigies.  This bowl, found in Mississippi County, Arkansas, is shell tempered Bell Plain Greyware and is nine and one-eighth inches across face to face by six and one-quarter inches high to the top of the conical heads.  Each head has round eyes and a mouth, each has six corn kernel rows and each is hollow with tiny pebbles inside the cone for the rattle-head effect.  When a person views the vessel, one of the first thoughts is that the kernel rows are very similar to the plaited hair treatment called “corn rows” worn by many young people today but there have never been any historic references to the Indians wearing their hair in that fashion.  So maybe the actual corn ears from a few hundred years ago only had a small number of rows of kernels rather than having the seeds growing close together as in the maize  grown today (average modern corn ears contain  sixteen rows of kernels).  Or maybe the few corn kernel rows are merely symbolic in nature and the actual quantity has no real meaning.  Most of these vessels, as owned and seen by this writer, have four or six rows of symbolic corn kernels applied vertically to the cone.  The author has never seen another double rattle head vessel of this type though there is certainly the possibility that others do exist.  But whether this is a one of a kind or if more are indeed extant, it still is a very rare and unique Double Corn God Effigy Bowl.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Eubanks, Mary W.                                                                 1971

            THE MYSTERIOUS ORIGIN OF MAIZE

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                            1957

            SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Hathcock, Roy T.                                                                   1976

            ANCIENT POTTERY OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY

Hudson, Charles                                                                     1976

            THE SOUTHEASTERN INDIANS

Mangelsdorf, Paul C.                                                              1974

            CORN: IT’S ORIGIN, EVOLUTION AND IMPROVEMENT

Maus, James E.                                                                       1999

            “Hooded Corn God Waterbottles”,  PREHISTORIC AMERICAN,

            XXXIII, No. 3

Reilly, Kent F., III                                                                  2004

            “People of Earth, People of Sky”,  HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND

Shetrone, Henry C.                                                                 1930

            THE MOUND BUILDERS

Westbrook. Kent C.                                                                1982

            LEGACY IN CLAY: PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS