10 Examples of Early Native American Art Before Settlers

Stone Implement

The function of this carefully worked implement is unknown, although there are many unsubstantiated theories. The style is typical of many such stone carvings from the British Columbia region. Traces of red paint suggest that it was once covered with color; it was presumably carried by the loop handle. This specimen was found in a rock cave in Niska Valley by Lt. G. T. Emmons.


Stone Oil Lamp

These remarkable sculptured objects, carved from heavy blocks of hard stone, were made to hold a quantity of seal or whale oil. When a moss wick was inserted and lit, they served as lamps in the Eskimo's home. While the incorporation of a human figure into the design is characteristic of this period, the reason for such an effigy is not known; it has been suggested that it represents a spirit. In later times, lamps lost this quality, eventually degenerating into functional but less artistic products.


This incised record of a herd of mountain sheep is an example of a decorative stone art form found throughout the western United States. Such designs are often colored in with earth pigments, or painted on flat stone surfaces; these latter rarely survive unless protected, as in a cave. Their use is subject to controversy; many were doubtless simply pictorial representations. Others were probably hunters' tallies or magic wishes for success in the chase.

Stone Whale Effigy

Depicting the killer whale, this is a fine example of the work of the early Pacific Coast artists of Southern California. Although many of these carved effigies have been excavated, their purpose is unknown; it is likely that they were connected with fishing ceremonies. The power of the native artist expressed in such a simple form is a tribute to his ability.

Polychrome Plate

An example of ware produced in southern Arizona during the archaeological period termed Hohokam. Although the quality of clay is poor and forms are usually not of great aesthetic interest, the designs and motifs used by these people are of exceptional quality. Many of them include delightful humorous touches.

Stone Effigy Head

Apparently carved and deposited as a burial offering in a mound, this may represent an ancestral figure. It is extremely realistic, and is one of the few masks, or heads of such type recovered from archaeological excavations.

Effigy Pipe

This finely sculptured stone pipe, depicting a spoonbill duck holding a fish, is widely known as one of the most artistic of the many Hopewell effigy pipes. The eyes of the bird may at one time have been inlaid, but this now lost.

Sandstone Tablet

The "Wilmington Tablet", as this is commonly known, is a flat sandstone slab in which a complicated pattern has been deeply incised. Several such stone or wood slabs have been discovered, but their purpose is not understood.

Bone Comb

These skillfully carved combs were used by women throughout the Eastern Woodlands area, and primarily among the early Iroquois people. This exceptional example made from bone represents two animals facing each other.

Head Effigy

This finely modeled jar representing a death's head may e mute evidence of the practice of taking human trophy heads, supporting a concept previously suggested. On the other hand, while it may be the head of a slain enemy, it may also be merely that of the person in whose grave this vessel was buried. The whole practice is part of a widespread manifestation throughout the Southeast which archaeologists have termed the "Southern Death Cult." The holes pierced in the ear were once decorated with turquoise or shell beads, as in real life; these have since been lost.

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