Animal Carvings from Mounds of the Mississippi Valley Part 4

Alike from the minute accuracy of many of the sculptures of animals, hereafter referred to, and from the correspondence to well known features of the modern Red Indian suggested by some of the human heads, these miniature portraits may be a.s.sumed, with every probability, to include faithful representations of the predominant physical features of the ancient people by whom they were executed.

Short, too, accepting the popular idea that they are faithful and recognizable copies from nature, remarks in the North Americans of Antiquity, p. 98, _ibid._, p. 187:

There is no reason for believing that the people who wrought stone and clay into perfect effigies of animals have not left us sculptures of their own faces in the images exhumed from the mounds;" and again, "The perfection of the animal representations furnish us the a.s.surance that their sculptures of the human face were equally true to nature.

Squier and Davis also appear to have had no doubt whatever of the capabilities of the Mound-Builders in the direction of human portraiture. They are not only able to discern in the sculptured heads niceties of expression sufficient for the discrimination of the s.e.xes, but, as well, to enable them to point out such as are undoubtedly ancient and the work of the Mound-Builders, and those of a more recent origin, the product of the present Indians. Their main criterion of origin is, apparently, that all of fine execution and finish were the work of the Mound sculptors, and those roughly done and "immeasurably inferior to the relics of the mounds," to use their own words, were the handicraft of the tribes found in the country by the whites. Conclusions so derived, it may strike some, are open to criticism, however well suited they may be to meet the necessities of preconceived theories.

After discussing in detail the methods of arranging the hair, the paint lines, and tattooing, the features of the human carvings, Squier and Davis arrive at the conclusion that the "physiological characteristics of these heads do not differ essentially from those of the great American family."

Of later writers some agree with Squier and Davis in believing the type ill.u.s.trated by these heads to be Indian; others agree rather with Wilson, who dissents from the view expressed by Squier and Davis, and, in conformity with the predilections visible throughout his work, is of the opinion that the Mound-Builders were of a distinct type from the North American Indian, and that "the majority of sculptured human heads. .h.i.therto recovered from their ancient depositories do not reproduce the Indian features." (Wilson's Prehistoric Man, vol. 1, p. 469.) Again, Wilson says that the diversity of type found among the human sculptures "proves that the Mound-Builders were familiar with the American Indian type, but nothing more."--_Ibid._, p. 469.

The varying type of physiognomy represented by these heads would better indicate that their resemblances are the result of accident rather than of intention. For the same reason that the sculptured animals of the same species display great differences of form and expression, according to the varying skill of the sculptors or the unexacting demands made by a rude condition of art, so the diversified character of the human faces is to be ascribed, not to the successful perpetuation in stone by a master hand of individual features, but simply to a want of skill on the part of the sculptor. The evidence afforded by the animal sculptures all tends to the conclusion that exact individual portraiture would have been impossible to the mound sculptor had the state of culture he lived in demanded it; the latter is altogether improbable. A glance at the above quotations will show that it is the a.s.sumed fidelity to nature of the animal carvings and their fine execution which has been relied upon in support of a similar claim for the human sculptures. As this claim is seen to have but slight basis in fact the main argument for a.s.serting the human sculptures to be faithful representations of physical features, and to embody exact racial characters falls to the ground, and it must be admitted as in the last degree improbable that the art of the mound sculptor was adequate for the task of accurate human portraiture.

To base important ethnologic deductions upon the evidence afforded by the human sculptures in the present state of our knowledge concerning them would seem to be utterly unscientific and misleading.

Copies of several of the heads as they appear in "Ancient Monuments"

(pp. 244-247) are here subjoined to show the various types of physiognomy ill.u.s.trated by them:

[Ill.u.s.tration: Fig. 31. Fig. 32. Fig. 33. Human Carvings from the Mounds.]

[Ill.u.s.tration: Fig. 34. Fig. 35. Human Carvings from the Mounds.]

Could the many other stone and terra-cotta sculptures of the human face which have been ascribed to the Mound-Builders be reproduced here it would be seen that the specimens ill.u.s.trated above are among the very best. In not a few, traces of the grotesque are distinctly visible, and there is little in their appearance to suggest that they had a different origin or contain a deeper meaning than similar productions found among present Indians. As each of the many carvings differ more or less from every other, it will at once be perceived that the advocates of different theories can readily find in the series abundant testimony in support of any and all a.s.sumptions they may choose to advance.


Turning from special ill.u.s.trations of the artistic skill of the Mound-Builders, brief attention may be paid to their art in its more general features, and as compared with art as found among our Indian tribes.

Among some of the latter the artistic instinct, while deriving its characteristic features, as among the Mound-Builders, from animated nature, exhibits a decided tendency towards the production of conventional forms, and often finds expression in creations of the most grotesque and imaginative character.

While this is true of some tribes it is by no means true of all, nor is it true of all the art products of even those tribes most given to conventional art. But even were it true in its broadest terms, it is more than doubtful if the significance of the fact has not been greatly overestimated. Some authors indeed seem to discern in the introduction of the grotesque element and the subst.i.tution of conventional designs of animals for a more natural portrayal, a difference sufficient to mark, not distinct eras of art culture merely, but different races with very different modes of art expression.

