A Wooden Anthropomorphic Figurine of the Iroquois

Richard Michael Gramly
American Society for Amateur Archaeology

Amateur Archaeologist JournalIroquoian people of the Great Lakes region have a long history and prehistory of making small anthropomorphic sculptures. Many of these sculptures embellished smoking pipes (Figures 1 and 2), staffs (Figure 3), combs (Witthoft and Kinsey 1959: Figure 24; and here Figure 4AB, and D), tool handles (Figure 5) and earthenware cooking pots (Figure 6).

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalIn the archaeological record small, “free-standing” anthropomorphic sculptures, that is to say, figural sculptures which are not part of another object, are rare. Belonging to this class are full-figured, “September Morn” figurines (see Figure 4E and Witthoft and Kinsey, ibid.), which are made of antler, bone, and sometimes stone. They are found primarily within Iroquoian graves, often accompanying children, and may have been a personal talisman of the deceased. Similar, small, anthropomorphic sculptures were salvaged from worn-out combs (Figure 7) They, too, may have served as protective amulets and were carefully curated. Beauchamp (1903) even reports small human figurines of the historic period that were crafted of metal; however, such articles might easily be confused with human-figured pipe tampers and kindred articles of European trade. An example of free-standing sculptures belonging to the ethnological rather than archaeological realm are little anthropomorphic counters that were used in the bowl game (Speck 1953: 16).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSmall maskettes made of stone and ceramic with realistic human features occasionally come to light in Iroquoian burials and other contexts (see Witthoft and Kinsey ibid. for an example made of stone from the Keller site; also, Jury and Jury 1955: Plate IV). Judging by the curved backs of some maskettes (Figure 8), they have been cut down from effigy smoking pipes or earthenware vessels. However, other maskettes, particularly ones fashioned of bone or antler (Figure 9), appear to have been made afresh and were not salvaged from pre-existing artifacts.

Distinguishing between Depictions of Human Beings and Spirit Beings
Amateur Archaeologist JournalAmong the Iroquois, masks worn by the Society of Faces have facial features so exaggerated and contorted that no onlooker could mistake them for portraits of real human beings (Figure 10). Clearly, the masks are meant to represent spirit-beings. Likewise, corn-husk masks or “bushy faces” with their goggle eyes and over-sized, extra-long noses obviously depict special beings who belong to a spiritual realm.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalDistinguishing between human and spirit representations, however, becomes more difficult when sculptures are reduced in scale and made of harder materials such as stone or antler. In these cases, recognizing exaggerated sizes and shapes becomes problematical. Small details, such as the shape of eyes and mouth may provide more reliable clues; for example, eyes of spirit figures are usually rounded (Figures 11 and 12).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalAnother clue about the identity of an anthropomorphic effigy depicted upon a smoking pipe is the direction it faces. Typically, sculptures of spirits face away — not towards — the smoker (see Figure 12 for an example from the 16th century Goodyear site). For a pipe-user to stare at the representation of a spirit-being might have been dis-respectful and even foolhardy.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalBy modeling the features of a human being or spirit, the sculptor as well as the sculpture’s user established a relationship with the work; they assumed responsibility for its well-being and ultimate disposal. Sculptor and user became vulnerable if the sculpture should fall into the hands of a person who intended harm. Evil witches (“black witches”) and sorcerers were regarded as a powerful force by Iroquois during the nineteenth century and perhaps long before that time. Prominent Iroquois leaders were not immune from their powers; Handsome Lake, it is thought, may have been killed by an Onondaga witch (R. Judkins, personal communication). The penalty for evil witchcraft was death (Dwight 1822: 199).

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe fear that anthropomorphic figures might fall into a sorcerer’s hands has dictated certain precautions. Iroquois dolls made of twisted corn-husk and intended as children’s playthings to this day bear no facial features. Their blank faces (Figure 13) prevent both the maker and the user from becoming victims of witchcraft.

