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Idol Pipes: Review of Some Examples

by Richard Michael Gramly, Ph.D., North Andover, Massachusetts

Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.55, No.3, pg.143


Above: Two idol pipes of steatite pictured in the 1890 publication

The Antiquities of Tennessee and the Adjacent States by Gates P. Thruston

Collecting ancient North American stone artifacts began during the eighteenth century, if not earlier. One of the earliest illustrations of a collected artifact may be seen in Luigi Castiglione’s Viaggio. This work is a narra­tive of the botanist’s 1785-1787 travels in the United States. A Cumberland fluted point is shown in his Plate IV (Pace 1983: 38). The spearpoint may have been presented to Cas­tiglione by distinguished naturalist, Manessah Cutler — a resident of coastal Massachusetts who hosted his Italian colleague.

Of somewhat more recent vintage are several impressive, large ground stone axes with findspots and dates in the first quar­ter of the nineteenth century painted upon them that once resided within the Dorothy Middleton (Nelson) Collection. The Middle­ton Collection contained many thousands of ethnological specimens (Figure 1) plus scores of sub-collections of stone tools from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America. Groups of artifacts appear to have been gifted to Ms. Middleton for display in her private Thunderbird Museum, which was open to the public during decades before and after WWII.


Figure 1: — Interior of Dorothy Middleton’s (born 1903) Thunderbird Museum, Moorestown, New Jersey
(near Philadelphia) showing small portion of her ethnological and archaeological collection.
1947 photograph. Photo courtesy of O. Kirk Spurt; PhD.

Among Dorothy Middleton’s holdings was a curious ceramic or smoothly finished stone pipe of a seated male human figure, legs ex­tended, holding a bowl. The bowl was meant to contain a smoking mixture; while, a stem for the smoker’s mouth was inserted between the figure’s feet (Figure 2). This pipe is attrib­uted “to a mound in Tennessee” (Kirk Spun, personal communication). It belongs to a class of smoking pipes, known as “idol pipes” — a term that according to McGuire (1899: 541) was first applied to them in 1873 by Georgia archaeologist, Charles C. Jones (1873: 401).

What inspired Jones to coin the term may only be guessed. It is my belief that he may have likened pipes with figures holding bowls (pots) to the molded “rain god” statuettes made at Tesuque Pueblo, northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico (Figure 3). The trade in these little ceramic figures has early roots (Tanner 1968: 166), and they were carried far and wide during the late nineteenth century — if not earlier. Too, Jones might have been famil­iar with African ritual figures of wood, well-known for the Luba people of the Congo, for example, that show a seated or squatting person holding a vessel in the lap or upon the knees (Figure 4). Artifacts from the Congo collected by Christian missionaries and brought home at the end of their term of service would have fascinated an anthropologist like Jones.


Figure 2: — View of an idol pipe “from a mound in
Tennessee” thatformerly was part of the Dorothy
Middleton collection. Photo courtesy of 0 Kirk Spurr.

Whatever the inspiration, the term “idol pipe” is somewhat a misnomer.

We do not know if the figure holding the pot or bowl was a mythical being, a hero, god or just a commoner. The fact that the figure on many idol pipes is looking upward at as­cending vapors when the pipe is held in a smoking position is an obvious convention. Its meaning must have been well understood by both the pipe’s sculptor and the smoker. Perhaps the “idol” was meant to represent the smoker himself making a religious offering of tobacco smoke? Tobacco ceremonialism has deep roots in eastern North America (Gramly 2006), and it may have been introduced from Meso-America along with the sacred calendar — the tonalamatl (Gramly 2008).

Based upon a review of standard texts treating native American mythology (e.g., Al­exander 2005, Curtis 1987), it seems unlikely that the human figure on idol pipes was meant to portray a culture-hero or god-like being nor is it connected with a specific tale. Since the archaeological contexts of most idol pipes are inexactly known or went unrecorded, there is little help with interpretations to be had from that quarter. In point of fact, we are unsure if idol pipes were personal property and accom­panied individuals to the grave. I know of no idol pipes with attributions to specific archae­ological features; at best, provenience is to a mound, an archaeological site, or a farm. It is a possibility that idol pipes were communal property, used by many smokers, and not de­posited within cemeteries.


Figure 3: — “Rain gods,” manufactures of Tesuque
Pueblo, New Mexico. After Tanner (1968: Figure
6.13). Approximate heights = 7 inches.


Idol pipes are generally regarded as ar­tifacts at home in the Southeastern United States (e.g., Miles 1963: 218) but rare even there except at major sites and mound centers. Therefore, reports of their occurrence out­side Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama should be regarded with healthy skepticism. Some of the pipes discussed here at one time were owned by collectors in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts. It is doUbtful that these ar­tifacts were, in fact, discovered upon archaeo­logical sites in those states; it is interesting to speculate how they may have entered collec­tions so far from their native hearth.

One possible mechanism that caused the dislocation of idol pipes is looting during the Civil War. As cited by West (1970: 187), in 1859 the archaeologist Charles C. Jones ob­served three fine idol pipes that had been plowed up at Etowah, near Cartersville, north­ern Georgia. The pipes were part of a collec­tion at the residence of a Col. Tumlin. These same pipes disappeared in 1864 or shortly af­ter the invasion by General Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. Two of the Tumlin idol pipes recollected by Jones, both fashioned of steatite (soapstone), later surfaced in the col­lection of Gates Thruston who published them for the first time (1890: 184-186). Thruston, it should be noted, served with the Union during the Civil War.

