The Headpots of Northeast Arkansas and
Southern Pemiscot County, Missouri
James F. Cherry
(University of Arkansas)
The difference between a headpot and a pothead is that the former doesn't smoke, babble, tell stupid jokes, and eat a dozen chocolate-glazed doughnuts at a sitting (and ask for more). In fact, a headpot doesn't do much of anything except sit there, glowering at you.
No one --- least of all James F. Cherry --- seems to know what the Mississipian Indians did with these ferocious-looking pots. Archeologists suggest that they may be "trophy heads" of enemies, or a "projection of death," with "the closed eyes, rather sunken nose, and parted lips."
Kinsmen? Heroic figures? Enemies from the battlefield? Who knows? That they were not mere burial items is proved by the worn and eroded "suspension holes." Experts shy away from saying that they are "death masks," although many were found in grave mounds. There are only 138 in existence, all of which are shown here with four, six, or eight angles of photographic shots.
One of our readers suggested that they may have been representations of enemies. She wrote, "I had never seen anything this sophisticated from this area. They are indeed spooky. The Celts used to wear their enemies' heads swinging from their belts. These look as if they belong right there with them."
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Headpots fall into three general types: Caddoan, (after a Faulknerian character), Charleston (after the 1920s dance) and Conway (named after Conway Twitty, inventor of "twittering," instant communication ... where you learn too much about what your closest friends are thinking while they cook up hamburgers, do their hair, go to bed, shack up.)
Ignore most everything from the preceding paragraph except the names, but if you want to know what I think, I think headpots were used like Tobey-jars for head-exploding drinks, the Martinis of the mid-American Middle Ages for, as we all know, the Indians of the Mississippi Valley got a raw deal from all the occupiers of their territories --- Spanish Catholics on their chargers from the south, French trappers and Trappist monks from the north, English Puritan save-your-souls from the east.
The only way they could relieve themselves of the Colonial Miseries was by getting potted on anything they could cook up, even to the point of carrying it around in a funny-looking head to hide the real juice from all those moralist invaders ...
... juices leeched from the dried beetle-bugs of Pemiscot County, melded with bristletail grub-juice and hops. Or, best of them all, sweet, sugary Pecan Wine ... potted in their head pots from Pecan Point, Arkansas, aged six months with good old sour mash and pine-gum pudding.
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The funniest things in Headpots are not the illustrations --- which are lovely --- but the sad tales of those who prospected this pottery in the malarial wastes of northeast Arkansas or southeast Missouri more than a century ago. This, according to Dr. Cherry, was written by an agent of the Peabody Museum: "I should have sent back larger collections but one cant tell what a man had to go through with here unless he has been through for instance the first question asked 'have you a health certificate' and if you have not then comes this 'go back or stay here 20 days' or you have to encounter the double bareled shot gun."
Or this from Captain W. Hall of the Davenport Academy of Natural Sciences,
Keep Shady and quiet and let the newspaper men doo their own guessing and blowing and we will get the Potts and Build the museum as fast as we can and then have some rest and funn Seeing them Stare at the large cotton boles that grows on the lower end of the cotton Stalks as I tell the Negroes.
Or, this, Capt. Hall revealing himself as an unhappy Arkansas Traveler: "Pleas don't Let any Drunken Irishman gett a hold of this Letter as I have had a plenty of trouble already with Such they are all Snakes in the grass and Bite every time your Eye off of them."
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Frankly, these pots give me the willies, what with their half-lidded orbs and their "eye surrounds," the bare grisly stunted teeth, the "rectangular hair nodes," the funny wing-tips and tail-feathers, the squints. It's all pretty garish, if not eerie, but you do have to hand it to these curators from the University of Arkansas Press: they are able to dish up over eight-hundred potted close-ups, in color, beautiful.
If you are a headpot head (or even a mere pothead), you are going to be amazed if not delighted by what they have cooked up for us.--- Carlos Amantea