The mystery of the Elizabeth birds
Nature of Illinois
In 1984, a new organization calling itself the Society for the Illinois Scientific Surveys was established to promote, foster, and encourage the work of the Illinois natural history, water, and geological surveys. Part of that effort was a new magazine titled The Nature of Illinois. I by then had a reputation as someone who would write about public science for cheap, and I was asked to contribute articles, of which this one is typical.
Roughly 2000 years ago, at about the time of Christ, the body of a child not yet a year old was laid in an earthen pit atop a bluff overlooking what would later be known as the Illinois River. Next to the child were carefully stacked 20 vessels made of fired clay, flattish bowls and jars of assorted sizes and shapes, all profusely decorated with shapes and simple pictographs inscribed into their sides.
Twenty centuries later, archaeologists working with the Center for American Archaeology in Kampsville, Illinois, unearthed those remarkable ceramics from the pit they designated Burial 13 Feature 6, Mound 7, at the Elizabeth site in Pike County. The discovery was made in 1984, part of a series of digs being made in an Indian mound group in advance of major highway construction. The site had been home to peoples of the Havana culture who thrived during the Middle Woodland period of Illinois prehistory that began approximately 100 B.C. The vessels themselves were of the Hopewell design (named after the Ohio site where their type was first found). This design was widely disseminated during the centuries when Middle Woodland peoples dominated the eastern half of what is now the United States.
"It is really a unique cache of pottery vessels," explains Ken Farnsworth of the Kampsville Center. Pottery of any kind is a rare accouterment of Indian burials of the period. In perhaps two thousand such burials that have been excavated in the lower Illinois River valley, he says, only a dozen or so such objects had previously been recovered. Their role in the burial rituals of the time is unclear. The pottery, like the body of the infant found next to it, may have been an offering initiating the burial site as a "sacred precinct."
Indian ceramics of the time were decorated variously. Twisted cords were sometimes pressed into the wet clay before firing. (Cords were also wrapped around sticks or small paddles to achieve different effects.) In addition to cord-marking, artisans used punches or stamps to incise designs into surfaces before firing.
During the Early Woodland period, those patterns consisted solely of geometric figures and straight lines. As the Middle Woodland period dawned, Farnsworth explains, "Prehistoric man discovered the curved line." Vessels of Hopewell design began sporting designs of a new variety and style. Of the seventeen Hopewell vessels found in the burial pit at the Elizabeth site, for example, eleven bear the images of birds.
The Illinois flamingo?
Animal motifs were common in Indian art. The pots and pipes of the Middle Woodland Indians, like those of their successors the Mississippians, were carved and scribed into the likenesses of diving ducks, frogs, bears, cardinals, and hawks. John James Audubon, who later painted some of the birds he saw while in Illinois in 1810 and 1812, merely echoed in a different medium the inspiration of these unnamed Indian artists. The carved effigy of a raven that adorns a stone pipe found in Hardin County, for example, is far from the crude representations commonly associated with "primitive" art. Instead it is an artfully stylized version that anticipated by centuries much of what we know as modem sculpture.
Two kinds of birds festoon the vessels found at the Elizabeth site. One is spoon-billed, the other displays a hooked beak. The images are abstract and hard to characterize with precision. David T. Morgan, a ceramics expert who authored a monograph about the finds, notes that the portraits may represent different species of each type of birds or different renditions of the same species.
The hook-beaked birds for example would seem to be raptors of some kind, one of the predator species whose sharp beaks are used to tear flesh. Carrion-eaters such as turkey vultures would have had a natural association with Middle Woodland burial practices. Bodies of the dead were not always buried immediately but were placed in open central tombs, sometimes to be transferred to an adjacent site for burial, sometimes to be interred permanently in the tomb when the tomb was eventually filled. Until then, carrion birds could feed freely upon the remains.
Morgan, however, argues that the looping, thin necks of the Elizabeth birds suggest not a raptor but some kind of hook-beaked wading bird, such as a flamingo. Yes, a flamingo. Morgan admits that this interpretation is extremely speculative, but it is not impossible. There was much trade between the Illinois River valley and the Gulf of Mexico during this period. Among the objects recovered with the Hopewell vessels in the burial pit, for instance, were large marine shells from the Gulf area used as drinking cups.
Might there have been trade in flamingos as well? The bird might have been prized for its bright pink feathers, which conceivably could have been used as ornament. After all, the bird is popular among modem Illinoisans, who decorate their lawns with plastic versions of it. There is no other evidence that the flamingo was ever present in prehistoric Illinois, however, and Farnsworth for one thinks it unlikely that the hook-beaked birds on the Elizabeth site vessels are flamingos.
One spectacular pink-feathered wading bird that almost certainly was known in Illinois 2,000 years ago was the roseate spoonbill. "There is one definite representation of a roseate spoonbill in Hopewellian art," Farnsworth says, "a pipe made of coal from Ohio." The headless body of such a bird was even found beside a buried child at a Middle Woodland site in the lower Illinois valley.
Scott Robinson, an ornithologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey, notes that roseate spoonbills normally frequent the brackish waters of the Gulf coast, but that stragglers used to move up the Mississippi valley in late summers to feed. Robert Ridgeway, one of the great names from the Survey's early years and author of the indispensable 1895 Ornithology of Illinois, reported that roseate spoonbills were regular visitors as far north as the American Bottom, opposite St. Louis, until 1859.
A Culture at the center
But why portray the spoonbill and not any of a dozen other birds? The spoonbill has no known association with Middle Woodland mortuary practice, nor were pottery vessels bearing its likeness used solely in burial ceremonies. The bird's long spatulate bill is distinctive, but the spoonbill is not the only bird then common in Illinois that had one. Morgan even suggests that the triangular designs that adorn one of the bird vessels represent webbed feet, and that the bird thus depicted may in fact be some kind of duck.
To the layman these disputes may seem like a tempest in a clay pot. But these ceramics offer clues to the ways this vanished culture saw nature, life, and death, not just in the Illinois valley but across much of the continent. Farnsworth speculates that these particular pottery styles originated in Illinois. They were disseminated (sometimes in the form of the vessels themselves, via trade) as far afield as Louisiana. Ohio, and Michigan, making Illinois an important artistic center. "Whatever they meant, these designs were pretty important for that ritual," explains Farnsworth. "To have pots with these designs clearly was the right way to go into the next world." ●