Pre-Columbian North America (to 1492)

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Native Americans:
Clovis points
Tlingit helmet and collar
Tsimshian Shaman’s Rattle
Anishinaabe bag
Haida argillite
Namgis thunderbird
Katsina figures
Katsinam water jar

Baleen basket
Yup’ik Mask
Tyara Maskette

Mississippian (800-1730):
Stone effigies
Copper plates
Effigy jug
Head pots
Bowl with head on rim

The North American climate was unstable as the ice age receded. It finally stabilized by about 10,000 years ago; climatic conditions were then very similar to today’s. Within this time frame, roughly pertaining to the Archaic Period, numerous archaeological cultures have been identified.

The North American continent was first peopled by hunters who crossed from Siberia across the Bering Straits about 25,000 years ago. The unstable climate led to widespread migration, with early Paleo-Indians soon spreading throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct tribes. The Palaeo-Indians were hunter-gatherers, likely characterized by small, mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. These groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought.

Native Americans:

The nomadic communities became settled with the cultivation of maize, and spread down the eastern seaboard. The heavily wooded areas led to historians calling this the Woodland period, spanning from 1,000 BCE to 1,000 CE. These people fabricated effigies, pipes and cult objects, and they buried their dead in earthen mounds which preserved their art and led to their cultures being referenced as ‘mound builders’.

The Woodland Period is usually divided into three sub-periods – early, middle and late. ‘Early’ included the Deptford and Adena cultures. Deptford features ceramic arts, Adena fabricated stone tablets, engraved shells and animal-hide costumes. ‘Middle’ included the Hopewll culture of Ohio and the Mississippian.


Among the earliest artefacts discovered in North America are ‘Clovis’ points, because early finds were at Clovis, New Mexico. They are dated to a ‘Clovis’ culture of Paleo-Indians, from 11,200-10,900 BCE. The top image is an example from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

They were produced using bifacial percussion flaking (striking both edges alternately with a tool). Post-Clovis cultures include the Folsom tradition, Gainey, Suwannee-Simpson, Plainview-Goshen, Cumberland, and Redstone. Each is thought to derive directly from Clovis, in some cases differing only in the length of the fluting on their projectile points. The lower array of points were foud in Iowa.


Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: smarthistory.org

Bannesrstones are carefully carved and polished symmetrical stones with holes drilled through the centre. Their purpose remains a mystery, though the assumption in the 19th c name given to them is that they were to support pennants or flags.
They have been found in Eastern America, dating as far back as 3,000 BCE. They were fabricated by nomadic Native Americans who travelled and lived along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.
This one is from Ohio and dated to 2,000 BCE. Experts argue that they are for drilling, cordage making or used in fire making. Others suggest they were ceremonial and used to appeal to the spirit in the stone, still others suggest they are items of prestige and status.

The bottom image is a compilation of bannerstone types from the late 1920s – it does nothing to assist in defining their purpose.
This is claimed as a masterpiece of the Tlingit Culture. The helmet and collar depicts a wolf as a symbol of strength.
It is made from wood
leather, copper, shell and pigment.
It is dated to 18th c and is on show at the American Museum, Madrid.

Image source: visual-arts-cork.com

Image source: smarthistory.org

Shaman rattles were used to alert the tribe to an important speech or ritual, and to commumicate with spirit ancestors. This is one discovered from the Tsimshian people on the Pacific North West Coast of today’s Canada.
It is made of beech, the teeth are bone and the hair is from a bear.
Dated to 1750-1780, it is 36 x 23 x 11 cm, It is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.
This is described as an Anishinaabe bag. The term refers to a collective of the Great Lakes peoples, consisting of the Odawa, Ojibwe, Oji-Cree, Potawatomi, Saulteaux and Algonquin tribes. It is said to have been used to carry amulets and other personal possessions.
Dated to c1800, it is 31 x 22 cm and on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons

This 33cm long argillite rock carving depicts a canoe and oarsmen. It was found at Haida Gwai, British Columbia and is dated to 1850-1900. It is n show at National Museum of the American Indian.
Namgis Thunderbird Transformation Mask, made from cedar, pigment, leather, nails and metal plate.

Thunderbird is an Ancestral Sky Being of the Namgis clan, who say that when it ruffles its feathers it causes thunder and when it blinks its eyes it causes lightning flashes. When this mask is worn and danced during Winter Ceremony potlatches, the wearer opens and shuts the beak to reveal the human form within. The performer’s body is usually covered with a cape or feathers.

The mask is 122 x 189 x 38 cm, dated to 19th c and is on show at the
Brooklyn Museum NY USA.

Image source: brooklynmuseum.org

Image source: facebook.com/Peter Shelton sculptor

Katsina figures, these are spirit being that serve as cultural guides to the Hopi and Zuni peoples.

The left figure is Hiilili Kokko by a Zuni artist from New Mexico, c1900. It is 46cms tall. The figure is one of many immortal beings that bring rain, protect, teach, heal, and carry prayers to the spirit world.

