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Click here to download document: steatite_smoking_pipes_of_the_pre_revolutionary.wpd for printing.

A Set of Steatite Smoking Pipes of the Revolutionary War Period

By Richard Michael Gramly PhD
American Society for Amateur Archaeology
North Andover, Massachusetts

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSteatite also known as soapstone — colored gray, olive, or black — was much used by prehistoric populations and historic groups of the mid-South, mid-Atlantic, Southeast, and West Coast for the manufacture of smoking pipes. Although pipes of exaggerated shapes with animal and human effigies upon them are favored by collectors and most often are illustrated in art publications (e.g., Fundaburk and Foreman 1957: plates 105 and 106), plainer forms are numerous within archaeological contexts. Simple elbow pipes of steatite, sometimes bearing a high polish, have their own special appeal and they occasionally find a place in published guides (see Hothem 1999: 28-46 for a range of examples).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalKaolin tobacco pipes of European and Euro-American manufacture now and then inspired native American artisans. For example, the "heels" on sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch tobacco pipes, which enabled a pipe to stand upon a flat table, were copied by aboriginal carvers and potters (see Figure 1). Flat heels on pipes, however, likely had no practical use around an aboriginal home. When a fashion for "heel-less" pipes became vogue among Euro-Americans during the late eighteenth century (Trubowitz 1992: Figure 3), native pipe-makers were quick to follow suit or to revert to their own preexisting, plain-stemmed styles. Heel-less stone pipes with long round stems and cylindrical bowls having very thin walls began to be made by native Americans; they were directly copied from European proto-types (see Hart 1978: 213 for a specimen answering this description). In fact, such delicate smoking pipes, seemingly impractical for outdoors use, might have been sculpted primarily for trade to Europeans or to fellow native Americans who had adopted an European lifestyle.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalA thriving trade in novelty smoking pipes made of steatite with European customers may have existed among the Cherokee and Creek of the Southeast although it appears not to have been documented. Such a trade would be analogous to the commerce in articles made of argillite between Haida Indians of coastal Northwestern North America and Yankee whalers and sealers who hunted those waters. Massive black argillite, which was an attractive raw material capable of taking an high polish, was quarried by Haida and used to manufacture figural pipes, totem poles, fragile plates with incised designs, decorative coffers or sailor's "ditty boxes," and other souvenirs (Sheehan 1981). Like steatite, argillite is delicate and seemingly impractical for large smoking pipes in the Haida style with their thin walls and lacy cutouts. It is no surprise that few of the argillite pipes made for the early nineteenth century trade have survived undamaged and intact.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalHistoric steatite tobacco pipes from archaeological contexts in the Southeast are usually damaged and show ancient reworking. These alterations and the patina of usage are a guarantee of authenticity and interesting in their own right. Still, one may wonder what was the appearance of a freshly-made pipe? How smooth was its exterior? What finishing marks were left by its maker on the interior of the bowl?

