College of LAS « Illinois


Mystery of the Ancient Figurines

LAS researchers have solved a longstanding mystery concerning the source and the meaning of some of North America's oldest pieces of sculpture.

Archeologist Thomas Emerson and his colleagues discovered that late prehistoric figurines found at sites in the deep south, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, including a shaman, a conquering warrior, and a frog, were originally crafted in the 12th century by the Cahokia, the people who created Cahokia mounds in southern Illinois and lived there from 1050 to 1350 A.D.

The discovery hinged on a new method of analyzing artifacts called the Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer, a shoebox-sized spectrometer that identifies minerals in ancient sculpture by measuring how they reflect infrared light. Emerson, who's an adjunct professor of archaeology and director of the Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program, and his colleagues analyzed 13 figurines stored in museums throughout the South and Southeast.

It turned out that the sculptures contained a mix of minerals characteristic of Missouri flint clay from quarries near St. Louis. That led the researchers to conclude that artisans at Cahokia, the earliest and largest American mound society, made the figurines in the 12th century, then others moved them after the Cahokia civilization collapsed in the late 13th century, according to work published last spring in American Antiquity.

The transported figures, which represented themes such as fertility and warfare, were probably used for long periods at their new homes, which demonstrates their "symbolic and ideological power," Emerson says. But some of them were recarved and retrofitted as smoking pipes—a radical change in their significance. "There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one," Emerson says.

October 2003