Two thousand years ago, the Native American artisan who created this small clay pot drew an abstract image of what appears to be a bird in the soft clay. What is the meaning of the image? Such puzzles are common in archaeology, and answers generally begin with the phrase "to the best of our knowledge."
The shape of the bird’s bill is like that of a Roseate Spoonbill, a tropical wading bird found along the Gulf Coast. In the 1960s, archaeologists found a Spoonbill skeleton at a site along the Illinois River. Since then, they have unearthed other examples of pottery with this “spoonbill-like” image.
According to some Native American tribes, the world is organized into three realms: the upper world, the lower world, and this world, where human beings live. Water is believed to be the gateway to the lower world, a place described as disorderly, dynamic, and fertile, as opposed to the upper world, which is seen as pure and predictable. In this tradition, human beings have a responsibility to balance the forces of the upper and lower worlds, and knowledge of these places is important and powerful. Meanwhile, the Spoonbill and other wading birds and aquatic creatures live in an entrance to the lower world, and as such they may have been celebrated as having special spiritual importance. Perhaps the drawing was applied to the pottery to be used in well-being rituals.