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAnswers to these questions are provided by a remarkable group of four steatite tobacco pipes that the author won at auction from English antiques/book dealer and former university professor of prehistory — Steven Taylor. At a previous sale Professor Taylor purchased a mahogany rack, resembling an antique spoon-rack, that had been drilled to receive the stems of four steatite smoking pipes. The four pipes, which vary in length from five to six and one-half inches (see Table and Figure 2), are pristine examples of eighteenth Cherokee or Creek manufacture. Judging by the oxidation of the wood and its construction, the rack itself (Figure 3) is old, although it may of slightly later vintage than the pipes.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAll four pipes are smoothly finished, and any deep tool marks that once may have been upon them have been obliterated. In fact, the two smallest pipes have been polished and oiled (?) to a high sheen, which has brought out rich, dark colors. The bowl interiors of all four are gray-white — the color of freshly worked stone — and unsmoothed. Narrow, gouge-marks, as might have been made with a sharpened, flattened nail, are evident within each bowl. The gouge-marks exhibit a cork-screw pattern that might have resulted when a right-handed person pushed downward with a cutting tool as the pipe was rotated. None of the pipes had been smoked.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAll four pipes belong to the generalized type, "plain, elbow pipes." The bowl is set either at a right angle or a very high angle to the stem. The stem and bowl exhibit uniform, almost equivalent, exterior diameters or they may swell gently towards the pipe's heel. The bore of the stem is uniform from mouth to heel; larger pipes exhibit slightly larger bores. Likewise, larger pipes may have bowls with greater interior diameters. The bore of the bowl is uniform from rim to heel except for a very slight flaring just below the rim. In general, the ancient craftsman was striving for simplicity in form, and a very elegant product was the result.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOne may wonder how this group of delicate stone pipes survived unscathed upon their arrival in England in the aftermath of the American Revolution of the late eighteenth century? The decision to rack them and not to smoke them is certainly part of the answer.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAs a former pipesmoker, I could not resist the temptation to test the qualities of one of the pipes. Accordingly, the bowl of Pipe B (one of the smaller pipes) was packed with a strong mixture of Nicotiana rustica and kinickkinick. It was a good smoke. The pipe drew well, and kept alight. The smoke was relatively cool despite the fact that the upper part of the bowl heated up rapidly and could not be touched. The pipe was comfortable to hold, allowing me to admire its sleek appearance and rich colors. All in all it was a hassle-free, pleasurable experience. I found several reasons to thank the anonymous Cherokee or Creek craftsman whose sculpture it was.


Fundaburk, Emma Lila and Mary Douglas Fundaburk Foreman

1957Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Sun Circles and Human Hands Luverne, Alabama.

Hart, Gordon

1999Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Collector's Guide to Indian Pipes. Collector Books. Paducah, Kentucky.

Hothem. Lar

1999Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Collector's Guide to Indian Pipes. Collector Books. Paducah, Kentucky.

Sheehan, Carol

1981Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Pipes That Won't Smoke; Coal That Won't Burn. Glenbow Museum.

Trubowitz, Neal L.

1992Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Thanks, But We Prefer to Smoke Our Own: Pipes in the Great Lakes/Riverine Region during the Eighteenth Century. Pp. 97-112 in Proceedings of The 1989 Smoking Pipe Conference. Rochester Museum and Science Center Research Records 22. Rochester, New York.

Attributes of Steatite Smoking Pipes from an English Collection
(Measurements in inches, weights in grams)






1. Length





2. Height of bowl from heel





3. Max. diameter of stem





4. Diameter of stem at mouth





5. Max. diameter of bowl





6. Oral diameter of bowl





7. Avg. bowl rim thickness





8. Stem bore diameter





9. Weight





Color of Pipe A =

greenish-black (5G2/1)

Color of Pipe B =

dark greenish-gray (5G4/1) with grayish-black
(N2) mottlings

Color of Pipe C =

greenish-gray (5G6/1) with med. dark gray
(N4) mottlings

Color of Pipe D =

greenish-gray (5G6/1) with med. dark gray
(N4) mottlings


Figure 1. Ceramic pipebowl with wire-wrapped inserted wooden stem from the Kendaia site, Seneca County, New York. Note the flat heel modeled after a seventeenth century European proto-type. Iron Horse Collection; EX. Voorhees.
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Figure 2. Pristine steatite tobacco pipes, likely manufactured by the Cherokee or Creek during the eighteenth century. From an English collection. See Table for sizes. In descending order: Pipe D, C, A and B.
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Figure 3. Antique mahogany pipe rack with steatite pipes nested within their custom holes. The front face has been recently coated with orange shellac.
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Figure 4. Steatite smoking pipe, eighteenth century in age and in pristine, unsmoked condition. Length = 5.06 inches. See Table, pipe A.
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Figure 5. Steatite smoking pipe, eighteenth century in age and never smoked, one of a nearly matched pair. Length = 6.13 inches. See Table, pipe C.
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