Cahokia’s Effigy Pipes: Class and Spirituality in Conversation

Among the rich archaeological findings in the extended Cahokia region, sculpted effigy pipes stand out for their relative rarity and convoluted cultural significance. The pipes, distinguished from other North American effigies in both material and technical precision, depict various animals and humanoid figures in kneeling positions, frequently accompanied by gourd rattles and other religious paraphernalia endemic to the area (Thomas E. Emerson, 1983). Notably, many of the earliest figure pipes were not constructed as pipes at all but as free standing sculptures later modified. The revision and repurposing of these sculptures most likely coincided with a changing Cahokian theology and growing population in need of a more demonstrable spirituality (John T. Pafford, 2016).

Frog With Gourd Rattle Effigy Pipe (MeisterDruke–280892)

While individual Cahokia-style effigy pipes are typically quite idiosyncratic, many of the recorded specimens meet a distinctive criterion: possessing both depiction of shamanic paraphernalia (typically a gourd rattle) and more figurative representation of spirituality; in a broader cultural sense, this prerequisite is one that binds praxis to its spiritual underpinning (Thomas E. Emerson, 2003). Some effigies take the form of transfigured individuals, rendering a fairly literal spiritual transformation into frogs or snakes or deer, while others are more subtle: shaman figures with pensive faces and pipes, potentially meant to depict an onlooker’s perspective on such internal transformation.    

Human Smoking Effigy Pipe (Wikipedia Commons, 2010)

However, the vast majority of effigy pipes from Cahokia do not fit this exclusive precondition. They portray warriors and Chunkey players and individuals with no tangible connection to one another apart from their culture of origin (Emerson, 2003). The most apparent similarity throughout the catalog Cahokia’s effigy pipes is that they all depict high–ranking citizens, and with regard to the rarity and singularity of each effigy pipe, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they were sculpted with a specific, well respected echelon of clientele in mind (Emerson, 1983). But archaeobotanical analyses and form dictate that the cultural significance of the pipes could not have been so deeply rooted in monetary value (Pafford, 2016). 

The Cahokia effigy pipes were constructed with flat bases; they were not fit to be passed around and held as other pipes were. It is likely that they would have been placed on a flat surface, either the ground or a low table, where the individual would then kneel over the pipe and inhale in yawning gulps through the wide opening, producing an intense light-headed effect (Emerson, 2003). This performative and indulgent mode of consumption in tandem with the insufficient archaeobotanical record of regular tobacco usage in Cahokia as well as the recurrent shamanic motifs in many of the pipes suggest a distinctly spiritual significance for Cahokia’s effigy pipes.

Further Reading:


Emerson, Thomas E. “MATERIALIZING CAHOKIA SHAMANS.” Southeastern Archaeology 22, no. 2 (2003): 135–54.

Emerson, Thomas E. “THE BOSTROM FIGURE PIPE AND THE CAHOKIAN EFFIGY STYLE IN THE AMERICAN BOTTOM.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 8, no. 2 (1983): 257–67. “Cahokian Effigy Pipes.” Accessed November 13, 2022.


Ireland’s Bog Butter: Pastoralism and Preservation in the Mid Bronze Age

Boglands pock Ireland’s countryside with blankets of undulating, desolate terrain. They are constitutionally bleak: acidic water permeates every nook and cranny of the spongy earth and a thick mop of Sphagnum moss on the surface occludes oxygen and heat, slowing both growth and decay to a frigid lull. But as the Irish, and many other northern communities, have found, boglands make for excellent refrigerators, and in Bronze Age Irish communities where butter was not only a food, but a currency and way of life, bog refrigeration transfixed and delighted.  

A blanket peat bog in Derbyshire, England. Martyn Williams, 2020.

As predominantly pastoralist cultures, Irish communities would migrate with their cattle into the hills during the summer and fall months. This practice, called booleying, capitalized on the late-season surge of grass in the ‘upland’ and gave pastures in the ‘downland’ time to recover from winter and spring grazing. While whole families would often move together (furniture and all), it was almost exclusively the work of girls and young women to milk and tend to cattle. Throughout their several month stay, these women produced butter at a staggering rate, stockpiling for the ‘lean season’ in surplus, when they would use their butter as both a source of nourishment and currency for trade. To keep their precious bounty from going rancid, they turned to bogs: packing the butter first into wooden containers, then burying it deep in the bitter muck.

A 2,325-year-old bog butter weighing almost 30 lbs recovered from Roseberry in County Kildare alongside the keg it was found in. National Museum of Ireland.

When the grass in the hills had been depleted and the cows had grown fat with its sustenance, the pastoral communities would pack up, unearth their hoards of butter, and venture back down from the booley. In the process of leaving, however, they frequently abandoned a container of butter or two, unable to locate them in the bog’s dark turf. Fast forward to the 17th century CE and the emergence of turf cutting in Ireland. As workers carved into the archaic bogs, harvesting crude, carbon-rich peat to burn for fuel and warmth, they occasionally stumbled across wooden containers stained black from tannins. The butter within these rediscovered kegs was notably changed, having hardened and yellowed from thousands of years underground; its taste, reportedly cheesy and acrid. It is rather paradoxical, however, that the desecration of the land which made dairy preservation possible 3,500 years ago is the primary means of learning about it.

Turf cutters harvesting peat from a bog in County Galway, Ireland. iStock Photo.

Now, as archaeologists and turf cutters continue to unearth these parcels, and with the advent of radiocarbon dating, an acting typology for bog butter containers has been established, permitting a more precise chronology of Irish pastoralism and reaffirming the roots of modern Irish civilization in the dairy industry. 

Further Reading:


Earwood, Caroline. “Bog Butter: A Two Thousand Year History.” The Journal of Irish Archaeology 8 (1997): 25–42.

Costello, Eugene. “The Lost Art of ‘booleying’ in Ireland,” August 31, 2021.

Green, Cynthia. “Bog Butter Barrels and Ireland’s 3000-Year-Old Refrigerators.” JSTOR Daily, October 19, 2017.

“Irish Bog Butter Proven to Be ‘3500 Years’ Past Its Best Before Date.” Accessed September 25, 2022.

The Irish Times. “Saving Bogland: Stop Cutting Turf? I’d Say ‘No Way!’” Accessed September 25, 2022.