Friday, October 27, 2017

Lost Faces in Time

Anthropomorphic renditions in various media are well represented in the archaeological assemblages of the world, from Paleolithic times to the present. There is something about the appearance of the sculpted, modeled or carved human face on the collar of a pot, the bowl of a tobacco pipe or, perhaps, a pocket talisman, that conveys the phrase --- speak to me!
Figure 1. Pine Island “rock face”, Late Archaic period

Human face-like images have been recovered from archaeological contexts in Pennsylvania going back in time to the Late Archaic period. The “face rock” from Piney Island (Figure 1) may be 4000 years old as it was found between soil strata with radiocarbon dates of 3720 BP. and 4000 BP. (Kent 1996). In the Upper Delaware Valley, similar faces were apparently pecked onto the surfaces of small cobbles during the Late Woodland period. Stylized faces were also carved onto small pebbles and, the interior beam posts of the Oklahoma Delaware Big House or Xingwikaon. These carvings in bold relief may be Lenape renditions of the Mesingw or Masked Being. The Ohtas, or “Doll Beings” with remarkable powers (Figure 2), used in the Doll Dance by the Oklahoma Delaware were also carved from wood in precise detail (Kraft 2001).

Figure 2. Wooden Ohta doll, Delaware 19th century

The Munsee, who occupied a large part of the Delaware Valley from Port Jervis south to the Water Gap, decorated their cooking and storage pots with human-face-like features. Typically, three punch marks, made with a blunt stylus carved from wood or bone, formed the eyes and mouth and these were located at each rim castellation (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Munsee face pot, probably 17th century

Occasionally the potter chose to sculpt one face above the other. In the Lower Susquehanna Valley, these human face-like renditions became very common appliques to the collars of Susquehannock pottery by the first quarter of the 17th century (Figure 4). Susquehannock face pots were used for the storage and cooking of foods and as receptacles for burial offerings that held one last meal for the deceased.

Figure 4. Susquehannock face pot. Early 17th century

In both the Delaware and Susquehanna valleys, charm stones were made and carried by the Lenape and Susquehannock people. Principally made of soft stone such as steatite, serpentine, siltstone and by the middle of the 18th century, red pipestone (Figure 5), these effigies like the wooden Ohtas, were carved with great detail.

Figure 5. Pipestone maskette. Conestoga Indian site. Mid-18th century

Human face-like images adorned the bowls of tobacco pipes of the different Native American cultures. Certain clay pipes of the Wyoming Valley Complex (Smith 1973) are characterized by pronounced eye and mouth features indicative of some northern Iroquoian false face masks (Figure 6).
Figure 6. Wyoming Valley clay face pipe. Early 15 century

 Some of these mimic Onondaga and Mohawk pipe styles attributed to the Early Iroquois Chance phase  dates to approximately 1375-1425 A.D. Our Pennsylvania examples appear to be confined to the North Branch of the Susquehanna River from Nanticoke to the New York State line. Several pipe styles from southern Ontario suggest contact between the Wendat and Susquehannocks in the early to mid-17th century. Examples of the pinched face or plague pipe, a late 16th to early 17th century form, are rare in Susquehannock material culture but common in southern Ontario (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Pinch face clay pipe. Huron/Susquehannock Early 17th century

   These pipes which depict the gaunt forlorn image of a human are so-named for the illnesses brought by Europeans that ravaged North American native societies.
Figure 8. Face pipe of stone. Warren County, Pennsylvania. Age unknown

Moving our discussion westward we note the vasiform-shaped pipe of fine grained siltstone from a Seneca site in the Upper Allegheny valley. With a pronounced blowing or whistling mouth, boldly shaped brows and deep-set eyes, the image mimics the “Blower” category of false face masks used by the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee in their Mid-Winter ceremony (Figure 8). Another, stone face though much less expressionless, is from a site on the Sinnemahoning drainage in west-central Pennsylvania. Carved from fireclay, a soft indurated clay stone, the image has neither eyes nor mouth giving the object an expressionless appearance suggesting that it is an unfinished piece that was lost or discarded by its owner (Figure 9).

Figure 9. Stone maskette. Sinnemahoning Valley. Age unknown

Anthropomorphic images whether modeled or carved, onto pots, pipes or rocks take Native American material expression to its highest level that only the artisans who made these objects might truly understand their meanings --- speak to me!  

Harrington, Mark R.
1921      Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape.Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation Indian Notes and Monographs 19.

Kent, Barry C.
1996      Piney Island and the Archaic of Southeastern Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Archaeologist 66(2); 1-42.

Kraft, Herbert C.
2001       The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage: 10,000 BC to AD 2000. Lenape Books.

Smith, Ira F.
1973       The Parker Site: A Manifestation of the Wyoming Valley Culture. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 43(3-4): 1-56.

Speck, Frank G.

1931       A Study of the Delaware Big House Ceremony. Publications of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Volume II, Harrisburg.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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