The Norman Biconical Tube Pipe

Tobacco was unknown in Europe until the early European explorers discovered it being smoked by the aborigines in North and South America in the sixteenth century and took it to the Old World.  Of the nine species of tobacco found in this hemisphere, only one, Nicotiana rustica, was primarily grown and smoked in the eastern half of our country when the Europeans arrived.  This variety was later supplanted by a more potent South American variety, Nicotiana tabacum, that was brought in by the early English and Spanish conquerors and adopted for growth by both the colonists and Indians.  There is little known about the actual cultivation of tobacco by the natives except that they separated their tobacco patches from other crops and the growing plants were only tended by men, even though both men and women smoked the weed.  In the eastern USA, the inhabitants probably started smoking this tobacco at least as early as 1,000 BC in a rolled-up cigar shape which evolved into the straight tube pipe.  These first pipes were possibly hollow bone or cane but since these materials would have been destroyed by the fire in the smoking process, other pipe materials were adopted.  These other materials were initially various types of stone, depending upon the location of the pipe maker and the rocks that were available locally, and later ceramic pipes were made.  Soft rock such as claystone or pipestone, limestone, sandstone and soapstone, were used and more rarely harder minerals such as quartz and diorite were laboriously fashioned into smoking implements.

As the Archaic transitioned into the Woodland Period, these straight tube pipes were altered into the angled or elbow pipe design.  The straight tube pipe would have been easier to make but the style had one great drawback – the bowl end, in which lay the smoldering tobacco, must be angled upwards or the burning mass would fall out of the end of the pipe.  Whether by sheer luck or great intelligence, someone decided to put an angle in the straight tube pipe to solve this problem and the tube pipe almost disappeared.  Almost but not entirely.  Sometime during the reign of the straight pipe, another type was developed that we call the biconical tube pipe.  These more or less hourglass shaped pipes (hence biconical or two cones) came into being, probably in the late Archaic to early Woodland Period and continued to be made and used into the Historic Period, as noted by early Europeans.  Generally known as Medicine Tubes or Cloud Blowers, these pipes were apparently used as ceremonials in healing processes.  The healer would load Kinnikinnick (Algonquian word meaning “that which is mixed”) into the bowl of the tube and light it.  This blend of tobacco, sumac leaves, the inner bark of the dogwood tree and sometimes other plant materials, was believed to have curative properties and the smoke from the burning mixture was blown, by the healer, onto an ailing person for the purpose of medical relief.

In the 1940’s or 1950’s, the late Earl Norman of East Bend, NC, found one of these rare biconical tube pipes along the Yadkin River in Davidson County, NC.  He displayed it for many years in the basement museum under his hardware store as one of his favorite artifacts.  This pipe, which is seven inches long, was prehistorically damaged on one end and that end was reworked by the ancients for continued use.  It is made of a well polished high grade olive/black steatite and it is a rarity in itself but is made even more unique because of the engraving.  Engraved lines adorn two sides of the elliptical bowl on the undamaged end of the pipe with cross hatching between the lines in a probable effort to symbolize the body of a rattlesnake with the snake head projecting toward the bowl  opening. For some reason these engravings are only on the end of the pipe that was not anciently damaged.  Perhaps the snakes were incised after the ancient damage.  The pipe has two raised rings on the exterior surface where the center of the pipe originally was located and the overall workmanship on the pipe is excellent.  It was listed as the number one display item in the 1960 North Carolina Museum of Art exhibition “Tobacco and Smoking in Art” and is pictured in the accompanying catalog of the same name.  This biconical pipe must have been the proud possession of many individuals for many ancient years and held by numerous hands as noted by the wear and polish.  One must wonder just how much “healing” did it see before the last Indian held and used this pipe.

I am grateful that Earl Norman found this wonderful artifact and am also grateful that his late widow resisted the efforts by the NC government employees to have her donate all the collection to the state. If that had happened, this pipe would probably be, today, in a storage box in some warehouse, not to be seen again except by a select few.  Now it resides in my collection, and is displayed at shows so as to allow other collectors to enjoy the rarity and beauty of the Norman Biconical Tube Pipe.




Byrnes, James R.                                             




Hart, Gordon                                                   




Linton, Ralph                                                   




Maus, Jim                                                        

“A Unique Kentucky Adena Pipe”, 

CSAJ, Vol. 51 – No. 2,  April 2004



West, George