North American Otter pipe

Mound City, Ohio, North America, Middle Woodland period, Ohio Hopewell culture, 200 BC - AD 100

otter shaped pipe

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Excavations in mounds in Ohio have uncovered superbly carved pipes and other exotic trade goods and fine artworks.

The pipes may have been smoked for purification during rituals, and to ensure the good standing of the particular form of Native government, whether clan, lineage, or larger grouping.

A number of pipes in the form of aquatic mammals were found at Mound City. They were to become important in perhaps the most significant archaeological debate of the mid-nineteenth century: were the mounds built by people related to the present-day Native population? If not, who built them?

Most American antiquarians thought that the scale and magnificence of the earthworks indicated that they had been erected by an unrelated people, the 'Moundbuilders', whom the Native Indian replaced. To support their theory, they claimed that the otter pipes represented vegetarian manatees, living 1000 miles away in the seas around tropical Florida.

The 'Moundbuilder Myth' eased nineteenth-century guilt at the rapidly disappearing Indian population. Just as the Indians had replaced the Moundbuilders - perhaps coming from the Old World - so Americans, it was thought, would entirely replace Indians.

North American otter pipe


North American
otter pipe

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Object details

Height: 5.1 cm
Width: 10 cm
Depth: 3.3 cm


AOA (S) 266

Room 26: North America


    J.C.H. King, First peoples, first contacts: native peoples of North America (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    S.L. Gilman, and X. Zun, Smoke: a Global History of Smoking (London, Reaktion Books, 2004)

    B. Fagan, Ancient North America (London, Thames and Hudson, 2005)

    J.C.H. King, Smoking Pipes of the North American Indian (London, The British Museum Press, 1977)

    G. Milner, The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America (London, Thames and Hudson, 2004)

    S. Rafferty, and R. Mann, Smoking and Culture: The Archaeology of Tobacco Pipes in Eastern North America (Knoxville, The University of Tennessee Press, 2004)