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Article and Photographs by Toney Aid

Shell tempered pottery pipes are found at hundreds of Mississippian sites across the southeastern United States. From Clarence B. Moore’s early explorations, through the WPA surveys, to modern archaeological excavations, the number of pottery pipes found has been prolific. The majority of them are bi-conical with a flaring bowl on one end and a flared mouthpiece on the other. Typically the mouthpiece and the bowl are at a 90- to 120-degree angle to each other.

Who used these pipes? Gregory Perino noted in his report on the excavations at the Banks site in Crittenden County, Arkansas that clay pipes found there were always with male burials, but that in his earlier excavations in Illinois, clay pipes had been found with both men and women. C.B. Moore found one clay pipe in Louisiana with an infant’s burial, but noted that this was a rare finding. In Webb and DeJarnette’s Survey of the Pickwick Basin (1942) in Tennessee, they observed that clay pipes in that area were “from the general excavations” and not associated with graves. The assumption proposed is, because of the numbers of pottery pipes found and their wide distribution, that pottery pipes figured prominently in the daily life of the Mississippian world.

Most stone pipes, from the platform style, to steatite great pipes, to Catlinite disc and elbow styles, appear to have been made to be smoked with the use of a ceremonial wooden stem. In contrast, pottery elbow pipes were held in the smoker’s hand and smoked directly from the wide flaring mouthpiece. Typical stone pipes have a small diameter hole back of the bowl with a gentle taper that would have snugly fit a carved, wooden stem.


Pottery pipe with human face on the bowl
found at the Big Eddy site in Cross
County, Arkansas. This pipe features a
human face with bulging eyes, nose, and
protruding lips. It is 3″ tall and 43/4″ long.
Ex C.T. Love and Len Weidner

These separate styles of smoking are clearly depicted by two of the great stone pipes recovered from Spiro, Oklahoma. Both of these large stone pipes were published in James A. Brown’s The Spiro Ceremonial Center (1996). The first shows a Native American smoking a simple bi­conical clay pipe (fig. 2-94) by holding it directly to his mouth. The second (fig. 2-95) shows the smoker bent over a stone frog pipe with a long stem between his mouth and the pipe. We can say by the size, rarity, and artistic quality of most stone pipes that they figured prominently in ceremonial occasions. In addition, chroniclers of early Native American ceremonies note that the wooden stems used with stone pipes were held to be sacred. These stems were often covered in skins and hung with feathers and other objects. In contrast, clay pipes, because of their relative abundance, ease of production, and method of use without stems, were more likely for daily use. This is a general observation, as both types probably switched roles from time to time and there is a great range of pipes known in both categories.

The variety of Mississippian pottery pipes is astonishing. The simplest forms are two rounded cones joined point-to-point with a small passage between the two halves. Other plain clay pipes have squared bowls and stems. Many have two projections, or feet, at the base of the bowl that extend forward so that when the pipe is set down, it will remain upright. W.K. Moorehead called these “horse head” pipes because when held upside down, the two feet look like ears protruding from a head. Others have strips of clay along the bottom or circular raised patterns on the bowl that may have served as insulation between the smoker’s fingers and the heat of the burning tobacco within the pipe.

Numerous types of effigies are depicted by pottery pipes. Most prominent among them are representations of human figures. One type depicts a man seated or kneeling with his arms wrapped around the pipe’s bowl as if he is holding it upright for the smoker. Another style shows a human captive bound with ropes and kneeling on the ground with the pipe’s bowl on his back. A similar type shows a person in a subservient attitude with a large jar or basket balanced on his back. This container serves as the bowl of the pipe. Other human effigy pipes depict only a face, either modeled or in appliqué on the front of the bowl. A rare example of the “face” type is related to the well known Mississippian “hunchback” water bottles. On these pipes, in addition to the face on the bowl, a spine is depicted running down the top of the mouthpiece, just as the person’s spine is exposed on the back of the water bottles. “Cloud-blowers” are another interesting type of human effigy. Perino found one of these at the Banks site. It had a small hole drilled from inside the bowl to the mouth of the face on the outside so when the pipe was puffed, smoke came out of the effigy’s mouth. A rare cloud-blower in the Steve Hart collection has passages both to the effigy’s mouth and anus, proving that Native Americans had a good sense of humor.

Many other types of effigy pottery pipes are known. Those representing animals are well known. Perino pictures one with two frogs clinging to the pipe’s bowl. Rabbits, dogs, and other animal forms standing on four legs are known, but scarce. Others include bird effigies, turtles, and wildcats. Pipe effigies of monolithic axes are known from Tennessee and Georgia. Webb depicted a scarce type of Tennessee clay elbow pipe with a series of pottery loops around the top of the bowl which he speculated were designed to hang different objects from, like feathers or beads. The list can go on and on—hopefully we have not left out your favorite type.

The discovery of how to make pottery pipes made smoking beyond ceremonial occasions a pleasure for many Native Americans. Before the invention of pottery, stone pipes took weeks or even months of skilled labor to complete. They were often made of precious stone that had been traded for from distant locations. By using shell tempered pottery, pipes could be produced quickly in dozens of different types. The style of each one was limited only by the imagination and artistic ability of the potter and the desires of the smoker. Pottery pipes were “everyman’s” pipe.