Pottery Owl Effigies

Owl rim effigy – 34Lf40/1289 D#9 (written by Louisa Nash)

The Works Project Administration (WPA) uncovered these owl rim effigies at Craig Mound during their excavations in 1936-37 at the Spiro Mounds site. These owl effigies are pottery and were made from clay tempered primarily with grog. The owls are a grey color and measure 9 centimeters in length and about 6 centimeters in width. They are depicted naturalistically and are very detailed. Engraved lines emphasize their eyes and beaks, and they have “horns” or “ears” made of molded clay, which depict the tuffs of display feathers that large owl species have on the tops of their heads. Molded clay bumps representing feathers are also found on the front of their necks. These owl effigies were used as a decorative element and were attached on the rim of a ceramic vessel.


The image of an owl likely carried important symbolic meaning for the people at Spiro.  Owls are seen less commonly in decorative images than amphibians, other kinds of birds, and reptiles, though owls still appear as motifs in a variety of artifacts throughout the southeast, such as in figures and pottery vessels. Dating from the archaic period, jasper beads shaped like owls have been uncovered by archaeologists (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). At Spiro, a stone effigy pipe had been carved into the form of an owl (Hamilton 1952). In addition to the effigy pipe, water bottle tops found at Spiro also showed an owl motif (Merriam 2004).

The symbolic and iconographical significance of owls varies among different tribes in the Southeastern United States. In most cases, owls were regarded as a powerful symbol that indicated either a dangerous omen or curing medicine (Krech 2009). Seven different owl species live in this region, and many tribes associated these species with impending death or misfortune. During the 1800s, an anthropologist noted that many tribes associated owls with sorcerers, witchcraft, impending death, and the wandering souls of the dead (Krech 2009). Europeans also traditionally associated owls with witches and death.


Historically, the Caddo have linked owls with curing in addition to witchcraft (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). Medicine men could take the form of owls and cure sickness. The Caddo also had a culture hero called Medicine Screech Owl, who was able to heal people and destroy monsters through touch (Hammerstedt and Cox 2011). Owls were likely associated with powerful but mysterious forces due to their nocturnal nature and frightening appearance. Their silence in flight and ability to hoot, hiss, and swivel their heads, further connected owls with supernatural capabilities (Krech 2009).


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