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Owls and Human Heads: In Search of the Ancient Bead-makers of the Lower Ohio River

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Many years ago while conducting a surface survey on a site in southern Illinois, I found what appeared to be a small, somewhat abstract owl effigy pendant made from clear fluorite. Intriguing as it was, I didn’t see another such effigy for over twenty years until I went back to college at mid-life to pursue a graduate degree in Anthropology at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (SIUC). For my Master’s Thesis I decided to research the use of fluorite by American Indians who used the soft, carvable crystalline mineral mainly to produce personal adornment items and on occasion small figurines or large statues. Personal adornment items such as beads and pendants convey the personalities or beliefs of the wearer and the study of such items provide an intriguing way of learning about past peoples on both an individual basis or, if patterns exist, as a society.

Fluorite occurs across the country in various places but surface exposures appear to have been limited to just a couple regions in the southeast. Large deposits of fluorite along with some surface exposures were known to exist in Hardin County in southern Illinois and across the Ohio River in Crittenden County, Kentucky. The handful of the fluorite artifacts illustrated in publications were also reported from this region. I begin my research on the fluorite objects recovered from the Kincaid Mounds site located along the Lower Ohio River in Pope and Massac Counties just southwest of the fluorite district. Professional excavation of the site began in the 1930s by the University of Chicago (UC) coming to halt in the early 1940s due to World War II. Professional excavation resumed many years later by SIUC in the early 2000s. Unfortunately, only a handful of fluorite items were recovered by SIUC and UC. I broadened my study to include professionally recovered material from other sites in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. Still, the sample for my study remained relatively low. Again, I broadened my research to include private surface collections from this same region. The inclusion of private collections greatly increased my sample and upon completion of my thesis in 2012, I had recorded over 1100 fluorite artifacts. I also recorded 600 similar artifacts made from other media such as cannel coal, clay, galena, and calcite.

My study revealed that fluorite was used to produce a number of bead and pendant types, mostly geometric in shape. A limited number of effigy types were also produced with the two most popular being owl and human head pendants. My study also revealed the greatest use of fluorite occurred almost exclusively during the late prehistoric period, referred to by southeastern archaeologists as the Mississippian period (A. D. 1050-1450). During this time people were attracted to river floodplains as they were composed of rich soils that were generally drought resistant. The rich bottomland soils were intensively farmed during the Mississippian period with maize being the principle cultigen. Farming allowed for reliable food stores which in turn allowed for population expansion and ensuing social complexity. Some Mississippian sites developed into large palisaded villages enclosing earthen mounds used for ritual and status dwellings or to inter the dead. Social complexity allowed those with special skills and or access to specific raw materials the opportunity to spend their time on certain tasks, exchanging their goods or services for other goods and services. The level at which this exchange occurred is a topic of debate amongst archaeologists and shows the importance of identifying areas of craft specialization as it relates to the level of social complexity.

The working of fluorite appears to have occurred to a very limited degree at various sites both large and small; one intensive workshop area however was identified from surface collections at Kincaid Mounds. A search for other intensive fluorite working locales during my thesis research revealed a couple possible sites mentioned in old reports, neither of which could be confirmed at that time. Recently however, I was able to record two personal surface collections from a site located in the heart of the fluorspar district that confirmed a second site of intensive fluorite working and dramatically increased our knowledge about this poorly understood site, the Orr-Herl site.

The Orr-Herl (11HA1) site is situated between the two largest Mississippian sites on the Lower Ohio River, the Angel Mounds site located near Evansville, Indiana and the Kincaid Mounds site located in the Black Bottom east of Metropolis, Illinois. The Orr-Herl site was the first site officially reported to the Illinois Archaeological Survey from Hardin County by Irvin Peithman in 1952. Peithman reported that pothunters had heavily looted the site at that time. A site revisit by SIUC archaeologists in the late 1970s led by Brian Butler, stated that the site contained at least one mound, possibly two, numerous looted burials, and an extensive fluorspar bead industry that likely played an important role in Mississippian (A.D. 1050-1450) economics in the Lower Ohio River Valley. Subsequent mentions of the site in the archaeological literature merely repeated earlier observations and lamented the fact that unscientific diggers had destroyed most, if not the entire site.

Documented collections offer important information


The Orr-Herl surface collections were accumulated basically over an 8-year period roughly 40 years ago. The collectors, who wish to remain anonymous, kept their material from the site separate and graciously allowed me to record their collections. The information contained in these collections is invaluable, especially in light of the fact that professional work at the site was limited to two surface surveys and that the site has been so heavily damaged by unscientific digging. Their collections contained hundreds of broken pottery vessel sherds and numerous ceramic objects such as pottery trowels, discoidals (gaming items), pipes, figurines, and personal adornment items such as beads and lip plugs. Broken rims and decorated sherds from the collections indicate that the site was occupied from the Middle to Late Mississippian period (approximately A.D. 1200-1400). Ceramic styles from other regions were also recovered at Orr-Herl and demonstrate contact, immigration, trade, or influence with groups in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.

The recovery of discoidals indicates that gaming was done by some of the inhabitants of this site. During the historic period, this game was referred to as Chunky. Explorers reported that American Indians rolled stone discs across flat prepared clay playing fields throwing their spears after the rolling stone with points scored based on how close or to what markings on the stick the stone stopped. A playing field or plaza is reportedly located on the east side of the mound at Orr-Herl, an indication that the game was played at the site.

Floodplains are generally comprised of ridge and swale topography thus great effort was often involved in leveling out such plazas. Various researchers have speculated that Chunky played an important role in both social and political life during the Mississippian period.

