Art Treasures of Washington – Pottery Of The Mississippi Valley : Musical Instruments

ONE case in the Museum contains selections from the prehistoric pottery of the Eastern United States that is the vast region extending from the Great Plains on the west to the Atlantic Ocean on the east.

Within this area are two well localized and distinctly marked varieties of earthenware; the first includes primitive pottery of the Middle and North-ern Atlantic States, the region of the Great Lakes and upper Mississippi Valley; the second comprises the more advanced artistic pottery of the middle Mississippi Valley and the Gulf States.

The primitive variety is but slightly represented in this series, since the specimens are usually found in a fragmentary state. Vessels are of varied shape and were devoted largely to culinary uses, and to mortuary purposes. In some sections, notably the Iroquoian area, numerous well wrought tobacco pipes are found, examples of which are shown in another series.

The great body of the Museum collection is from the middle province, and includes especially note-worthy examples of large upright vases decorated with stamped designs and used for burial usage. They occur mainly in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

The method of manufacture has evidently been of a primitive character, and the wheel or lathe has not been used. The paste of this ware presents two marked varieties of colour, a dark and a light hue. In the majority of cases it is dark, ranging from a rich black to all shades of. brown and gray. The ware exhibits a variety of forms, many of which are extremely pleasing.

The shapes are as varied and elegant as those of the ancient Pueblo pottery, but are inferior to those of Mexico, Central America, and Peru, The finish is comparatively rude, and the devices used for ornament, by the ancient potter of the middle province, are varied and interesting. Many of the bowls found represent animals, and the use of life forms in clay was very general. Grotesque heads are modelled with freedom and spirit.

An admirable example of the dark ware was obtained at Pecan Point, Arkansas, and has an extraordinary resemblance to life, being furnished with the head of some grotesque beast with horns, expanded nostrils, and a grinning mouth. The opposite point is elongated and looped, forming a tail; while the base of the body is supported on four feet. A quaint and characteristic example from Arkansas is modelled in imitation of a sun fish.

The Museum preserves several admirable examples of the curious head shaped vases,’ all of which were obtained from the vicinity of Pecan Point, and were found with human remains in graves or mounds.

The finest of these is a simple head, five inches in height, by five in width, from ear to ear. The aperture of the vase is the crown of the head, and is surrounded by a low, upright rim slightly curved. The bottom is flat and takes the level of the chin and jaws.

Authorities differ in describing this vase. F. S. Dellenbaugh, in his ” Death Masks in Ancient American Pottery,” is of the opinion that these vases were death masks and claims that the features are those of death reproduced in a manner that no aboriginal potter could possibly accomplish by the free hand method. He says :

” Here we look upon a face perfect in its pro-portions, accurately modelled, and, above all, depicting death with a master hand – yes, more — presenting to the spectator death itself as it seized this personage, in the long forgotten past. Here is death present with us as plainly as it is in the well preserved features of an Egyptian mummy. . .. Soft clay was pressed upon the dead features and when sufficiently dry, it was removed and other soft clay thinly pressed into the mould obtained. The mask thus made was built upon till the jar before us was completed. . . . The features are apparently those of an Amerind boy of fourteen to sixteen years of age.”

Mr. Holmes, on the other hand, inclines to the belief that the head is a free hand modelling of a young person, perhaps a female.

High neck, full bodied bottles form a decided feature of the pottery of this province. The best work occurs in the middle and lower Mississippi Valley, and in the Gulf States, and pertains largely to the culture of the mound building tribes.

A most fascinating department of the aboriginal pottery section is an unique collection of musical instruments, carefully modelled to represent various birds and animals and other arbitrary forms.

A contraction of the words American Indian, employed by the author throughout his book.

Many of these were found in the graves of the ancient Chiriquians, and belong to the class of decoration peculiar to alligator ware.

The collection embraces instruments of both percussion and wind; the former class embracing drums and rattles ; and the latter, whistles and clarionette like pipes.

Earthenware wind instruments are found in quantities associated with other relics in tombs. Nearly all are simple in construction ; but a few are more pretentious and yield a number of notes. These, if operated by a skilled performer, and properly concerted, are capable of producing pleasing melodies.

In material, finish, and decoration these objects do not differ from ordinary pottery. A majority belong to the. alligator group. The size is generally small, the largest specimen, representing an alligator, being about eight inches in length. The shapes are wonderfully varied and indicate a lively imagination on the part of the potter. Animal forms prevail, that of the bird being a favourite. In the collection have been identified men, pumas, ocelots, armadillos, eagles, owls, ducks, parrots, alligators, crabs, scorpions, and several varieties of small birds.

The simplest form of whistle produces two shrill notes, identical in pitch. The shape is double, suggesting a primitive condition of the tibae of the Romans. The note produced is pitched very high, and is extremely penetrating, making an excellent call for the jungles and forests of the tropics.

The collection contains several dozen three-note whistles or pipes; most of these represent animal forms, more or less realistic. There are three finger holes of equal size, producing identical notes. The capacity is therefore three notes; the lower produced when all the orifices are open, the higher when all are closed, and the middle when ono hole, no matter which, is closed.

Mammals are often reproduced in these instruments. What appears to be an ocelot or jaguar is a favourite subject. A representative specimen has the mouthpiece in the tail, one of the sound holes in the left shoulder, and the others beneath the body. The head is turned to one side, and the face is decidedly cat like in expression.

The decoration, in black and red, may be taken as a typical example of the conventional treatment of the markings of the bodies of such animals. The tips of the ears, feet, and tail are red.

The prevalence of bird forms is probably due to the resemblance between the notes of these whistles to the notes of birds. The shape of the bird is also very convenient, as the body accommodates the air chamber, and the tail serves as mouthpiece; while the head is convenient for the attachment of a cord of suspension.

The theory that the whistles were modelled and pitched to imitate the songs of certain particular birds is especially appealing, and stirs the love of romance. At all events, it is possible for practised performers to reproduce the simpler songs and cries of birds with a good deal of ,accuracy.

The field is rich in suggestive possibility. The human figure was ocasionally utilized; the treatment being rude and conventional. An unique form consists of an oblong body, to which four ocelot heads are fixed. It rests upon four feet, one of which contains the mouthpiece.

The whole collection is exhaustively treated in a work on ” Prehistoric Musical Instruments,” by Thomas Wilson, in which much of the material descriptive of prehistoric musical instruments, and their scales in the Western Hemisphere, was pre-pared by Mr. E. P. Upham, assistant in the division of prehistoric archology, and from which the material contained in this chapter is largely drawn.