Articles

THE RECLINING HUMAN EFFIGY BOWLS

Most collectors of prehistoric American Indian pottery have particular vessel types they most admire such as red and white bottles, engraved jars or duck effigy bowls.  Almost every collector, though, holds in high regard the human likeness vessels – full human body effigy jars, human head portrait jars and human rim effigy bowls.  All these human representation vessels are rare but the reclining human effigy bowls are possibly the most unusual.

These vessel types are normally plain shallow bowls with human heads and legs applied to the rims.  There is never a representation of the human torso, though, since the bowl itself depicts the body and there are never any replicas of arms.  The slightly flattened heads are normally simple or almost caricature like in appearance.  These head images may have crudely modeled ears, eyes and mouths or simply slash lines to indicate the location of the eyes and mouth.  The legs on the opposite side of the bowl, though, are always close replicas of human legs with well defined knees and feet.  We cannot determine if these bowls represent males or females since there are no anatomically correct bodies.  The bowl rims may be plain or punctated in the “pie crust” manner and all existing examples are either well polished Bell Plain grey ware or colored with red ochre slip called Old Town Red.

Most known examples have been found in the contemporary states of Arkansas, Tennessee or Missouri near the Mississippi River.  Possibly all vessels of this motif were made during a relatively short period of time by one or a few pottery workshops, since they are all so similar, and then traded thorough out the region.  Some collectors think these bowls were made to represent deceased ancestors.  Others believe they were images of living society leaders. Still others believe they were made simply as funerary objects but since all show usage wear, they were most likely employed daily in some manner.  The writer knows of one of these bowls that was found containing two Nodena type arrow points (normally used in graves) indicating it was a burial vessel but since it also shows usage patterns, it was probably utilized before interment.  There have probably been fewer than fifty of these rare vessels found which may seem like a lot but considering that many thousands of prehistoric American Indian pottery vessels have been discovered, this number is indeed small.  Some of the head/legs rim effigies could have been broken prehistorically during firing or usage and the rim edges then ground smooth, so we really do not know just how many were actually made during the estimated manufacturing time period of AD 1400-1500.

Today we do not know just why these remarkable bowls were made or what they symbolized.  Were they made to simply represent reclining or lounging humans?  Or were they made as mortuary items or as everyday eating bowls?  And why were the legs so well made while the heads were so rudimentary?  This writer believes that these vessels were made as medicine totems for usage by society members who had deformed or injured legs.  That could explain why there are no arms depicted, why the heads are simple and why the legs were made so life like.  Family members or the society shaman could have used the bowls to feed or give medical potions to the afflicted persons.  But that is just one of several theories about these vessels.  We will probably never know the answers to these questions but that should not keep us from admiring the oddity and beauty of the Reclining Human Effigy Bowls.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Hathcock, Roy                                                            1976

            ANCIENT INDIAN POTTERY of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY

 

Goldberg, Jay,  MD                                        2006

            Personal Communications

 

Martin, Alton                                                 2006

            Personal Communications

 

Phillips, Phillip                                               1951

            “Archaeological Survey of the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Plain,  1940-1947,

            PEABODY MUSEUM of ARCHAEOLOGY and ETHNOLOGY, Vol. 25,

            HARVARD UNIVERSITY

 

Westbrook, Kent C.,  MD                              1982

            LEGACY IN CLAY:  PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS