Indegenous Maps: Representing the World Inhabited

As the western idea of a map is mostly a tool for finding one’s whereabouts and navigating to unknown places, indigenous peoples across the world have used them for purposes beyond the physical realm. Through understanding these maps from the past, archaeologists can gain a better understanding of how indigenous cultures viewed the world they inhabited and how they felt it should be represented.

Due to its ability to not decompose, art carved into rock walls such as those found in the Thebes Gap are some of the best remaining examples of these maps. Although it is highly debated amongst archaeologists, many believe that the glyph story depicted there can also locate the narrative into real places. This can be most easily proven by the pecked in dots denoting towns in clumps and pathways through lines. Out of seven formal motifs shown, the giant bird at the top seems to be most important. Seeing as it is difficult to relate this creation to Cahokia’s status in history, this creature could represent a warning to travelers of the people living ahead, or be a memory of its identity after its downfall. That is, however, if the bird represents a physical place and not one of spiritual significance and ritual creation (Norris 2008).

Sami Drum design, Drawing by Ville Vuolanto

Maps created by the indigenous Sami people of Lapland, in Finland, show how maps were used as a multisensory experience connecting both physical and spiritual realms. Owned and made by shamans, these maps were also functional drums. To connect to the world surrounding themselves, shamans painted what they saw onto the drum’s skin, often starting with a cross and diamond shape in the middle to depict the sun. When the Shaman slowly turns the drum while tapping different areas, it is said they could tell the different directions from just the sounds. When used in special rituals, the drum could also direct where to hunt and what would be found there, which would be recorded inside the drum which only the shaman could see (Keski-Säntti 2003). This map demonstrates how the Sami view the physical and spiritual senses as inseparable and vital parts of their lives.

“Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina.” Francis Nicholson (Contributor), c. 1721. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Furthermore, maps that focus on a political landscape have also been found, as seen in the Catawba deerskin map. Created for the governor of South Carolina around 1721 by members of the Catawba nation, this map stylistically demonstrates the relationship between different native tribes and the English settlers (St. Onge 2016). The tribe names are written within circles that are connected by a web of lines which end at the squares of settlements, all showing the trade systems of the region in an abstract sense.

These varieties of maps all show to archaeologists what each culture valued in the world around them, and what they felt was necessary to keep a record of or share with other peoples. However, as the cultures they come from have evolved or even dispersed, their functions and meaning are highly debated as they are used to study past cultures.

Further Reading

Maps, Mapmaking, and Map Use by Native North Americans

The Drum as Map: Western Knowledge Systems and Northern Indigenous Map Making

Keski-Säntti, Jouko, Ulla Lehtonen, Pauli Sivonen, and Ville Vuolanto. “The Drum as Map: Western Knowledge Systems and Northern Indigenous Map Making.” Imago Mundi 55 (2003): 120–25.

Norris, F. Terry, and Timothy R. Pauketat. “A PRE-COLUMBIAN MAP OF THE MISSISSIPPI?” Southeastern Archaeology 27, no. 1 (2008): 78–92.

St. Onge, Tim. “Celebrating Native American Cartography: The Catawba Deerskin Map | Worlds Revealed: Geography & Maps at The Library Of Congress.” Webpage, November 30, 2016. //

Art vs Artifact

What is it that differentiates a pot found underground from thousands of years ago from the ones on a pedestal in museums like the MET? What are the guidelines that consider one as an artifact of the past and one as a piece of art? Or can one object be both?

The textbook definition of an artifact is a “humanly made or modified portable object, such as stone tools, pottery, and metal weapons.” (Renfrew et al. 2018). This definition renders the aesthetic and skill level aspect of a found object to be irrelevant, making an artifact considered anything created by humans.

However, art is defined as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings” (Britannica Dictionary). Taking into account the beauty and expression of an object, many artifacts may fall out of place, but there is definitely overlap between the two. A simple stone vessel with no other intention than to store meat in the winter would likely have no beauty and communicate no ideas of the time, and thus is not art. However a carved stone such as the Venus of Willendorf is now considered one of the oldest surviving works of art.

Venus of Willendorf, (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Venus of Willendorf, carved from limestone circa 24,000 BCE, is a 4.5 inch tall female figurine. She was named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty, although there is no relation or evidence that she represents that, because of her emphasized reproductive features and understated face and limbs (Zygmont 2015). Although her purpose is unknown, this figure is palm sized and would have been very easy to transport, just as other artifacts of the time. However, it is the aesthetic qualities and the unknown yet clearly existing intentions that went into making her that turn this piece of stone into an artwork that is now on display in the Naturhistorisches Museum of Vienna.

As a form of expression, artwork can offer much more information than just what people needed to live in prehistoric times, but also what they found to be important. From the Venus of Willendorf, we can see that this nomadic society had given an importance to women’s ability to reproduce, as the piece seems to reference fertility.

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 (photo: © Ai Weiwei)

As art can be archaeology, archaeology can also be art. In 1995 Chinese artist Ai Weiwei created the photography series Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, in which he drops a 2000 year old ceramic urn against the ground, shattering (Beres 2020). Giving this urn a new significance even in destruction, this piece emphasizes how important it is to remember and preserve the past.

Further Reading:
Paleolithic Art, An Introduction 
The Case for Ai Weiwei


“Art Definition & Meaning | Britannica Dictionary.” Accessed September 25, 2022.

Beres, Tiffany Wai-Ying. “Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn .” Smarthistory, August 25, 2020.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth edition. Thames & Hudson.

Zygmont, Bryant. “Venus of Willendorf .” Smarthistory, November 21, 2015.