On the right is Nata’aska Tihu (White Ogre) by a Hopi artist from Arizona c1900. The figure is 47 cm tall, it was believed to visit villages to discourage children from bad behaviour. He carries aa bone-cutting saw!

Both are fabricated in
cottonwood, painted with pigments, and includes cotton cloth, tanned leather and metal.
This Hopi-Tewa (Arizona) jar was created by a tribe artist called Nampeyo c1900. It features imagery of katsinam (spirit beings) from their deep mythology about the unpredictable desert landscape.

It is 34 x 31 cm and on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY USA.

Image source: metmuseum.org

Image source: Wikimedia commons
The top image is a Native American totem pole from the Ketchikan tribe in Alaska.

The lower image features a number of sacred Native American animals.

The word totem derives from the Algonquian word odoodem meaning ‘(his) kinship group’. The carvings are used to symbolize or commemorate ancestors, display cultural beliefs, or can recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.

Inuit peoples (1000 – today):

Inuits are drawn from a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Greenland, though the term ‘eskimo’ is still used. They derive from the Thule people, who emerged from western Alaska around 1000 CE and displaced the Dorset culture.


Image source: historymuseum.ca

This Tyara maskette is carved ivory and over 2,000 years old. It’s name is based on its find at the Tyara site, on Sugluk Island in Nunavut.

Despite its small size, just 3.5 cm in height, this piece remains unrivalled as an extant masterwork of Dorset art.
Inupiat baleen basket with ivory handle. On show at the Museum of Man, San Diego CAL USA. Baleen is often referenced as whalebone, but actually it is a filter in the mouth of baleen whales. The whale dives taking water into its mouth, then pushes the water out through the baleen plate catching krill and other edible animals.
Baleen has been used for baskets, backscratchers, collar stiffeners, parasol ribs, crinoline petticoats, and corset stays. It was also commonly used to crease paper

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

A carved represntation of a tupilaq from Greenland. A tupilq is an avenging monster.

It is fabricated by a practitioner of witchcraft or shamanism and uses various objects such as animal parts (bone, skin, hair, sinew…) and reputedly even parts taken from the corpses of children.

As the materials used are perishable these are not extant, modern versions use narwhal and walrus tusks, caribou antlers or wood.
A Yup’ik mask from Alaska, though the Yup’ik also have a population in far eastern Russia. Their name means true or real people, and they are considered to be related to the Inuit.

It is on show at the Musée du quai Branly

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Mississippian (800-1500):

This culture emerged along the area east of the Mississippi river, today’s Midwestern, Eastern, and Southeastern states. It encompassed tribes like the Caddo, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek, Natchez and Wichita. These practised a settled culture based on maize agriculture. Mississippian culture artefacts include shell chokers and cups, small-scale stone sculptures, copper plates like the Wulfing cache, and ceremonial masks.


Stone effigies found at the Etowah Indian Mounds Site. in Bartow County, Georgia. These were occupied in three phases, (early, middle and late) between 1000 and 1550.
Etowah is designated a National Historic Landmark, managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. It is considered ‘the most intact Mississippian culture site in the Southeast’.
These effigies depict a kneeling woman onthe left, and a man on right, they are are dated to 1250-1375, thus middle Mississipian.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Three examples of Mississippian culture avian-themed repoussé (hammered relief) copper plates. They were found at Etowah (see above) but thought to come from Cahokia and date to the 13th c, so late Mississippian.

The right hand figure is one of the Spiro plates from Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma. The left hand figure is Wulfing plate A, one of Wulfing cache from Malden, Missouri. The centre plate is Rogan plate 1, from Etowah Mounds in Georgia. Examples of this type of artwork have been found as artifacts in many states throughout the Midwest and Southeast.
Ceramic of the Underwater Panther, from the Mississippian culture, that was found in Rose Mound, Cross County, Arkansas, USA.

It is dated 1400 – 1600 (Late Mississipian) and on show at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, NY USA.

Image source: Wikimedia commons

Image source: monah.us

Image source: visual-arts-cork.com

Mississippian Head Pots are considered a pinnacle of the Mississippian culture. They are among the most rare and unique clay vessels with just 140 extant.

Made between 1200 – 1500, they are distinguished from other pots in being formed to the shape of a human head, thought to be a representation of the dead, a death mask. They were often engraved or painted to show tattoos, there is also evidence of ear and nose piercing.

They were usually buried as an offering. The largest number of them has been found in southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas.

The top image is a pot on show at Museum of Native American History, Bentonville AR USA.

The bottom image shows a pot found at the Nodena site, late Mississippian, east of Wilson, Arkansas.
Mississippian pottery was discovered in quantity in the late 19th/early 20th centuries when large stretches of the Midwest and South began to be extensively farmed, The ancient mounds were broken into or ploughed down. So extand pieces like this are prized.

Facing into the bowl from the rim, the round head has a high nose and puffy eyes. It is topped by a series of knots in the hairstyle that may indicate rank or status.

Image source: metmusuem.org

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