Idol Pipes: Review of Examples

          By Richard Michael Gramly PhD, North Andover, Massachusetts

Collecting ancient North American stone artifacts began during the eighteenth century, if not earlier. One of the earliest illustrations of a collected artifact may be seen in Luigi Castiglione’s Viaggio. This work is a narrative of the botanist’s 1785-1787 travels in the United States. A Cumberland fluted point is shown in his Plate IV (Pace 1983: 38). The spear-point may have been presented to Castiglione by distinguished naturalist, Manessah Cutler — a resident of coastal Massachusetts who hosted his Italian colleague.

Of somewhat more recent vintage are several impressive, large ground stone axes with find-spots and dates in the first quarter of the nineteenth century painted upon them that once resided within the Dorothy Middleton (Nelson) Collection. The Middleton Collection contained many thousands of ethnological specimens (Figure 1) plus scores of sub-collections of stone tools from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and elsewhere in North America. Groups of artifacts appear to have been gifted to Ms. Middleton for display in her private Thunderbird Museum, which was open to the public during decades before and after WWII.

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Among Dorothy Middleton’s holdings was a curious ceramic or smoothly finished stone pipe of a seated male human figure, legs extended, holding a bowl. The bowl was meant to contain a smoking mixture; while, a stem for the smoker’s mouth was inserted between the figure’s feet (Figure 2). This pipe is attributed “to a mound in Tennessee” (Kirk Spurr, personal communication). It belongs to a class of smoking pipes, known as “idol pipes” – a term that according to McGuire (1899: 541) was first applied to them in 1873 by Georgia archaeologist, Charles C. Jones (1873: 401).

What inspired Jones to coin the term may be guessed. It is my belief that he may have likened pipes with figures holding bowls (pots) to the molded “rain god” statuettes made at Tesuque Pueblo, northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico (Figure 3). The trade in these little ceramic figures has early roots (Tanner 1968: 166; Anderson 2002), and they were carried far and wide during the late nineteenth century — if not earlier. Too, Jones might have been familiar with African ritual figures of wood, well-known for the Luba people of the Congo, for example, that show a seated or squatting person holding a vessel in the lap or upon the knees (Figure 4). Artifacts from the Congo collected by Christian missionaries and brought home at the end of their term of service would have fascinated an anthropologist like Jones.

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Whatever the inspiration, the term “idol pipe” is somewhat a misnomer. We do not know if the figure holding the pot or bowl was a mythical being, a hero, god or just a commoner. The fact that the figure on many idol pipes is looking upward at ascending vapors when the pipe is held in a smoking position is an obvious convention. Its meaning must have been well understood by both the pipe’s sculptor and the smoker. Perhaps the “idol” was meant to represent the smoker himself making a religious offering of tobacco smoke? Tobacco ceremonialism has deep roots in eastern North America (Gramly 2006), and it may have been introduced from Meso-America along with the sacred calendar – the tonalamatl (Gramly 2008).

Based upon a review of standard texts treating Native American mythology (e.g., Alexander 2005, Curtis 1987), it seems unlikely that the human figure on idol pipes was meant to portray a culture-hero or god-like being nor is it connected with a specific tale. Since the archaeological contexts of most idol pipes are inexactly known or went unrecorded, there is little help with interpretations to be had from that quarter. In point of fact, we are unsure if idol pipes were personal property and accompanied individuals to the grave. I know of no idol pipes with attributions to specific archaeological features; at best, provenience is to a mound, an archaeological site, or a farm. It is a possibility that idol pipes were communal property, used by many smokers, and not deposited within cemeteries.


Idol pipes are generally regarded as artifacts at home in the Southeastern United States (e.g., Miles 1963: 218) but rare even there except at major sites and mound centers. Therefore, reports of their occurrence outside Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama should be regarded with healthy skepticism. Some of the pipes discussed here at one time were owned by collectors in Michigan, New York, and Massachusetts. It is doubtful that these artifacts were, in fact, discovered upon archaeological sites in those states; it is interesting to speculate how they may have entered collections so far from their native hearth.

