University of Texas at Austin wordmarkUniversity of Texas at AustinCollege of Liberal Arts wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home
Tejas Main

Ceramic Vessels of the Nadaco Caddo and their Links to Mississippian Iconography

Ripley Engraved bowls and bottles with varied motifs from the Pine Tree Mound site. The main decorated ceramic type found at the site, the vessels are well suited for iconographic study. They make their appearance during the time when exotic materials like shell, stone, and copper are thought to have been replaced by clay as the main medium of symbolic expression.

Ancient artisans often incorporated symbols and designs in their work to express traditional beliefs that were central to their culture.  This was true of potters at Pine Tree Mound, as well as those throughout the larger Caddo world and across the southeastern United States, including the mound-building Mississippian cultures. This symbolic imagery, and the analytical study of it, is termed iconography.

In this section, we consider similarities between Mississippian iconography and Ripley Engraved ceramic motifs from the Pine Tree Mound site. These correspondences suggest that the Caddo of the 15th and early 16th centuries and other Mississippian societies held a common belief in a three-tiered, four-quartered cosmos and the powerful beings who dwelt in those realms. For the Caddo, those beliefs found expression on their pottery.

The Ripley Engraved vessels on which this study is based are part of an assemblage of 145 Caddo ceramic vessels from the Pine Tree Mound site.  The vessels are burial offerings from two small family cemeteries in village areas and several isolated graves.  The vessels were well dated using scrapings of burned residue from the vessels themselves as well as from smoking pipes also found within the graves. Some 14 radiocarbon dates place the vessels within the period from A.D. 1400 to 1525. This period coincides with the main occupation of the site, a determination supported by other dates obtained from habitation features and from the ceremonial precinct.

Designs in Clay and Shell

The potters who made the ceramic vessels placed as offerings in the Pine Tree Mound site graves decorated many of the bottles and bowls by engraving symbolic designs into the clay surface with a sharp tool. Because the scrolls, circles, and crosses used in the Ripley Engraved designs appear to be abstract, they are hard to interpret. One way to look at them, though, is to compare them to more-representational images found on engraved shell cups and gorgets—disk-shaped body ornaments—from other Caddo sites. One large collection of these shell artifacts is known from the Craig Mound at the Spiro site in eastern Oklahoma, and single artifacts are known from other sites along the Red River, including the Roden site.

The images carved into these items appear to relate to traditional stories known to the Caddo as well as to other Native Americans groups living across a large part of the American southeast and midwest late in prehistoric times. These peoples had some form of hierarchical political organization, and both their political and religious lives were reflected in their art and mound building. Archeologists call these various groups, who all related to their world in similar ways, Mississippian. Similarities in the symbols and stories of these peoples imply a commonality of belief across much of the eastern U.S. The Caddo are one of the many groups who were part of this Mississippian culture.

Scholars F. Kent Reilly III and George E. Lankford have done much to interpret the stories and images that can be linked to Mississippian icongraphy. Their studies are part of a growing body of work generated by the Workshop on Ancient Mississippian Art and Culture at Texas State University. Also important is information about Caddo traditions presented by William Joyce Griffith and Cecile Elkins Carter, who summarized many of the observations that early Europeans made when they visited the Hasinai Caddo, the southern neighbors of the Nadaco Caddo, in the 17th and 18th centuries. All of these sources were used to interpret the Ripley Engraved vessels and motifs.

The Sacred Pole and the Multilevel World

    The dance pole was made from “the heart of a tall straight cedar tree…it was black on one side and green on the other…when raised the black side faced north and the green side faced south. The [dance] leader stood on the west side of the pole. He faced east and began the first song.” This is the reminiscence of elder Grace Atkins, concerning the sacred dance pole of the Caddo, as retold by Caddo historian Cecile Elkins Carter.

A multilevel world is a common theme within the belief systems of many Native American peoples. The number of levels varies, but generally there are three: a lower world, a middle world for everyday life, and an upper world. Four thunderers (birds of prey) support the upper world, four serpents support the middle world, and four Piasas (winged serpent/panther) support the lower world. Extending through each world and connecting them is a sacred pole or tree, representing the world center or axis mundi.

