Articles

THE RED & WHITE HANDS OF NODENA

In the year 1879, the 5,000 acre Nodena Plantation came into the possession of Dr. James K. Hampson and his two sisters.  This sizable farm was located adjacent to the Mississippi River in southeastern Mississippi County, Arkansas which is in the northern part of the state just below the boot heel section of Missouri.   Dr. Hampson was an early amateur archaeologist who, for fifty plus years, excavated the native-made earthen mounds on Nodena Plantation and collected thousands of American Indian artifacts.  He later built the Hampson Archaeological Museum to house his extensive collection and the institution is still open today in the town of Wilson, Arkansas.  The plantation is best known, to collectors of the ancient artifacts, as the namesake of the famous willow leaf shaped Nodena arrow points and the equally renowned red and white painted pottery, including the very rare vessels with the images of the portion of the human body that is normally attached to the ends of our arms – the red and white hands of Nodena.

During the time that is known as the Mississippian Period, the natives thrived in the fertile alluvial stream bottoms near the huge river for which the culture is named.  There they grew and consumed corn and squashes and beans along with fish from the rivers and game animals taken in the local forests. The beliefs of numerous persons today are that these natives were a peace loving peoples existing within an agricultural economy but that is probably not true.  Many, if not most, of their home villages were contained within large defensive log palisades so as to ensure their safety from the citizens of the other area towns who wanted their croplands and were willing to maim and kill in order to make the acquisitions.  When the army of the Spaniard Hernando De Soto invaded the Mississippi River region in AD 1541, they made contact with these evidently violent people who we now call Nodena.  According to the writings of the Spanish scribes, though, these natives referred to themselves as Pacaha because they lived in the territory that was ruled by the Indian leader named Lord Pacaha.  These religious and ceremonially indoctrinated natives apparently lived in geographical sectors governed by various kings, including Lord Pacaha, who made war and peace, at will, with other rulers in the regions.  As an overall native group, they were a Siouan or Tunican speaking people, who were master pottery makers and who apparently designed many of their ceramic vessels from the natural shapes of the common gourds that they grew. 

During the period of AD 1400-1650, the aboriginals, who lived in this district, made Bell Plain and Neeley’s Ferry type pottery and painted them by using red and white clay slips. These vessels were in the forms we now call bottles, jars and bowls though we do not really know what the natives called them or even how the various shapes were used – if they even had any utilitarian uses.  And we do not know why these natives we call Nodena chose to coat their fired clay creations in two shades of paints.  The red color came from red ocher which is a powdered form of the mineral hematite or iron ore.  The white slip came from the crystalline ore galena which is more commonly known as the metal lead.  These tinted pigments were often applied to the vessels bodies in spiraling and interlocking scroll designs with either clockwise or counter-clockwise tangents.  The bands of the red and white clay decorations were frequently put on the hardened but not fired buff colored surfaces of the pots in helical twists or swastika type arcs.  Many of the necks of the bottles and jars have odd paint decorations that are best described as appearing to be stair steps.  And many of these vessels had a molded disk of clay on the base that, today, is normally called an annular ring.  For well over a hundred years, archaeologists have tried to understand the meanings of the swirled and stepped red and white painted themes of the Nodena pottery.  The numerous conjectures have included the native’s belief in the realms of light or day time (white paint) and dark or night time (red paint); the celestial world (white) and the subterranean or underwater domain (red); the distinction of war (red) verses peace (white) and the vertical treads the soul needed to climb in order to reach nirvana..  The current beliefs are that many of the red and white vessels, in this ceramic complex, were produced strictly as burial furniture and had no day to day utilitarian usages.  The natives probably had plenty of simple gray colored jars and bowls that they utilized for normal eating and drinking.  And then there are the rarest of the Nodena red and white pots – the ones adorned with the replicas of human hands.  Some of these hands are in white over a red background while others are in red over white.  An even fewer number of these have small opposite colored ovals or circles in the palm of the painted hand in a style that is now called the “hand and eye” motif.  One of the numerous theories of this eye-on-hand motif is that it is the symbol of the “journey to the Otherworld along the Path of Souls”.   Many scholars, though, have for many years attempted to interpret the overall hand motifs and the most common acknowledgement, to date, is that they are icons for “war trophies”.

Realistic and/or abstract hand facsimiles, that were painted or engraved or incised on pottery vessels, have been found throughout the Mississippi River Valley region as well as in the territory of Moundville in modern-day Alabama.  A very small quantity of these ceramics also includes realistic appearing human bones along with the hands.  Some of the hands are painted or carved with the fingers pointing up toward the neck of the vessel while others show the fingers positioned down toward the pottery base and a few show both orientations.  Are these signs of the Mississippians belief in heaven and hell?  Or maybe they are simply artistic images of hands of enemies that were severed in battle and, depending on positioning, imply whether they died bravely or in cowardice.   A few ancient Indian burials, from this time period, have been scientifically excavated and which clearly had hands, feet, and even heads removed from the human body before interment.  Were these captured adversaries who were tortured by dismemberment?  Some of these skeletal remains had red and white vessels placed where the amputated body parts would have normally been located. The natives who existed under the faithful doctrines of their gods were most likely expected to withstand pain and agony for their monarchs and their deities.  Was Lord Pacaha one of those regional emperors who expected the ordinary natives to lose a hand for their divine beings as well as the king?  Were those natives, who did endure this type of suffering, buried with a special red and white vessel with a painted replica of their hand?  Scientific study and logic seems to answer these questions – yes the vessels motifs do seem to imply human hands that have been severed from the arms.  We will, though, probably never know if these abusive deeds were performed on battle captives or willing friends.  But that should not keep us from believing that they signify the unique red and white hands of Nodena.

 

REFERENCES:

Fitzgerald, Rick                                                                   2009

     MISSISSIPPIAN POTTERY

Fundaburk, Emma L. & Mary D. Foreman                   1957

     SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Hathcock, Roy                                                                     1976

     ANCIENT INDIAN POTTERY OF THE MISSISSIPPI  RIVER VALLEY

Morse. Dan F.                                                                      1973

     NODENA

Morse, Dan F & Phyllis A. Morse                                    1983

     ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI VALLEY  

O’Brien, Michael J.                                                             1994

     CAT MONSTERS AND HEAD POTS

Phillips, Phillip, James A. Ford and James B. Griffin    1951

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Reilly, F. Kent III & James F. Garber                              2007

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Townsend, Richard F., General Editor                          2004

            HERO, HAWK AND OPEN HAND

Westbrook, Kent C.                                                            1982

     LEGACY IN CLAY: PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS