Study of pipestone artifacts overturns a century-old assumption

December 18, 2012, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The Hopewell people used distinctive stone pipes, often with effigies on them, like this owl pipe found in an early village excavation in Illinois. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer (ISAS artifact)

(—In the early 1900s, an archaeologist, William Mills, dug up a treasure-trove of carved stone pipes that had been buried almost 2,000 years earlier. Mills was the first to dig the Native American site, called Tremper Mound, in southern Ohio. And when he inspected the pipes, he made a reasonable – but untested – assumption. The pipes looked as if they had been carved from local stone, and so he said they were. That assumption, first published in 1916, has been repeated in scientific publications to this day. But according to a new analysis, Mills was wrong.

In a new study, the first to actually test the stone pipes and pipestone from quarries across the upper Midwest, researchers conclude that those who buried the pipes in Tremper Mound got most of their pipestone – and perhaps even the finished, carved pipes – from Illinois.

The researchers spent nearly a decade on the new research. They first collected the mineralogical signatures of stone found in traditional pipestone quarries in Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio. Then they compared the material found in those quarries to the mineralogical makeup of the left behind by the people of Tremper Mound.

Less than 20 percent of the 111 Tremper Mound pipes they tested were made from local Ohio stone. About 65 percent were carved from flint clay found only in northern Illinois and 18 percent were made of a stone called catlinite – from Minnesota.

The researchers are still puzzling over how most of these materials made it to Ohio from Illinois, and are baffled by another . Pipes from a site only about 40 miles north of Tremper Mound, an elaborate cluster of immense known as Mound City, were carved almost entirely from local stone. Mound City was inhabited at about the same time or shortly after Tremper Mound, and the pipes found there are stylistically very similar to the Tremper pipes. (See a slideshow of some pipes.)

The researchers describe their findings in a paper in American Antiquity.

Researchers tested the mineralogical profiles of stone from sites across the upper Midwest to determine the origin of stone pipes found at Tremper Mound in Ohio, a Hopewell site. Credit: MAP courtesy ISAS

These results should remind archaeologists that things are not as simple as they sometimes appear, said Thomas Emerson, the principal investigator on the study and the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) at the University of Illinois.

"This is how mythology becomes encased in science," he said.

This Hopewell era platform pipe was discovered in Adams County, Illinois, in 1928. It is made of catlinite from Minnesota. Similar pipes were found in Tremper Mound, Ohio. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer (ISAS artifact)

The study also confirms that the people who produced these pipestone artifacts, known today as members of the Hopewell tradition, were more diverse and varied in their cultural practices than scientists once appreciated, Emerson said.

The Hopewell people, who lived in the region from about 100 B.C. to roughly A.D. 400, have long been the subject of speculation, as the artifacts they left behind and the manner in which these goods were disposed of are not easily understood. Those living in southeastern Ohio, especially, seemed to be "conspicuous consumers and connoisseurs of the exotic," Emerson said.

The Hopewell people from that area collected "massive assemblages of obsidian from Wyoming, mica from the Appalachians, and caches of elaborately carved pipes," Emerson said. They also collected shells from the Gulf Coast, along with the skulls of exotic animals (an alligator, for instance).

"Strange animals, strange minerals, strange things were really a focus," he said.

Most of the carved stone pipes from that era have been found in Ohio, where very large caches often containing more than 100 pipes were ritually broken, burned and buried, Emerson said. The same style of pipes are found in Illinois, but many fewer have been uncovered in Illinois to date, he said, and they are dispersed, not heaped together in giant hordes as in Ohio.

Watch a videoabout the Hopewell pipes

There is evidence of stone carving at the Illinois sources where the stone was gathered, but none at Tremper Mound, suggesting that the Illinois stone was carved into pipes before it was transported to Ohio.

The team used a variety of techniques to analyze the material in the quarries and the artifacts. One method, called X-ray diffraction (XRD), produces a distinct signal that reflects the proportion of minerals in different types of stone. The must be pulverized, however, to subject it to XRD. To analyze the intact pipes, the researchers used a non-destructive portable technology, called PIMA, which illuminates a specimen with short-wavelength infrared radiation and records the refracted (unabsorbed) wavelengths, allowing investigators to identify the minerals present. They verified the accuracy of the PIMA by comparing its results to those obtained with XRD on quarry specimens and broken pipes.

The new findings should challenge to look more carefully at the evidence left behind by the Hopewell people, Emerson said.

"This study really says to the archaeological community, you need to go back to the drawing board," he said. "You've been telling stories for decades that are based on essentially misinformation."

Explore further: 'Black drink': Scientists find evidence of ritual use of caffeinated brew at Cahokia

More information: "The Allure of the Exotic: Reexamining the Use of Local and Distant Pipestone Quarries in Ohio Hopewell Pipe Caches," American Antiquity.

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1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2012
A wise man once said, "There is nothing permanent except change." But it seems that some things never change.
1.7 / 5 (6) Dec 18, 2012
Pure conjecture, they disposed of all the pipes in massive piles because the liberals gained ruling control and outlawed tobacco, hence not long after they ceased to exist as a tribe because the surrounding tribes wiped out them wimpy bleeding heart liberal tribe that probably also outlawed any weaponry and promoted same sex marriage. You can tell because of all the exotic animals and imports into their community. Surprised they didn't find leopard skinned light shades in the ruins. Just a joke, get over it.
1.4 / 5 (9) Dec 18, 2012
This is how mythology becomes encased in science,

Similar to the way that the evolutionary single ancestor myth is still with us.
Except that it cannot be tested in the same way the pipestone can be checked. No one can go back into the past to verify how life arose on the planet. So whatever assumption is made, remains just that.
The single ancestor is PURELY mythological:
"You've been telling stories for decades that are based on essentially misinformation."

5 / 5 (4) Dec 18, 2012
@Kevin- I don't think that any scientist here goes to religious sites and preaches science there, so please treat this science site and its readers with the same respect.

And what did this article have to do with a single ancestor and evolution anyway?

But since you have raised the subject, did it ever occur to you that YOU might be the one telling stories that are based on misinformation, and that YOU can't go back and check on your divine creator belief or your interpretation of the ancient text that you base it on?

At least science tries to find new information and learn from it, rather than rejecting anything that conflicts with its current thinking no matter what the evidence says.
5 / 5 (3) Dec 19, 2012
Once again, kevin finds a way to segue his frenzied lunacy into a completely unrelated article. Do your job, moderators.
not rated yet Dec 19, 2012
and 18 percent were made of a stone called catlinite

Pipestone is catlinite, isn't it?!
not rated yet Dec 19, 2012
There's more than one kind of "pipestone", so they need to tell which types come from where.

As for the wide trading area, preindustrial Euro-Asian traders covered this much territory regularly, so it shouldn't be surprising.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2012
Once again, kevin finds a way to segue his frenzied lunacy into a completely unrelated article. Do your job, moderators.

Do your job posters and report him!
not rated yet Dec 23, 2012
Did they have lighters back then? What were they smoking on?
not rated yet Dec 23, 2012
Ok. It's allright, but who dedicates a decade to prove that pipes where made in another place?
That's passion!

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