One possible mechanism that caused the dislocation of idol pipes is looting during the Civil War. As cited by West (1970: 187), in 1859 the archaeologist Charles C. Jones observed three fine idol pipes that had been plowed up at Etowah, near Cartersville, northern Georgia. The pipes were part of a collection at the residence of a Col. Tumlin. These same pipes disappeared in 1864 or shortly after the invasion by General Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee. Two of the Tumlin idol pipes recollected by Jones, both fashioned of steatite (soapstone), later surfaced in the collection of Gates Thruston who published them for the first time (1890: 184-186). Thruston, it should be noted, served with the Union during the Civil War.

Perhaps the only idol pipe ever discovered in Michigan (West 1970: 185 and frontispiece; see Figure 5 here) was, in fact, another spoil of war looted from a collection like Tumlin’s? Union regiments in the Army of the Tennessee were drawn from several states including Michigan, as for example, the 15th Regt. Michigan Volunteer Infantry. (See The incredible tale about this sandstone pipe being plowed up in 1885 on a farm in Calhoun County, Michigan (Brown 1905: 108-9) may have been fabricated to mask its true origin. By 1885 a full generation had passed since the Army of Tennessee marched through Georgia and memories of events may have faded and principal actors were deceased.

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Likewise, another sandstone pipe with equally clouded origins (the Morgan/Weiss pipe) turned up in a household sale in rural Pike County, upstate New York, during the 1920s. This specimen (Figure 6a and b), which is remarkably like the Calhoun County, Michigan idol pipe in terms of style and execution although differing somewhat in the attitude of its figure, was on exhibit with other ancient Indian artifacts for many years at a Pike County fair building.

Finally, a third sandstone pipe (the Wistariahurst pipe) — similar enough to the idol pipes of Michigan and New York to have been made by in the same workshop if not by the same hand — turned up at auction in Massachusetts during 2007 (Figures 7a-c). It was once part of a late nineteenth century Massachusetts collection that was gifted to The Museum of Natural History and Art, at the Holyoke Public Library, Holyoke, Massachusetts, during the first decade of the twentieth century. Its vintage, then, is equivalent to the Michigan and New York pipes. In the Museum’s catalogue this pipe is attributed to Lee Co., Va.

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An hypothesis that these three sandstone idol pipes may have survived a terrible march through Tennessee and Georgia and afterward even longer journeys by foot or railcar back to the Mid-West, New York and New England might cause some readers to scoff. Yet, stranger things have happened during wartime. These fine pipes would have been appreciated then as they are now and carefully curated.

Variation among Idol Pipes

Idol pipes are scattered among North American collectors and museums with no more than two or three examples per collection. For the purposes of this study, attributes of 23 specimens are presented in Table 1.

Where the sex of the figure on the pipe can be ascertained, it is almost always male. The sole pipe showing secondary female characteristics is attributed to the Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma (Hamilton 1952). Another feature that is characteristic of most idol pipes (19 of the 23 in our sample) is the position of the figure, which faces the smoker rather than away towards onlookers. In the few cases where the figure faces away from the smoker, as for example the pair of Tumlin Collection pipes described by Jones and illustrated by Thruston, the stem hole through the rear/back of the figure tapers rapidly towards the pipe-bowl.

Another common attribute (17 of 22 pipes) is that the figure is portrayed looking upward. The metaphor of allowing tobacco smoke to ascend to a plane above an earthly one is obvious, but its exact meaning is conjectural.

The idol pipes in our sample are about equally divided between figures holding pots or bowls and figures holding elbow pipes. Among the latter group, however, the pipe-bowl is usually sculpted to resemble a fired earthenware vessel with a pronounced collar or rim. The pots or bowls on some idol pipes are very exactly modeled and may exhibit strap handles, usually a pair, bridging lip and shoulder. The perforation under the strap handles could have been used to attach decorations to the bowl or to tie the pipe-stem itself – keeping it from being lost.

As for more minor details — such as hair style, facial features, definition of the upper and lower limbs, etc. – we note considerable variation. Transcending their significance perhaps, is the observation that some details are exactingly sculpted in relief; while, on other pipes features are simply indicated by incising. Idol pipes with simpler, incised features are sometimes branded as modern forgeries, although there are no a priori grounds for such an opinion.