Elder Atkins’s description of the sacred dance pole shows that such a multilevel world was part of the Caddo belief system. She describes the pole’s colors, the positioning of the dance leader, and important directions associated with the ceremony. Her description indicates that the dance proceeded around the sacred center (the dance pole) through the four quarters of the everyday, or middle, world.

The symbolic importance of the pole as a conduit to the other world levels for the early historic Caddo is also recounted by the Spanish chronicler Casanas, who lived among the Hasinai tribes. Casanas reported that the Caddo decorated the pole with “all they offered to God.” The Caddo origin story, as paraphrased from Carter, references climbing up to get to a new home and supports a belief in a multilevel universe. In this story, the first man, called Tsah Neesh (Mr. Moon), brought the Caddo out of … darkness to a world of light. They “climbed up carrying tobacco and pipe and drum…. bringing corn and pumpkin seeds. … Moon threw some dirt in front of him and tall mountains formed. He went to the top of the mountains and looked about…”

Engraved shell gorgets from the Spiro site show two human figures standing on a ring on either side of a decorated pole. Reilly suggests that this is a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional narrative. The outer circle of shell that frames the figures and on which they stand is a circular path or dance ground around the central pole. On one of these gorgets, the two figures with knees bent appear to be dancing on this path in opposite directions while holding a feathered shield or fan. The central pole itself is decorated with double diagonal lines alternating with four circular elements that may reference the four-fold nature of the world implied by the four supports. This interpretation of the shell gorget imagery is reminiscent of Grace Atkins’s description of the Caddo dance ground.

A shell gorget depicting similar human characters on opposite sides of a central pole is known from a shaft burial at the Roden site along the Red River in Oklahoma about 175 km north of the Pine Tree Mound site. The figures face inward and appear to be holding a large circle with a cross within it on top of the pole. This cross in the circle may emphasize the four-part structure of the world. The circles and bars that decorate the pole, along with the cross in the circle, are common elements on some of the pottery from Pine Tree Mound.

A special Ripley Engraved bowl with a pedestal base may represent the sacred pole and four-quartered, multilevel world rendered in clay. The pedestal would be the central pole connecting all levels. It has four holes in it (only two are visible on the photograph), just as the poles on the Spiro and Roden gorgets have four circular elements. The base of the bowl could be in the lower world, the bowl itself could be in the middle world, and the rim could be in the upper world. Various Ripley Engraved vessel forms and decorations suggest Caddo potters linked their art to their understanding of how the world was ordered.  

painting of CAddo potter
A Caddo potter uses a sharp antler tool to engrave designs such as scrolls, circles, and crosses on pottery vessels. These elaborate symbols represent traditional beliefs that were central to the Caddo culture. Painting by Nola Davis, courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Enlarge image

A Ripley Engraved bottle from Pine Tree Mound with a drawing of its engraved decoration opened out and viewed from the top down. This shows a four-part motif structure similar to the cross-in-circle on the pole carved on a shell gorget from the Roden site. The long neck of the bottle, with the four-part motif astride it, is analogous to the sacred pole topped by the cross-in-circle on the gorget.  Enlarge image

Caddo potters may have represented the idea of a four-quartered, three-level world and central axis in the forms of many of their vessels. On Ripley Engraved bottles, for instance, the four quarters can be seen in engraved motifs that repeat four times around the body, and some bottles were made in a way that their bodies actually have four corners. The three-world theme may be reflected in the overall vessel structure, with the vessel base in the lower world, the body in the middle world, and the rim in the upper world. The long extended necks of most bottles could symbolize the sacred pole extending through all world levels.

