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Hopewellian Human Figurine

Human figurine fragment made of non-tempered, smoothed clay, c. 100 - 200 A.D., found at the Pine River site in Richland County, Wisconsin.
(Museum object # 2004.5.1)

From June to October 1998, archaeologists of Archaeological Research, Inc. of Middleton, Wisconsin excavated at the Pine River site (47-RI-318) in Richland County, where they recovered a fragment of a small human figurine. This extremely significant artifact is only the second of its type found in Wisconsin and the only one scientifically excavated. In addition to the figurine, archaeologists recovered an assemblage of associated artifacts, including distinctively decorated pottery and unique stone tools. This artifact assemblage dates to c. 100 - 200 A.D., what archaeologists call the Trempealeau Phase of the Middle Woodland Period. Since the artifacts were discovered on State-owned land, they became part of the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society.

During the Trempealeau Phase the Hopewellian ceremonial tradition, originating with peoples to the south, extended into southwestern Wisconsin. In Wisconsin during this time, the resident Native Americans engaged in elaborate burial practices as evidenced by the remains of complex burial mounds in the southwestern portion of the state. While not necessarily describing a particular group of people, "Hopewell" is better understood as a particular life-way and ceremonialism shared among many groups of people across the Midwest. The tradition is reflected in the use of objects fashioned of exotic raw materials and in common artistic motifs and styles in mortuary settings.

Only the head, neck and shoulders of the figurine fragment found at the Pine River site are intact. From what remains, it appears that the figurine was created using minimal modeling, though the fragment still retains some interesting attributes. The maker created facial features by pinching the wet clay to produce a nose and by incising lines into the clay to represent the eyes and mouth. The slightly elongated and pointed head may represent a form of cranial deformation practiced by the Hopewellian elite. The other figurine of this type found in Wisconsin also exhibits this cranial shape.

The Pine River figurine is part of a repertoire of art unique to Hopewellian artifacts. Similar figurines found in Illinois and Missouri are sometimes referred to as "Casper the Ghost" figurines because of their form. While their function and use is not entirely known, figurines of this kind, as associated with other non-utilitarian crafts, were probably used as part of a Hopewell ceremonial tradition.

Adjacent to the human figurine at the Pine River site, archaeologists excavated a large and finely crafted ceramic vessel. Though the vessel itself was in fragments, the elaborate decorations on its surface and its style are remarkable and well-preserved. Archaeologists call this style of pottery "Havana Zoned." Havana Zoned vessels are characteristic of the Hopewell tradition, particularly in Illinois. Classic forms of this type of vessel are tempered with crushed limestone and have polished surfaces decorated with geometric zones and cross-hatched rims. Archaeologists believe that this vessel was made locally at the Pine River site as a variant of the core style being produced in Illinois at the time. The Pine River vessel has a slightly different shape and style than a classic Hopewellian vessel from the south, and its clay is tempered with grit instead of crushed limestone.

In addition to the figurine fragment, the Hopewell assemblage at the site includes examples of stone tools unique to this time period. The presence of stone blades is further evidence of the Hopewellian association. True stone blades, such as those found at the Pine River site, are produced from a prepared stone core and represent a highly specialized craft. The blades found at the site do not appear to have been used and, being particularly associated with the figurine and the Havana vessel, represent part of a typical Hopewellian assemblage. More utilitarian stone tools of the same time period found at the site include stemmed projectile points such as the example seen in the photograph.

While there is no burial context related to the Pine River site, its proximity to contemporary mound groups along the Wisconsin and Pine rivers suggests that the Native Americans living there participated in ceremonial activities associated with the mound groups. The exact nature of these ceremonies may never be known, but this assemblage of artifacts, rediscovered after nearly 2,000 years, represents a Hopewell component linking the Pine River valley to important ceremonial traditions found elsewhere in the Midwest.

Research at the Pine River site was conducted on behalf of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

[Sources: Milner, George R. The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004); Christiansen, George W., Amy L. Rosebrough, and Daniel Cain. The Pine River Site (47Ri318): Results of a Phase III Data Recovery at a Prehistoric Multi-Component Site on the Pine River, Richland County, Wisconsin (Middleton, Wisconsin: Archaeological Research, Inc., 1999); McKern, W.C. A Wisconsin Variant of the Hopewell Culture (Bulletin of the Public Museum of the City of Milwaukee, 1931) 10(2): 185-328.]

JWL


Posted on May 03, 2007

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