Stone of various sorts (sandstone, soapstone or steatite, ironstone, etc.) apparently was favored over ceramic for idol pipes; however, no premium seems to have been set upon the use of precious or exotic raw materials. This fact alone suggests that there once may have existed idol pipes made of wood. Likely these pipes were devoid of copper decorations and bowl liners, as some examples would have been preserved by contact with metal salts.

Need for Exact Information

That idol pipes were important to late prehistoric societies in the Southeast cannot be doubted. We could make more sense of this class of artifacts and appreciate its significance, if only there were more facts about their discovery, better photographs and proper measurements. It is surprising how few idol pipes have been adequately documented – despite their being known to archaeologists since the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The neglect in recording provenience and other facts, which I perceive has been intentional, stems from a view that idol pipes are fantastic, modern creations. Familiarity with pertinent literature, scattered though it may be, reveals this view to be erroneous.

Table 1. Attributes of Sample of Idol Pipes
Collection Description Dimensions Raw Material Publications
1. Ben Thompson “Zimmerman pipe;” male figure looking upward holding plain pot above knees, extended legs Unknown Unidentified stone Unpublished
2. Frank McClung Museum Bell site (TN) pipe; male (?) figure looking upward holding pot (with 2 strap handles) at feet, extended legs L.= 7.9 cm “Hematitic stone” Brose et al. 1985: 177
3. Alabama State Museum Figure of unknown sex with missing head holds pot (with 2-3 strap handles in lap, legs folded under Unknown Ceramic Krebs et al. 1986: 103
4. U.S. National Museum Hollywood Mound (GA); male Hollywood Mound (GA); male figure with legs folded under and looking upward holding plain vessel in lap, stem hole to rear rather in front Unknown Soapstone McGuire 1899: 541 (Fig. 163)
5. U.S.N.M. Monroe Co. (AR) mound; crude figure of unknown sex looking upward holding pot with incised lines on knees (?), legs folded under (?), stem hole to rear (?) L.= 4 ½ inches “Imperfectly crystallized quartz” McGuire 1899: 541 (Fig. 164)
6. Reading Public Museum & Art Gallery Figure of unknown sex with extended legs holds bowl or perhaps an elbow pipe at feet, figure looks towards smoker (stem hole to front) L.= 5 inches Unknown Fundaburk and Foreman 1957: Plate 102
7. Jon C. Griffin Bibb Co. (GA); two opposed male figures grasp bowl which rests upon their laps, figures look slightly upward while straddling pipe-stem Ht. (est.) = 2 ½ inches Ceramic Griffin 1989: 40
8. Unknown “Spiro Mound” (OK); female with extended legs holds pot or perhaps en elbow pipe at knees; figure looks straight towards smoker – not upward Unknown “Stone” Hamilton 1952: 35-6, Plate 14
9. J. Weiss (EX. Holyoke, MA) “Wistariahurst pipe;” seated male figure looking upward holding pot with two strap handles on knees L.= 16.5 cm (6 ½ inches) Sandstone Unpublished
10. J. Weiss Weiss/Morgan pipe collected in Pike Co. (NY); seated male figure in contorted posture looking upward holding pot with two strap handles above knees Ht.= 14 cm (5 ½ inches) Sandstone Unpublished
11. R. Sisson & Ohio Hist. Soc. Athens Co. (OH); upward looking figure of unknown sex holding bowl at knees (lower legs and bowl also form elbow pipe) Unknown Berea sandstone Weidner 1996: Sisson Coll.; Don Gehlbach, pers. comm..
12. C. Miles (?) Seated figure of indeterminate sex holding plain pot between knees and looking upward Unknown Steatite Miles 1963: 174-5, 218-9
13. Unknown Ferguson Mound (MS); upper torso with arms holding pot/elbow pipe, figure looking up Unknown Unknown Griffin (after Brown) 1052: Figure 143
14. Milwaukee Public Museum Calhoun Co. (MI); seated figure of unknown sex holding necked pot above lap, figure looking upward Ht.= 17 cm (nearly 7 inches) Sandstone Brown 1905: 108-9; West 1970: 656-7
15. Milwaukee Public Museum Hodges Ford, Clinch R., Claiborne Co. (TN); possible seated male figure with extended legs, looking upward and clutching plain pot resting upon knees L.= 6 inches “Fine-grained sandstone” Brown 1905: 108; West 1970: 185, 656-7
16. N.E. Carter (?) Knox Co. (TN); seated male figure looking towards smoker holding pot with two strap handles in lap, legs extended L.= 10.4 cm (four inches) Steatite West 1970: 185, 668-9
17. Heye Found., NMAI “Clarence Moore pipe,” Gahagan, Red River Parish (LA); kneeling male figure holding pipe in lap, figure looking at smoker L.= 8.9 cm (3 ½ inches) Ceramic Moore 1913: 515-6; West 1970: 186, 660
18. NMAI (exhibted 2004 — see Fig. 8 here) Fig. 8 here) holding vessel with two strap handles upon knees, figure looking upward and sporting elaborately braided ponytail (Figure 8) Unknown Stone Unpublished (see Fig. 8)
19. NMAI (2004 exhibition) Damaged and reworked male figure holding vessel that is also an elbow pipe before knees, figure looking upward with wrapped ponytail Unknown Stone Unpublished
20. Formerly Dorothy Middleton Coll. “Mound in TN;” seated male figure looking towards smoker and holding vessel that is also an elbow pipe between knees Est. L.= 10-12 cm (4-5 inches) Ceramic ? Unpublished but see Fig. 2
21. Peabody Museum (Harvard) “Prince family pipe,” Moundville (AL); kneeling figure, perhaps a male, holds pot in lap while looking upward; collected before 1875 and well documented Ht. = 5 ½ inches Stone See Moore in Knight 1996: 29-30
22. Gates Thruston Coll., Tennessee State Museum, Nashville Tumlin Coll., from base of mound at Etowah, Georgia; seated figure with lower legs missing holding strap-handled vessel with four lugs, figure looks upward, stem hole in rear Ht. = est. about 4 inches Steatite Thruston 1890: 184-185
23. Gates Thruston Coll., as above Tumlin Coll., from base of mound at Etowah, Georgia; crudely modeled, seated figure with lower legs missing grasping plain bowl and looking upward, stem hole to rear Ht. = 5 ½ inches Steatite Thruston 1890: 185-186