The two collections also contained numerous artifacts made from bone and shell. A cache of 30 to 40 cut and snapped deer antler tines was reportedly plowed out one spring. Deer antler tines were most often used as pressure flakers for producing stone tools but were also hollowed out and carved to a sharp point and used as projectile points on spears or arrows. Some modern bowhunters who use primitive weaponry report that they prefer bone arrow tips over stone tips as bone is less fragile, easier to produce a symmetrical point which is important for accuracy, and penetrates bone better than stone. A number of antler arrow points were also recovered at Orr-Herl. Other bone artifacts include: awls, many made from Whitetail deer ulnas (lower front leg bone), drilled bear and dog canine teeth (worn as pendant’s), bone fish hooks, carved bone arrowheads, and a bone hair pin. The collections also contained dozens of marine shell beads and bead blanks. Marine shell beads are relatively common on Mississippian sites and have been recovered from domestic as well as mortuary context. The most famous example of the latter is the “Birdman” burial at Cahokia’s Mound 72 in which over 60,000 Marine shell beads were recovered.

Hundreds of stone artifacts were also noted in the collections and include the normal assemblage of knives, scrapers, abraders, drills, hoes, picks, adzes, and axe heads and arrowheads. It is noteworthy that several exotic points were recovered at Orr-Herl with some traceable to the Cahokia Mounds site located in the American Bottom east of St. Louis, Missouri and others to the Caddo living in the Red River region of Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Many of these exotic points were direct imports while others made on local materials were either influenced by contact with groups in those areas or made by people who immigrated into the Lower Ohio River region. Special or status artifacts include spuds (ceremonial axe head), pigment stones, discoidals, pipes, figurines and most importantly the personal adornment items including over 1,000 fluorite beads, pendants, and related production failures and worked pieces. It is clear from this large assemblage of fluorite that extensive mineral working was being conducted at this site. In fact, this is without a doubt the largest sample of worked fluorite known from any site on the Lower Ohio River or anywhere in the southeast. It is perhaps not surprising given that the site is located on a limestone bluff with an exposed vertical fault that contained fluorite and calcite. A recent trip to the site confirmed the existence of the fault though only trace amounts of fluorite and some larger pieces of calcite remain. According to locals there were also nearby upland fluorite outcrops that were destroyed by historic mining activity in the early 1900s.

Information gained from interviewing the Orr-Herl collectors indicates that fluorite artifacts were found all across the roughly 7- to 8-acre site with most of the production debris and failures located nearer the mound while more finished artifacts were found in the village area to the south and east. Though it would be wise not to make too much from this observation it is noteworthy in that the fluorite workshop at Kincaid is also near the largest mound at the site. Taken together it could be inferred that the production of beads and pendants and subsequent distribution were under the control of the rulers at both sites. The reasons why it would be important for the rulers to control such production can only be speculated about but beliefs about crystals and animal symbolism recorded by early ethnographers may shed light on the subject.

Symbolic personal adornment items

Beliefs about the powers associated with crystals varied amongst southeastern tribes with some feeling that they would bring good luck in various activities from hunting, warfare, healing, and love-making. Others believed that they could be used for prophecy or omens. Beliefs concerning certain animals were also recorded. Of interest here are the beliefs associated with owls since they were the most common effigy type produced from fluorite. Some American Indian tribes viewed owls as witches or carriers of bad omens while others believed they would provide hunters or warriors with good luck and the ability to see at night. Others viewed owls as guardians to the spirit path and referred to this supernatural guardian as the old woman or the owl woman. Interestingly, a number of owl effigies have both a beak and a mouth and the majority of very distended abdomens reminiscent of pregnancy.

For clarification, the examples presented here are in no way meant to provide one to one correlates between the beliefs recorded by various researchers from numerous American Indian tribes with the prehistoric beliefs associated with or the reasoning behind the choice of raw material and the effigy portrayed. These examples were presented to provide various ways in which prehistoric people may have felt about crystalline minerals such as fluorite or different types of animal symbolism. Naturally we will never know exactly how prehistoric Indians felt about the various effigy pendants they produced but it seems unlikely that they did not associate some meaning with these items.

It is interesting to note that they did not produce effigies of every type of animal; in fact, the only other types of animal effigies produced in pendant form was various unidentifiable bird species or abstract diving birds and a few turtles. Other common effigies include human heads, a few full-figured human forms, tear-drop pendants resembling gourds, grooved cones resembling rattlesnake tails, and grooved bars possibly resembling clan bundles. I believe that this limited set of effigies is representative of either their spiritual beliefs, or at the very least served as clan symbols or status markers. These effigies were commonly made from fluorite on sites in the lower Ohio region but were produced from various media such as cannel coal, galena, calcite, and clay at sites further from the fluorite source area. This indicates the importance of these symbolic effigies above the media used to produce them and is a strong indication of regional beliefs. Displaying these effigies conveyed the beliefs or personal information about the individuals wearing them and the society to which they belonged. The raw material chosen to depict an effigy pendant or geometric bead also said something about the individual’s status and likely the region they lived in or where they came from.



In conclusion, the study of personal adornment items and the prehistoric use of a raw material with limited surface exposure such as fluorite, has provided the opportunity to not only learn about the prehistoric American Indians of the Lower Ohio River region during the Mississippian period as a whole, but to also obtain a glimpse of the individuals within this culture and regional symbolism possibly associated with spiritual beliefs. I have also personally benefitted from this study as I have met some wonderful people who have opened up their homes and collections for which I am truly grateful and indebted. In parting, let me encourage all who are interested in learning about the past to refrain from unscientific digging and for those that surface collect, please take the time to record your finds and share your discoveries. In doing so you can contribute to our knowledge of the past in a good way so that all can benefit.


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