A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How many twenty-first-century travelers, barreling across the Illinois prairie on Highway 55 toward St. Louis, Missouri, are aware they're crossing the territory of what was once a civilization whose influence stretched from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico? A thousand years ago this culture built Cahokia, a vast metropolis on the rich soil of the Mississippi River bottomland filled with temples, lodges, more than 100 earthen mounds--one 10 stories high--and some 20,000 people.
The map of the United States at the entrance to "Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand," a new traveling exhibit on American Indian art of the ancient Midwest and Southeast, reveals Cahokia as part of a landscape marked not by our familiar network of highways and capitals, but by prehistoric peoples and places that were diverse but connected. (The exhibit title refers to three motifs common to many of these cultures.) It is a powerful and painful reminder that the first European explorers landed on a continent that had been densely inscribed by civilizations for thousands of years.
This fascinating and important exhibit brings together artifacts made by the diverse cultures who inhabited these forests and plains between 5000 B.C. and A.D. 1600. The curatorial aim here is less anthropological than aesthetic, eager to display beautiful objects: projectile points and polished stones, ceramics of astonishing stylistic diversity, and animal and human figurines. Among the many excellent stone animal effigy pipes is a beaver carved between A.D. 200 and 400 in Illinois. Its Hopewell creator used bone, probably beaver, for the two front teeth and tiny river pearls for eyes.
A thousand years later, Caddoan potters in Oklahoma produced jars with abstract markings in the glaze known as "fire clouds," the result of exposure to irregular firing. These oblong jars are rimless and unadorned; no one would be surprised to see them in a display of twentieth-century modernist works.
"Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand" opened at the Art Institute of Chicago last fall. It is at the Saint Louis Art Museum from March 4 through May 30, and then visits the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington D.C. from late July through September.
Brenda Fowler is the author of Iceman: Uncovering the Life and Times of a Prehistoric Man Found in an Alpine Glacier.
Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.