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Captions and figures accompanying Gramly essay about Idol Pipes: Review of Examples

Amateur Archaeologist Journal


Figure 1. Interior of Dorothy Middleton’s (born 1903) Thunderbird Museum, Moorestown, New Jersey (near Philadelphia) showing small portion of her ethnological and archaeological collection. 1947 photograph. Photo courtesy of O. Kirk Spurr, PhD.

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Figures 2. View of an idol pipe “from a mound in Tennessee” that formerly was part of the Dorothy Middleton collection. Photo courtesy of O Kirk Spurr, PhD.

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Figure 3. “Rain gods,” manufactures of Tesuque Pueblo, New Mexico. After Tanner (1968: Figure 6.13). Approximate heights = 7 inches.

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Figure 4. Wooden “idol” holding a vessel, Luba, southern Zaire (Congo). Figures of this sort were used by shamen for holding ceremonial ointment. Height = 40.5 cm (16 inches). Author’s collection.

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Figure 5. Massive sandstone pipe (height = 17 cm, seven inches), purportedly plowed up in Calhoun Co., Michigan in 1885 (Brown 1905: 108-9; West 1970: 656 and frontispiece). This specimen may have originated in Georgia or Tennessee. Photo courtesy of Susan Otto and the Milwaukee Public Museum.

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Figure 6a and b. Top and side views of the Morgan/Weiss idol pipe of sand-stone, which was for many years on exhibit at the Pike Co., New York fair. The pipe was purchased by John Morgan among attic contents of an household sale in Pike. J. Weiss collection, height = 14 cm (5 ½ inches). This specimen could have originated in the Southeast, perhaps northern Georgia or southern Tennessee. R. M. Gramly photographs.

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Figures 7a-c. Views of a well-finished, sandstone pipe, height 14 cm or 5 ½ inches, that was formerly in the collection of The Museum of Natural History and Art, Holyoke, Massachusetts, with an entry in their catalogue reading – “large rain god pipe, Lee Co., Va.” Now in the J. Weiss collection. R. M. Gramly photographs.

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Figure 8. Idol pipe of stone with elaborate ponytail; 2004 photo (through glass by D. Vesper), National Museum of the American Indian.

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