Pipestone -The Native American Source for Calumet Pipes

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Metamorphic Raw Material for Sacred and Elite Artifacts

Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota
Pipestone National Monument, Minnesota. Brian Jeffery Beggerly

Pipestone is the generic name for a wide variety of soft, fine-grained and easily carved, slightly metamorphosed rocks such as argillite, flint clay or catlinite. These stones are visually similar and typically red, but range in color from purple to near yellow; and they are not mineralogically identical. Each type of pipestone shares a basic but varied composition of diaspore, kaolinite, muscovite, pyrophyllite and occasionally minor amounts of quartz.

Pipestone has been used by different Native American societies for at least 3,000 years, as the raw material for carving elite and sacred objects. Some classes of artifacts that were frequently made of pipestone include the calumet pipe in the 16th and 17th centuries AD; Mississippian period Cahokia-style figurines, between AD 1100 and 1200; and Hopewellian pipes dated to the Middle Woodland period (~50 BC-AD 250).

Up until the last decade or so, the similarities between the raw materials, and the lack of systematic investigation into their varied geological histories, have made understanding the differences between pipestones and where they come from a complex puzzle indeed. Research over the past decade or more, primarily led by Thomas Emerson at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS), has been focused on identifying the source quarries for different pipestone objects found on archaeological sites, and for developing and testing nondestructive methods to tie archaeological artifacts to their raw material sources.

At least seven red pipestone sources have been studied by the ISAS team to date, in Minnesota, Kansas, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri and Wisconsin. This essay explores the work accomplished by Emerson's team, and the current archaeological interpretations of some of the archaeological materials made of pipestone.

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Sourcing Pipestone

Midamerican Pipestone Quarries
Midamerican Pipestone Quarries. Map Courtesy Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS)

Connecting red stone artifacts recovered from archaeological sites with the location of their source materials has been somewhat problematic. Sourcing an artifact, that is, identifying the original source of the raw materials that make up any artifact, provides information concerning the mobility of the artifact maker, or the breadth of the trade network that a maker has access to.

Fortunately, minimally destructive (only a tiny portion of the object needs to be destroyed) techniques for studying the mineral composition of artifacts have been developed, including X-ray diffraction (XRD), coupled with sequential dissolution analysis (SDA) and inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy (ICP). Nondestructive techniques such as PIMA (portable infrared mineral analyzer) spectroscopic analysis have also been developed, and used with considerable success.

What the results of these studies have done, however, is overthrown some long-held ideas about the quarries and trading networks of North America's largest prehistoric societies..

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Hopewell Platform Pipes

Hopewell catlinite pipe from the Temper Mound, southern Ohio
Hopewell catlinite pipe from the Temper Mound, southern Ohio. Photograph by Kenneth Farnsworth, courtesy Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS)

Hopewell [ca 50 BC-AD 200] is one of the names given to an important prehistoric farming culture in the American middle west, centered on the Ohio River, but with intersecting trade connections eastward to New York, south to the Florida panhandle, west into Iowa and north well into Saskatchewan. Pipestone played a significant role in Hopewell trade networks, in that platform pipes such as that illustrated above found in the large Hopewell centers of Tremper and Mound City earthworks were believed to have been created there and distributed outward.

If that were the case, said archaeologists, craftsman at the Hopewell centers of Tremper Mound and Mound City likely would have used the locally-available cream-colored kaolinite-rich flint clay from southern Ohio to carve the pipes, firing them to achieve the red coloration. However, Wisseman et al (2011) found that the majority of the Hopewellian pipes from Tremper Mound and Mound City in Ohio are from a quarry in northwestern Illinois, another 15% from Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, with only 15% or so from local sources.

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Cahokia Style Figurines

Chunkey Player Figure
The "Chunkey Player" figure is likely from the Hughes site, about four miles north of Muskogee Oklahoma. Part of the Henry Whelpley Collection at the St. Louis Science Center. Tim Vickers

Cahokia is the name of the largest Mississippian site in North America, and thought to be the origin point of the Mississippian culture. One example of the size and power of the effect of Cahokia's influence has been the distribution of large red stone lifelike figurines, found throughout western Illinois and eastern Missouri, with smaller clusters known from Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma, Shiloh in Tennessee, Moundville in Alabama, Champlin Mounds in Mississippi and Gahagan in Louisiana. Isolated figures and fragments are also known from the Upper Mississippi River Valley north of Cahokia as well.