Top-down and side views of a Pine Tree Mound four-cornered bottle showing how the bottle form emphasizes the four repetitions of the engraved motif around the body. The bottle form alludes to the four-quartered world, and the extended neck represents the sacred pole. Enlarge image
Drawings of shell gorgets engraved with human dancers around a central pole. The central pole is a key motif in understanding the Ripley Engraved vessels at Pine Tree Mound and in understanding the multilevel world order common to Mississippian belief. The gorget shown at top is from the Spiro site in LeFlore County, Oklahoma. The other is from the Roden site in McCurtain County, Oklahoma. Enlarge image
A bowl with a pedestal base from a burial at Pine Tree Mound beside a drawing of a shell gorget from Spiro in eastern Oklahoma, a key Mississippian moundbuilder site. The form of the bowl and the pot on top of a pole on the gorget are very similar. Both may show how important pottery vessels were in depicting a multilevel world..


The Engraved Scroll Motif and the Center of the World

One of the most widely recognized decorations on engraved vessels at Caddo sites near Pine Tree Mound is what archeologists call the scroll motif. The structure of this motif, like the dance ground on the Spiro and Roden site gorgets, is symbolic of the sacred center of the world. This motif has many variations, but uniting all of them is the four-part structure implicit in the rotational symmetry of the motif around a central element. This symmetry solidifies the motif’s connection to a symbolic representation of the dance ground and multilevel world with sacred center and four quarters.

The central circle element, common within some scrolls, is a likely analog for the Caddo dance ground, and the space often left empty in the center of the circle may represent the sacred pole or axis mundi. In some cases, as on the Roden gorget, a cross is at the center of the circle.

On bowls and bottles from the Pine Tree Mound site, this circle-with-cross element occurs only in the center of scrolls, never decorating the arms of scrolls. The two arms of the scroll, which meet at the central element, are comparable to the dancers circling the pole on the Roden gorget. The decorations within the scroll arms may identify who is dancing or at in what world level the dance is taking place. Decoration of the arms may be likened to the decoration found on the dancers on the Spiro and Roden gorgets. All the various decorative elements and their positions are part of the story the potter was trying to tell.

The Feathered Scroll

One decorative element that may be a marker of a particular world level is called the pendant triangle. It appears most often in a secondary position in the arms of scrolls and other motifs and was made by repeatedly incising or engraving a small triangle along an engraved line, with the point of the triangle facing away or hanging down from the line. By shifting one’s focus away from the pendant triangle itself to what surrounds it, it is possible to see the scroll arms as having scalloped edges.

A similar kind of scalloped edge is found on the wings of the Birdman in Mississippian iconography and on shell cups from the Spiro site. Reilly points out that feathers are depicted in different ways on the shell cups and that scalloping appears to be a particular kind of feather, that is, the downy feathers associated with the upper part of the inner wing. Hence, a scroll with pendant triangles on pottery can be viewed as representing a downy feathered scroll and, as on the Birdman, a connection with the upper world.

Feathers are known to have been important symbolically for the historic Caddo. Griffith reports that the wing of an eagle was used in divination ceremonies to carry prayers to Ayo-Caddi-Aymay, the Great Spirit who resides in the upper world. Further, early Spanish reports indicate that the badge of a Caddo healer, or cona, was a feathered headdress and snakeskin necklace.

Potters also expressed feathering by sculpting the clay. For instance, 13 bowls from the graves have scalloped rims. They made a scalloped rim by adding clay to the lip and shaping it into a series of rounded projections that fringed the mouth of the vessel. Scalloping the rim of a bowl would reinforce the idea that its rim belonged with the upper world. Six bowls have both scalloped rims and scroll motifs, but none of these scrolls have pendant triangles. Thus, it appears potters denoted feathering by one means or another, but not both.

Drawing of a Ripley Engraved bowl with a scroll motif from Pine Tree Mound. The central element of the scroll is a cross-in-circle. The scroll arms rotate around the central element. Adding two vertical arms creates rotational symmetry representing the four-part structure of the world. Enlarge image
Drawings of Birdman image engraved on a shell cup from the Spiro site (top) and a Ripley Engraved bowl with pendant triangle scroll (bottom) from Pine Tree Mound. Scalloped elements depict downy feathers. Enlarge for detail. Enlarge image
Ripley Engraved bowl with a scalloped rim that may indicate feathers, viewed from the top down. The vessel is from Pine Tree Mound. Enlarge image