A Wooden Figure of the New York State Iroquois
Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe existence of large (i.e., larger than hand-sized), anthropomorphic sculptures of human beings carved from wood or modeled in wax has long been rumored among Iroquoian scholars; however, since no such sculpture has ever been described or pictured, such possibilities are dismissed as mere dolls or playthings. Yet, small sculptures for personal or household use are almost universally present among traditional societies, past and present. For them to have been absent among the Iroquois would be exceptional.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalTherefore, it was hardly surprising to learn about the small wooden sculpture that is presented and described here (Figures 14 and 15). It was obtained over 20 years ago by C. Frisinger of Clyde, New York, from a mechanical engineer who, in turn, had purchased it during the late 1950s at auction in Cayuga County, central New York State. Artifacts from a defunct historical society museum of that region had been consigned to a sale that took place near the town of Cortland. The sculpture, described by its former owners as an “old Indian effigy doll,” was attributed by them to the period of the American Revolutionary War; however, no documentation in support of this claim survives.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalSince Cayuga County and Cortland lie not far south of the Onondaga Iroquois Nation’s reservation at Syracuse, New York, it might be argued that the wooden figure originated among the Onondaga themselves. The cast of the facial features as well as its stiff posture are unmistakably Iroquoian — whatever may have been the carver’s exact tribal and clan affiliation.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe sculpture, which stands eight inches (20 cm) tall, has been cut from a piece of coarse-grained, dark wood — likely chestnut. A hand-saw, leaving a 1/16 inch kerf, has been used to remove wood from between the statue’s legs and to block out the figure. Evidence of the latter action is nearly effaced, surviving only on the plane of the fore-arms. It should be noted that hand-saws were in common use during the 18th century on New York State military sites (Hanson and Hsu 1975: 107), and it may be assumed that Iroquois craftsmen had access to them during that era, as well.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalA sharp knife has been used to create details of the face and to define curved surfaces of the chest, abdomen, and limbs. The figurine is neuter; there are neither breasts nor genitals. Its build is graceless and rugged, which gives the impression of being male. Fine whittle marks, smoothed and polished by use, may be seen below the neck in a raking light, and well-defined cuts remain underneath the statue’s chin and jaw-line. Detailing is almost absent on the back and sides of the figure (for example, no ears are shown); likewise, the back, buttocks, under-thighs, and rear of the calves lack the fine polish that is evident elsewhere on the piece. The viewer’s focus is directed to the front of the statue — especially the face and torso.

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Amateur Archaeologist JournalWhite milk-paint or casein-paint has been applied to the shins and sides of the calves. The location of the paint suggests that the statue at one time was clothed in a knee-length garment — perhaps the kilt favored by Iroquois men during the 18th and 19th centuries (Akweks n.d.; Morgan 2004: Frontispiece — Figure 16). A kilt could have been securely fastened below the fore-arms and within a broad groove across the back at the figure’s waist. The painted areas themselves may have been meant to indicate that leggings were being worn.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe upper torso and arms of the figure may have been bare as there is no provision for attaching an upper garment or even a shoulder sash.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalThe sculpture’s strong frontal aspect and the fact that it stands upright very well argue that it may have been intended for display — perhaps within a household or communal shrine. The figure might have memorialized an important Onondaga leader or was an incarnation of a traditional sachem of the Hodenosaunee. Clearly, it neither represented a spirit-being nor could it have been a toy of an Onondaga child. The lack of sexual features might have stemmed from Christian missionaries’ influence, but it is also possible that this abstraction originated among Iroquois sculptors themselves and had long been used in their works. Since the figure is unique, we are in no position to judge.

Amateur Archaeologist JournalOf one thing we are certain: This small wooden sculpture is a relic whose use and significance can only be guessed. Fortunately the Iroquois tradition of anthropomorphic sculpture to which it belongs still thrives, and perhaps an interpretation of the figure may still be had from a modern-day practitioner.

References Cited


Akweks, Aren

(around 1948)Amateur Archaeologist Journal
Costume of the Iroquois Man. Illustrated pamphlet. 16 pp. Akwesasene Counselor Organization, Hogansburg, New York.


Beauchamp, W. M.

1903Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Metallic Implements of the New York Indians. Bulletin, State University of New York 55. Albany.


Dwight, Timothy

1822Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Travels in New-England and New York. Volume 4. New Haven.


Hanson, Lee and Dick Ping Hsu

1975Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Casemates and Cannonballs. Archaeological Investigations at Fort Stanwix, Rome, New York. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Publications in Archaeology 14. Washington, D. C.


Jury, Wilfrid and Elsie McLeod Jury

1955Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Saint Louis: Huron Indian Village and Jesuit Mission Site. Museum of Indian Archaeology, The University of Western Ontario.


Kidd, Kenneth E.

1953Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The excavation and historical identification of a Huron ossuary. American Antiquity 18(4): 359-379.