These figures are lifelike carvings of mythological beings, people or animals, performing different activities, such as this example from the Hughes site in Oklahoma. The largest figurines are 27 centimeters in height and 5.2 kilograms in weight, and they all date to the Stirling phase at Cahokia, AD 1100-1200. They were long thought to have been made from Arkansas bauxite, but, using a variety of spectroscopic methods, Emerson et al (2003) analyzed and reported a matching source for 13 artifacts from each of the locales listed above.

All of the artifacts were made of a pipestone with a similar mineral make up dominated by chlorite, boehmite, and heavy-metal phosphate mineral ("CBP"). These CPB signatures match the Missouri flint clay pipestone quarry near Cahokia; and are believed to have been likely made at Cahokia and distributed outward.

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Catlinite and Calumets

Owl Effigy Pipe Bowl
Pipe Bowl representing Owl, early 20th century. Catlinite or pipestone, 3 3/4 x 5 3/8 in. (9.5 x 13.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, 80.98.2. Brooklyn Museum

Probably the best known type of pipestone is that called "catlinite", named for explorer/painter George Catlin, and only found in the Pipestone National Monument. Pipestone was apparently the preferred choice for historic-period Caddoan Native American groups in the Great Lakes, Mississippi Valley and Central and Great Plains states to make "calumet" pipes, long stemmed pipes which were (sometimes) used to smoke tobacco, as an integral part of welcoming ceremonies. Tribes associated with the calumet by ethnohistorians include Osage, Chawi Pawnee, Chitimacha, Ottawas, Wichita, Arikara, Cheyenne and Quapaw.

Calumet pipe stems which survive in archaeological or museum collections today consist of a plain bowl with a high polish, typically (but not always) carved from red pipestone. It had a right angle elbow pipe with a projecting prow or forearm in line with the stem but in front of the bowl. Rarely, the bowl is carved as an effigy of anthropomorphic, animal effigies, imaginary forms or objects such as a bison skull or human foot.

Archaeologically, pipestone was initially identified strictly with catlinite, which is interbedded with Sioux quartzite in Pipestone County, Minnesota and Minnehaha County, South Dakota. Geological investigation revealed that only Pipestone National Monument has the catlinite used in calumet pipes.

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Pipestone Bibliography

Catlinite Pipe from Wanampito Site, Iowa
Catlinite Pipe from Wanampito Site, Iowa (probably Ioway). Bill Whittaker

Blakeslee DJ. 1981. The origin and spread of the calumet ceremony. American Antiquity 46(4):759-768. doi:10.2307/280104

Emerson T, Farnsworth K, Wisseman S, and Hughes R. 2013. The Allure of the Exotic: Reexamining the Use of Local and Distant Pipestone Quarries in Ohio Hopewell Pipe Caches. American Antiquity 78(1):48-67. doi: 10.7183/0002-7316.78.1.48

Emerson TE, and Hughes RE. 2000. Figurines, flint clay sourcing, the Ozark highlands, and Cahokian acquisition. American Antiquity 65(1):79-101.

Emerson TE, Hughes RE, Hynes MR, and Wisseman SU. 2003. The sourcing and interpretation of Cahokia-style figurines in the Trans-Mississippi south and southeast. American Antiquity 68(2):287-313.

Gunderson JN. 1993. Catlinite and the spread of the Calumet ceremony. American Antiquity 58(3):560-562.

Sigstad JS. 1970. A field test for catlinite. American Antiquity 35:377-382.

Wisseman SU, Emerson TE, Hughes RE, and Farnsworth KB. 2011. Provenance studies of midwestern pipestones using a portable infrared spectrometer. Proceedings of the 37th International Symposium on Archaeometry, 13th-16th May 2008, Siena, Italy: Springer. p 335.

Wisseman SU, Hughes RE, Emerson TE, and Farnsworth KB. 2012. Refining the identification of native American pipestone quarries in the midcontinental United States. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(7):2496-2505. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.04.007