Published on November 16, 2012 by Amy
During the Mississippian Period there were settlements that ranged from small farmsteads to huge villages and ceremonial centers, and a population that now rivaled other places around the world. Agriculture was at its peak, with the large scale cultivation of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers along with other vegetables. The village centers had fortified walls for protection from raiding parties and some even had guard towers such as the city Cahokia located near St. Louis. Cahokia boasted a population exceeding 20,000 people and covered over 6 square miles. Although farming constituted a large portion of the food stores of the time, the hunting of deer, turkey, squirrel, and raccoon still played a vital role in the diet of the Mississippian people. Hunting was now being done with the bow and arrow as the weapon of choice. Mississippian people also established and took part in some very complex ceremonies.
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One of the most fascinating traits of the Mississippian culture was the vast quantities of pottery that was produced during this time period. Using small bits of shell to “temper” or strengthen the clay used in their pottery, the Mississippian people became experts at making pots, bottles, plates, and jars from clay. The artistic design that went into decorating these pottery vessels varied from region to region, but nowhere had it surpassed the expert craftsmanship and artistic design that was found by the inhabitants that lived in the area now known as modern day Arkansas. The Arkansas area was occupied by three major groups during this period: the Caddo in the southwest, the Quapaw along the lower Arkansas River, and a group simply called the Mississippians in the northeast. Although this period started out as the high point of ancient civilizations in the Americas, it ended quickly as many of the Mississippian Period people were virtually eliminated by the diseases introduced to the native inhabitants by the recently arriving Europeans.
Mississippian Head Pots are considered a pinnacle of the Mississippian culture and are among the most rare and unique clay vessels. Made between A.D. 1200-A.D. 1500, they are distinguished from other pots in that they are formed to the shape of a human head.
Only around 140 of these effigy head vessels have been recovered. Head pots are often thought to be a representation of the dead, a death mask. These pots were often shown with painted surfaces and engraved lines depicting tattooing. There is evidence of ear and nose piercing being practiced and the head pots often have perforations depicting this. These vessels may have been adorned with feathers or other material before they were buried as an offering. The largest number of these rare pots has been found in southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas.
Caddo pottery is usually found in the 4-corner area of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. In general, Caddo pottery is superior in technical construction to most all other Mississippian Era pottery. It is usually thinner, more symmetrical, and smoother in its finish. The best artistic creations made were bottle forms that exhibit extensive engravings. To achieve that high black luster they used a fine coating called slip, which is a mixture of sifted fine clay and sometimes paint. After they applied the slip or paint they would take a stone and rub it to get the desired high polish. Effigies are rarely seen in Caddo pottery, but the museum houses several rare instances of these uniquely rare vessels in animal and other effigy forms.
The Quapaw people had the shortest sojourn in the Arkansas area of any of the three pottery cultures. The Quapaw appeared late in the period, around 1500 AD and lived in the area until historic times. The Quapaw culture is known for its beautiful painted vessels, utilizing the colors red, white, and black. This pottery was often made in effigy form, depicting animals and items in striking detail and accuracy. These exotic effigies sometimes depict dogs, deer, otters, frog, shells and even people. Quapaw pottery is considered some of the most artistic and distinct pottery of North America.