To trace the origin of art among primitive peoples, and to note the successive steps by which decorative art grew from its probable origin in the readily recognized adornments of nature and in the mere "accidents of manufacture," as they have been termed, would be not only interesting, but highly instructive. Such a study should afford us a clew to the origin and significance of conventional as contrasted with imitative art.

The natural process of the evolution of art would seem to be from the purely imitative to the conventional, the tendency being for artistic expression of a partially or wholly imaginative character to supplant or supplement the imitative form only in obedience to external influences, especially those of a religious or superst.i.tious kind. In this connection it is interesting to note that even among tribes of the Northwest, the Haidahs, for instance, whose carvings or paintings of birds and animals are almost invariably treated in a manner so highly conventional or are so distorted and caricatured as to be nearly or quite unrecognizable, it is still some natural object, as a well known bird or animal, that underlies and gives primary shape to the design.

However highly conventionalized or grotesque in appearance such artistic productions may be, evidences of an underlying imitative design may always be detected; proof, seemingly, that the conventional is a later stage of art superimposed upon the more natural by the requirements of mythologic fancies.

As it is with any particular example of savage artistic fancy, so is it with the art of certain tribes as a whole. Nor does it seem possible that the growth of the religions or mythologic sentiment has so far preceded or outgrown the development of art as to have had from the first a dominating influence over it, and that the art of such tribes as most strongly show its effect has never had what may be termed its natural phase of development, but has reached the conventional stage without having pa.s.sed through the intermediate imitative era.

It is more natural to suppose, so far, at least as the North American Indians are concerned, that the road to conventionalism has always led through imitation.

The argument, therefore, that because a tribe or people is less given than another to conventional methods of art, it therefore must necessarily be in a higher stage of culture, is ent.i.tled to much less weight than it has sometimes received. Squier and Davis, for instance, referring to the Mound-Builders, state that "many of these (_i.e._, sculptures) exhibit a close observance of nature such as we could only expect to find among a people considerably advanced in the minor arts, and to which the elaborate and laborious, but usually clumsy and ungraceful, not to say unmeaning, productions of the savage can claim but a slight approach."

It is clearly not the intention of the above authors to claim an entire absence of the grotesque method of treatment in specimens of the Mound-Builder's art, since elsewhere they call attention to what appears to be a caricature of the human face, as well as to the disproportionate size of the heads of many of the animal carvings. Not only are the heads of many of the carvings of disproportionate size, which, in instances has the effect of actual distortion, but in not a few of the sculptures nature, instead of being copied, has been trifled with and birds and animals show peculiarities unknown to science and which go far to prove that the Mound-Builders, however else endowed, possessed lively imaginations and no little creative fancy.

Decided traces of conventionalism also are to be found in many of the animal carvings, and the method of indicating the wings and feathers of birds, the scales of the serpent, &c., are almost precisely what is to be observed in modern Indian productions of a similar kind.

Few and faint as are these tendencies towards caricaturing and conventionalizing as compared with what may be noted in the artistic productions of the Haidahs, Chinooks, and other tribes of the Northwest, they are yet sufficient to show that in these particulars no hard and fast line can be drawn between the art of the Indian and of the Mound-Builder.

As showing how narrow is the line that separates the conventional and imitative methods of art, it is of interest to note that among the Esquimaux the two stages of art are found flourishing side by side. In their curious masks, carved into forms the most quaint and grotesque, and in many of their carvings of animals, partaking as they do of a half human, half animal character, we have abundant evidence of what authors have characterized as savage taste in sculpture. But the same tribes execute carvings of animals, as seals, sea-lions, whales, bears, &c., which, though generally wanting in the careful modeling necessary to const.i.tute fine sculpture, and for absolute specific resemblance, are generally recognizable likenesses. Now and then indeed is to be found a carving which is noteworthy for spirited execution and faithful modeling. The best of them are far superior to the best executed carvings from the mounds, and, are much worthier objects for comparison with modern artistic work.

As deducible from the above premises it may be observed that, while the state of art among primitive peoples as exemplified by their artistic productions may be a useful index in determining their relative position in the scale of progress, unless used with caution and in connection with other and more reliable standards of measurement it will lead to very erroneous conclusions. If, for instance, skill and ingenuity in the art of carving and etching be accepted as affording a proper idea of a people's progress in general culture, the Esquimaux of Alaska should be placed in the front rank of American tribes, a position needless to say which cannot be accorded them from more general considerations. On the other hand, while the evidences of artistic skill left by the Iroquoian tribes are in no way comparable to the work produced by the Esquimaux, yet the former have usually been a.s.signed a very advanced position as compared with other American tribes.


The more important conclusions reached in the foregoing paper may be briefly summed up as follows:

That of the carvings from the mounds which can be identified there are no representations of birds or animals not indigenous to the Mississippi Valley.

And consequently that the theories of origin for the Mound Builders suggested by the presence in the mounds of carvings of supposed foreign animals are without basis.

Second. That a large majority of the carvings, instead of being, as a.s.sumed, exact likenesses from nature, possess in reality only the most general resemblance to the birds and animals of the region which they were doubtless intended to represent.

Third. That there is no reason for believing that the masks and sculptures of human faces are more correct likenesses than are the animal carvings.

Fourth. That the state of art-culture reached by the Mound Builders, as ill.u.s.trated by their carvings, has been greatly overestimated.

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