Articles

THE CAMPBELL BUFFALO FISH BOWLS

 

The Campbell Site is a large ancient Indian village, cemetery and temple mound location that is situated near the Mississippi River.  The great river was itself given its somewhat odd moniker by the seventeenth century French mishandling of the Algonquin Indian river names Messipi or Misi-zibbi.  The Campbell Site is now a privately owned farm in southeastern Missouri near the Arkansas-Missouri border and the large river.  It was begun and occupied by the natives of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex as early as around AD 1400 and lasted until, at least, the visit by the Hernando de Soto army in AD 1541and possibly much longer – to maybe AD 1700.  Of course, during the incursion by the Spaniards, many of the natives were brutally murdered or died after being exposed to smallpox, measles and other “Old World” diseases to which they had no immunity – so some scholars believe the village life there effectively ended in AD 1541.  Of course that does not take into consideration the many extremely rare human pottery head and body effigies that have been found there and that are believed to have been made in the AD 1600-1700 time period.

 

There are more than eighty species of sucker fish in the world with the vast majority being in the eastern half of North America.  For eons these plentiful suckers, which are related to common minnows and carp, have been used as food by people living around the many slow moving rivers, streams, ponds and swamps from Texas north to Minnesota and eastward to and covering the entire coastal land adjacent the Atlantic Ocean.  Many, if not most, of these sucker fish are reasonably small, in the roughly four to ten inches long size range.  But a few particular ones grow considerably larger than that.  The bigmouth buffalo fish (Lctiobus cyprinellus) can reach more than four feet in length and more than fifty pounds in weight which should provide a few meals.  And since it likes to live in deep and/or shallow and unhurried waters, the huge fish was and can be, even today, easily caught with rod and reel or speared or netted. This large member of the sucker family also goes by such regional names as roundhead, redhead buffalo, Bernard buffalo and gourd head.  Today it certainly lives in the Mississippi River near the location of the ancient Campbell Site and is eaten as voraciously in our times as it was, by the natives, a few hundred years ago.

 

The American Indians, living along the Mississippi River during the period of time called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or AD 1000 to 1700, were among the finest pottery makers to have ever lived in North America.  Probably most of the vessels made by these artisans were plain utilitarian cooking and eating pots but some were realistic and as well as stylized copies of native plants, animals and even humans.  Various town site pottery craftsmen in the lower Mississippi River alluvial plains and surrounding areas are known to have produced particular styles and types of pottery vessels.  The Campbell Site potters were renowned for creating many types of vessels one of which has become known as the Campbell Buffalo Fish bowl.

 

The ceramic effigies of these aquatic animals are usually in the form of a shallow bowl.  The shell tempered earthenware clearly portrays a water living creature with the typical fish-like head, tail and fins.  But what fish?  A careful study of these vessels will easily show that the beings being portrayed are of the bigmouth buffalo fish species.  The bulging lips in the top front of the head, the obvious gill slits, the large round eyes and the rounded body, portrayed by the bowl itself, are certainly realistic copies of this large sucker.  The long tail and well sculpted fins are often incised to simulate the bones and markings of the actual fish.  Often the upper edges of these bowls are clearly marked with punctations in the manner known as a pie-crust rim.   These effigy pots were normally left in their natural grey and highly burnished coloring that is known as Bell Plain greyware but some have been found that were coated with a thin red clay paint slip before the pottery was fired. The vessels are often somewhat ovoid in shape as one looks down into the bowl and are usually in the size range of being eight to ten inches across.

 


Now we would like to understand just why the ancients made these somewhat odd fish effigy bowls.  Were they made to honor a large and valued food source? Or did the natives simply like to eat from dishes decorated in the form of the protein they were ingesting?  There could be only one or many reasons just why these piscine replications were made and we will probably never know the answers to this riddle.  As of now we can simply clear our heads of questions and  enjoy the rarity and beauty of the Campbell buffalo fish bowls.

 

REFERENCES:

Fundaburk, Emma L & Mary D. Foreman       1957

    SUN CIRCLES AND HUMAN HANDS

Galloway, Patricia,  Editor                                   1989

    THE SOUTHEASTERN CEREMONIAL COMPLEX:  ARTIFCTS & ANALYSIS

Griffin, James B., Editor                                        1952

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF EASTERN UNITED STATES

Johnson, D. W. & M.  L. Minckley                     1969

    NATURAL HYBRIDIZATION IN BUFFALO FISHES

Hathcock, Roy                                                         1976

     ANCIENT INDIAN POTTERY OF THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY

House, John H.                                                        2003

    GIFTS OF THE GREAT RIVER

Maus, Jams E.                                                          2000

    “The Campbell Fish”,  PREHISTORIC AMERICAN, No.  XXXIV, No. 4

Morse, Dan F. & Phyllis A. Morse                      1983

    ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI VALLEY

Menhinick, Edward  F.                                          1991                                                 

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Phillips, Phillip, James Ford & James Griffin   1951

    ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY IN T HE LOWER MISSISSIPPI ALLUVIAL

    VALLEY, 1940-1947

Townsend, Robert F. Editor                                2004

    HERO, HAWK, AND OPEN HAND

Westbrook, Kent                                                    1982

    LEGACY IN CLAY:  PREHISTORIC CERAMIC ART OF ARKANSAS