Morgan, Lewis Henry

2004Amateur Archaeologist Journal

(new edition, edited by Russell A. Judkins) League of the Iroquois (The Ethnographic Core). Persimmon Press. North Andover, Massachusetts.


Pratt, Peter P.

n.d.Amateur Archaeologist Journal

The Pen Site: Excavations of a Cemetery to an Onondaga Iroquois Capital. Privately printed by the author. Cazenovia, New York.


Speck Frank H.

1953Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Iroquois Culture: A Study in Cultural Evolution. Bulletin, Cranbrook Institute of Science 23.


Witthoft, John and W. Fred Kinsey III (eds.)

1959Amateur Archaeologist Journal

Susquehannock Miscellany. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Harrisburg.


Captions and Figures

Figure 1. Janus-headed pipe-bowl, Smokes Creek site, Erie County, New York; circa 1610-1620. This earthenware artifact of the eastern Erie has been damaged by fire. Valerie Waldorf illustration.

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Figure 2. Figural ceramic smoking pipe restored from several fragments, Goodyear site, Erie County, New York; circa 1575. The ancient artist demonstrated a good sense of humor. Valerie Waldorf illustration.

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Figure 3. Iroquois, perhaps Seneca, wooden staff-head, cut-down to six inches in length. From an old Rochester, New York collection. Photo courtesy of Iron Horse, Blasdell, New York.

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Figure 4. Iroquoian Sculptures made of antler. A and B, human beings (?) vs. animals on combs; C, human being (?) cut from a comb; D, human being (?) with raised arm on a comb; E, free-standing figurine (a so-called September Morn figurine).
Height of C approx. three inches. Iron Horse Collection, Blasdell, New York.

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Figure 5. Possible tool handle of antler with incised face. Note large-diameter lateral perforation. Unearthed within refuse pit at the Mohawk Iroquois Smith-Pagerie site, New York state, circa 1560. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 6. Earthenware cooking pot with sculpted maskettes on rim, Feature 8, Kleis site cemetery, Erie County, New York, circa 1610-1630. Height of vessel = about 8 inches (20 cm). R. M. Gramly photograph..

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Figure 7. Sculpture of a human being (?) salvaged from worn-out antler or bone comb. Possibly Seneca Iroquois. Height is approximately three inches. Shown also as Figure 4C. Iron Horse Collection.

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Figure 8. Two views of a stone maskette from the Pen site, Onondaga County, New York. Circa 1690. After Pratt, n. d.: 27.

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Figure 9. Left, antler or bone maskette from a Huron ossuary, Simcoe County, Canada. Circa 1620. After Kidd 1953: Figure 124.
Right, antler or bone maskette from Tinney site, east of Hinsdale, Ontario Province, Canada. Circa 1640. Approx. heights = 1 1/2 inches.

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Figure 10. Two views of a “funner face” — a Seneca Iroquois wooden mask with an exaggerated nose used to scare children by pecking windows, etc. Tonawanda Reservation , circa 1925. Shows signs of heavy usage. Iron Horse Collection.

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Figure 11. Three views of a sandstone charm discovered on the floor of an ancient longhouse, Goodyear site, Town of Elma, Erie County, New York. Approximate height four inches. Circa 1575. Such sculptures depicting a spiritual being may have protected homes from severe windstorms. Lithic Casting Lab photograph.

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Figure 12. Fragmentary stone smoking pipe with image of a spiritual being that faces AWAY from the smoker. Height is approximately four inches. Found within an ancient hillside dump at the proto-historic (1575 AD) Goodyear site, Erie County. New York. Val Waldorf drawing.

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Figure 13. Cornhusk doll (onoya ‘giyada), Onondaga Iroquois, Six Nations (Canada), 20th century. Height = 8 inches (20 cm). EX. Robert Johnson collection. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 14. Front view of very old wooden sculpture, perhaps made and used by the Onondaga Iroquois, from central New York state. Height = eight inches (20 cm). Carved from a sawn block of chestnut. Photo by R. M. Gramly.

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Figure 15. Side/rear view of wooden sculpture. Note milk paint on lower legs, which suggests leggings. The surfaces are nearly devoid of details. R. M. Gramly photograph.

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Figure 16. Seneca Iroquois warrior with kilt and leggings. Copied from frontispiece in Lewis Henry Morgan’s League of the Iroquois (2004 edition).

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