Serpent Scrolls

If using pendant triangles or feathering places the action or actor of a scroll motif in the upper world, then what other decorative elements may indicate connections to the lower world? Common secondary elements found in scrolls that may fill this role are bars, simple circles, and crosshatching. Many of the serpents or creatures with serpent-like attributes on the Spiro shell cups have body markings that are bars, chevrons, diamonds, circles, curls, and crosshatching, or combinations of these elements. While not exactly the same, the bars, circles, and crosshatching as secondary elements in the arms of scrolls are comparable. Further underscoring the importance of the serpent in Caddo cosmology are a number of bottles with representational rattlesnake motifs with body markings of crosshatching and chevrons that have been found at sites mainly in the Big Cypress Creek and middle Sabine River drainages of northeast Texas. These serpents are considered to be associated with the canebrake rattlesnake.

The Great Serpent

A powerful being in Mississippian iconography is known as the Great Serpent, Horned Serpent, or Piasa. This being ruled the lower world, but it was a mixed power that could work for ill or good in relation to humans. Its ability to act in the world of everyday life is symbolized by the combination of various animals, most notably bird and snake, to form the body of the serpent. Thus, when wings or feathers are placed on snake-like elements within a ceramic motif, the design may represent the Great Serpent and signify its manifestation in the visible night sky.

There are many examples of composite snake-bird figures on shell cups from the Spiro site. One example shows these figures in four-fold rotational symmetry around a cross-in-circle central element similar to designs on some bowls from Pine Tree Mound. Some vessels have pendant triangles indicating feathering combined with snake elements such as crosshatching, chevrons, and bars. One bowl neatly combines both elements and full motifs indicating serpents and birds. Its body has concentric circles with pendant triangles forming scalloped edges suggesting feathering. Above the feathered circles on the tall rim is a straight scroll with SZ central elements and arms containing bars and crosshatching, all indicative of serpents. Above the serpent scroll, the lip of the vessel is scalloped, again suggesting feathering.

Drawings of a snake image from a shell cup from the Spiro site (top) and a bowl with a scroll with bars and crosshatching (bottom) from Pine Tree Mound. The markings on the scroll are similar to the serpent markings on the shell cup. Both may have had lower-world connections. Enlarge image
Drawing of four Piasas in a swastika pattern on shell cup from the Spiro site. The Piasas may be a reference to the Great Serpent manifest in the night sky.. Enlarge image
Drawings of a snake with an SZ design on its underbelly on an engraved shell cup from the Spiro site and a bowl with a scroll having the SZ as central element, from Pine Tree Mound. This element may connect the decoration on the bowl to the lower world. Enlarge image
A Ripley Engraved bowl from Pine Tree Mound with a Great Serpent scroll motif on the tall rim and a feathered circle motif on the body. Enlarge image
Drawing of the bowl at left. Note the combination of serpent markings of bars and crosshatching and SZ central elements within the scroll motif, combined with feathered concentric circles main body motif and scalloped rim. Enlarge image

Connections and Ambiguities

The comparison of Ripley Engraved vessels and vessel motifs from this site to Mississippian iconography demonstrates a deep connection between the Pine Tree Mound people and other groups. And it attempts to tie that connection to how the Pine Tree people structured their lives. Though the vessels discussed come from graves dating to 1400 to 1525, dating from the Pine Tree village areas suggest that occupation at the site continued into the 1700s.

Yet, late Caddo ceramic types, such as Natchitoches Engraved, are all but invisible in the village ceramic assemblage. Did Ripley Engraved vessels continue to be produced into the protohistoric period? The ambiguities in the village vessel assemblage from Pine Tree provide no clear answers. That ambiguity itself is suggestive of disruption. Just six miles south of the Pine Tree Mound site in the same drainage there are several sites associated with the historic Kinsloe Phase that have burials with Natchitoches vessels and many artifacts of European origin. Ripley Engraved vessels are not in many of those graves. Motifs associated with Natchitoches vessels do have strong similarities to the Ripley Engraved motifs. Clearly, it is possible that, though the pottery may have changed, the message continued.

Tsah Nishe (Mr. Moon) still looks over the Pine Tree Mound site. Enlarge image