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THE AMATEUR ARCHAEOLOGIST ONLINE JOURNAL
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A Set of Steatite Smoking Pipes of the Revolutionary War Period
By Richard Michael Gramly PhD
Steatite 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).
Kaolin 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.
A 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.
Historic 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?
Answers 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.
All 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.
All 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.
One 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.
As 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
Trubowitz, Neal L.
CAPTIONS & FIGURES
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