Feb 16, 2020 at 6:01 AM Feb 16, 2020 at 12:09 PM
Falcons appear frequently in the art of the ancient American Indian Hopewell culture, which was centered in southern Ohio between about A.D. 1 and 400. These distinctive birds are depicted in a variety of media, especially copper plates and tobacco pipes carved from pipestone.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, falcons are the “most spectacular of hunters.” When they dive after prey – mostly other birds and ducks – they can reach speeds of 200 mph.
Bretton Giles, an archaeologist with Kansas State University, has studied this falcon imagery and argues it isn’t “haphazard depictions of various species of falcons.”
In his contribution to the new book, “Shaman, Priest, Practice, Belief: Materials of Ritual and Religion in Eastern North America,” Giles notes that “Hopewellian imagery consistently illustrates falcons — probably peregrine falcons — with a relatively consistent array of characteristics,” including dark stripes along the sides of their faces and the prominent, pale “eyebrows” typical of juvenile falcons.
Giles finds this last point particularly significant, as it suggests the Hopewell might have associated falcons with “youth, renewal and rebirth.” Some historic American Indian societies made these same connections, so this could be evidence for deep cultural continuities.
The Hopewell used small pipes carved in the shapes of falcons and other animals to smoke their potent native tobacco, which could produce hallucinogenic visions. Giles therefore suggests that the various creatures depicted on the pipes might represent the spiritual guardians or totems of the particular smokers.
Similar carvings of falcons on pipes have been found at Mound City in Chillicothe and at Tremper Mound near Portsmouth.
Art historian Johanna Minich with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts argued in her 2004 doctoral dissertation that some of that consistency was likely the result of a limited number of masters doing the carving. But, regardless, Giles concludes that the fact Hopewell artisans paid such close attention to how they represented falcons “shows that there were nuanced, possibly interregional discussions,” about this symbolism.
This common symbolic vocabulary is an important feature of Hopewell art. It might have been one of the ways that Hopewell pilgrims, or other travelers, communicated information about their identities to people in distant regions who did not speak the same language. As Giles notes: “small ritual objects can carry an abundance of information about power and status, especially if they reflect mythic and cosmological beliefs.”
Brad Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio History Connection.