Just in case any of you have forgotten your grade and high school history, the two continents of the western hemisphere were not named for Christopher Columbus but for another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.  He was probably not the first European to land on the mainland of South America in 1499 but he was certainly one of the first, if not indeed the first, to realize this was a new continent.  In 1503 and 1504, he wrote letters to the Italian statesman Lorenzo de Medici, describing the land and explaining his beliefs and those letters were published throughout Europe.  In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, a German cartographer, printed a map of the new continent and used the name America thereby linking the feminized Latin version of Amerigo permanently to the “New World”.  The only known copy of this map now resides in our Library of Congress and is considered the “Birth Certificate of America”. The native people of this hemisphere would later be named for these continents and for the fact that the early European explorers thought they had reached the East Indies – thus they are called American Indians.

American Indians have smoked the native tobacco and other plant materials for probably thousands of years.  The first pipes were most likely bone and/or wood and did not last for long because they burned away during the smoking process.  Later the people learned to make smoking instruments using various stone and then fire hardened clay and these pipes were made in a myriad of styles.  One of the strangest pipe types is the one we know today as the disk pipe.

Disk pipes were probably made for a relatively short period of time, being about AD 1400-1700.  They were made of various minerals but are most associated with a red stone that is known as Catlinite.  This soft mineral (being only 2.5 on the MOHS mineral hardness scale) is a variety of clay or mud that was metamorphosed into the rock as we see it today.  It is found in various places in the upper mid-west of the USA but is primarily known for being mined in the large quarry near Pipestone, Minnesota.  In 1832 the explorer Philander Prescott traveled to the area and briefly wrote about the quarry used by the Indians.  A few years later the artist George Catlin visited the region and painted portraits of the natives living around the ancient quarry.  After that, this stone was named in his honor – Catlinite.  But the stone and the pipes carved from it were not made famous until 1855 when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his epic poem, “The Song of Hiwatha”, which told about the Indians and the creation of the peace pipe.  Catlinite (mudstone, claystone, pipestone, siltstone or whatever name is chosen for this material) is a soft sedimentary mineral composed of indurate clay particles that gets the red color from the presence of iron oxides in the soil.  During the late prehistoric times up to and including the Historic Period, the American Indians quarried this stone and made many styles of pipes including the disk type.  When the French explorers visited the area in the seventeenth century, a people who are now known as Sioux lived in the vicinity and controlled the Catlinite quarry.  The name Sioux is a French corruption of the Ojibwa Indian word “nadone-is-iw”, which in their language meant enemy.  These Siouan people were apparently warlike but did allow natives of many other tribal regions to come to the sacred quarry and extract the red stone for the purpose of pipe making as well as for the manufacture of various ornaments.                         

The disk pipe is certainly an enigma since it does not fit our mental image of a smoking pipe - that being an elbow shape. The bowls of these pipes are set in the middle of flat circular disks that are carved onto the top of bar-like stems.  The bowl cavity, that would hold the tobacco, is usually very small – so small that it would not have enough volume to hold a thimble full of the weed.  The stem hole is normally at the front of the long stem (facing the smoker) and just under the disk edge but can be at the other end. This rectangular to square stem normally projects well past the disk, away from the smoker, to form a sort of prow and it is often incised with notches on the end of the prow.  The disk is usually decorated in some fashion with tally marks around the perimeter or with engravings on the top or bottom or all these motifs.  The stem is often also incised with zigzag, straight or curved lines on the top, sides and bottom.  These pipes were probably smoked by using a wood or reed stem to keep the user’s face away from the heat of the burning tobacco and with the smoker holding the pipe by the prow.  The circular disks of these pipes range in sizes of only an inch or so to upwards of six inches in diameter and the stems can be anywhere from a couple inches long to over eight inches in length.  Most were made of Catlinite but some few were also made of red slate, limestone, steatite and other minerals. Disk pipes were apparently made and traded in a large area during the Mississippian Period, AD 1400-1700, since they have been found in many of the east coast states and as far west as Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri into the more northern states of Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota, but they are quite rare.  Why the Mississippians wanted to primarily use Catlinite for these possible sun effigy pipes is a mystery.  We will most likely never know exactly how and why this strange smoking instrument came into being but the shape must have had some great spiritual/ceremonial meaning to the natives since it would have been much more difficult to make than a simple elbow pipe.  Today, we would not smoke these ancient objects but can easily admire the beauty and the workmanship involved in the making of the Enigmatic Disk Pipes.




Aid, Toney                                         2008

            “The Siouan Disc Pipe”, PREHISTORIC AMERICAN, Vol. XLII, No. 2

Converse, Robert N.                           2000

            “Disc Pipes”, OHIO ARCHAEOLOGIST, Vol. 50, No 1

Hart, Gordon                                      1978


Sistad, John S.                                     1970

            “A Field Test for Catlinite”, AMERICAN ANTIQUITY, Vol. 35

West, George                                      1934