Perhaps the only idol pipe ever discov­ered in Michigan (West 1970: 185 and fron­tispiece; see Figure 5 here) was, in fact, an­other spoil of war looted from a collection like Tumlin’s? Union regiments in the Army of the Tennessee were drawn from several states including Michigan, as for example, the 15th Regt. Michigan Volunteer Infantry. (See michiganinthewar. org/infantry/15thinf.html.) The incredible tale about this sandstone pipe being plowed up in 1885 on a farm in Calhoun County, Michigan (Brown 1905: 108-9) may have been fabricated to mask its true origin. By 1885 a full generation had passed since the Army of Tennessee marched through Georgia and memories of events may have faded and principal actors were deceased.


Figure 4: — Wooden “idol” holding a vessel, Luba, southern Zaire (Congo). Figures of this sort were used by shamen for holding ceremonial ointment. Height = 40.5 cm (16 inches). Author’s collecion.


Figure 5: — Massive sandstone pipe (height = 17 cm, seven inches),purportedly plowed up in Calhoun
County, Michigan in 1885 (Brown 1905: 108-9; West 1970: 656 and frontispiece). This specimen may
have originated in Georgia or Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Susan Otto and the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Likewise, another sandstone pipe with equally clouded origins (the Morgan/Weiss pipe) turned up in a household sale in rural Pike County, upstate New York, during the 1920s. This specimen (Figure 6a and b), which is remarkably like the Calhoun County, Michigan idol pipe in terms of style and ex­ecution although differing somewhat in the attitude of its figure, was on exhibit with other ancient Indian artifacts for many years at a Pike County fair building.


Figure 6a: and 6b: respectively:
Top and side views of the Morgan/Weiss idol pipe of sand-stone, which was for many years on exhibit
at the Pike County, New York fair. The pipe was purchased by John Morgan among attic contents of an
household sale in Pike. J. Weiss collection, height = 14 cm (5 V2 inches). This specimen could have origi-
nated in the Southeast, perhaps northern Georgia or southern Tennessee. R.M.Gramly photographs.

Finally, a third sandstone pipe (the Wis­tariahurst pipe) — similar enough to the idol pipes of Michigan and New York to have been made in the same workshop if not by the same hand — turned up at auction in Massachusetts during 2007 (Figures 7a-c). It was once part of a late nineteenth century Massachusetts collection that was gifted to The Museum of Natural History and Art, at the Holyoke Pub­lic Library, Holyoke, Massachusetts during the first decade of the twentieth century. Its vintage, then, is equivalent to the Michigan and New York pipes. In the Museum’s cata­logue this pipe is attributed to Lee County, Virginia.


An hypothesis that these three sandstone idol pipes may have survived a terrible march through Tennessee and Georgia and afterward even longer journeys by foot or railcar back to the Mid-West, New York and New Eng­land might cause some readers to scoff. Yet, stranger things have happened during war­time. These fine pipes would have been ap­preciated then as they are now and carefully curated.

Variation among Idol Pipes

Idol pipes are scattered among North American collectors and museums with no more than two or three examples per collec­tion. For the purposes of this study, attributes of 23 specimens are presented in Table 1.

Where the sex of the figure on the pipe can be ascertained, it is almost always male. The sole pipe showing secondary female char­acteristics is attributed to the Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma (Hamilton 1952). Another feature that is characteristic of most idol pipes (19 of the 23 in our sample) is the position of the fig­ure, which faces the smoker rather than away towards onlookers. In the few cases where the figure faces away from the smoker, as for example the pair of Tumlin Collection pipes described by Jones and illustrated by Thrus­ton, the stem hole through the rear/back of the figure tapers tapers rapidly towards the pipe-bowl.

Another common attribute (17 of 22 pipes) is that the figure is portrayed looking upward. The metaphor of allowing tobacco smoke to ascend to a plane above an earthly one is obvi­ous, but its exact meaning is conjectural.

The idol pipes in our sample are about equally divided between figures holding pots or bowls and figures holding elbow pipes. Among the latter group, however, the pipe-bowl is usually sculpted to resemble a fired earthenware vessel with a pronounced col­lar or rim. The pots or bowls on some idol pipes are very exactly modeled and may ex­hibit strap handles, usually a pair, bridging lip and shoulder. The perforation under the strap handles could have been used for attaching decorations to the bowl or for tieing up the pipestem itself — keeping it from being disas­sociated.

As for more minor details — such as hair style, facial features, definition of the upper and lower limbs, etc. — we note considerable variation. Transcending their significance per­haps, is the observation that some details are exactingly sculpted in relief; while, on other pipes features are simply indicated by incis­ing. Idol pipes with simpler, incised features are sometimes branded as modem forgeries, although there are no prior grounds for such an opinion.

Stone of various sorts (sandstone, soap­stone or steatite, ironstone, etc.) apparently was favored over ceramic for idol pipes; how­ever, no premium seems to have been set upon the use of precious or exotic raw materials. This fact alone suggests that there once may have existed idol pipes made of wood. Likely these pipes were devoid of copper decorations and bowl liners, as some examples would have been preserved by contact with metal salts.


Figure 8: — Idol pipe of stone with elaborate ponytail;
2004 photo (through glass by D. Vesper), National Museum of the American Indian.

Need for Exact Information

That idol pipes were important to late prehistoric societies in the Southeast cannot be doubted.  We could make more sense of this class of artifats and appreciate its significance, if only there were more facts about their discover, better photographs and proper measurements.  It is surprising how few idol pipes have been adequately documented – despite their being known to archaeologists since the middle decades of the nineteenth century.

The neglect in recording provenience and other facts, which I perceive has been intentional, stems from a view that idol pipes are fantastic, modem creations.  Familiarity with pertinent literature, scattered though it may be, reveals this view to be erroneous.  Readers will contribute to our evolving understanding of idol pipes by reporting in this journal any examples known to them.


“Used by Permission of the Author”
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