Gifts of the Great River: Edwin Curtis and Mississippi Effigy Pottery

Bird Rim Effigy Bowl
Bird rim effigy bowl, PM 80-20-10/21147

In the formative years of American archaeology, training in field methodology was virtually nonexistent. So when Peabody Museum Director Frederic Ward Putnam began to build the young museum's collections, he often hired nonprofessional fieldworkers. Notable among them was Nashville resident Edwin Curtiss (1830-1880), who had worked as a contractor for government dam, bridge, and railroad projects before joining Putnam's archaeological excavations in the American Southeast in 1877.

Aided by extensive knowledge of the local geography, Curtiss was a skilled and productive avocational archaeologist. Between 1879 and March 1880, he explored seven or eight mound sites along the St. Francis River, in the fertile Mississippi lowlands of Arkansas. Curtiss and his crew collected thousands of artifacts during their eighty-six field days, including stone and bone tools, shell and copper objects, animal bone, charred corn, and over 1,000 ceramic vessels. Sixty-nine of these are rare "effigy pots": ceramics made in the shape of a life form—everything from humans to fish, frogs, birds, opossums, and mythological creatures.

These remarkable objects date from about A.D. 1200 to 1600, the late prehistoric Mississippian period in the Southeast and Midwest. Sedentary chiefly societies in the region practiced large-scale maize agriculture and controlled vast trade networks during these years. Their grand population centers and rich material culture—including the effigy pots Curtiss recovered from the remnant mounds—were gifts of the fertile environment of what later Algonquian-speaking Indians called the "Great River."

The text and images of this online exhibit are adapted from John H. House's book, Gifts of the Great River: Arkansas Effigy Pottery from the Edwin Curtiss Collection (Peabody Museum Press, 2003). This exhibit was originally on display in Tozzer Library in 2006.