Tyler Mound: A Western Kentucky Center for Negative Painted Ceramics?

By Kevin E. Smith
Professor and Director of Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University

Although the use of resist painting to create “negative-painted” Mississippian ceramics is most commonly associated in people’s minds with the Angel site in Indiana (Angel Negative Painted on plates), several sites around Nashville, Tennessee (Nashville Negative Painted on effigy and other bottles), or southeast Missouri (Sikeston Negative Painted in combination with positive painting on bottles), potters at other sites also opted to use technique. Kincaid in Illinois has also been suggested as a potential center of production for these rare vessels. We might also add the Tyler Mound, a Mississippian mound site in Fulton County, Kentucky to the list of places where skilled potters created negative painted bottles.

Tyler Mound has seen almost no modern professional investigation, so little contextual information is currently available for the negative painted ceramics from the site. However, sufficient examples have been documented to strongly suggest the production of blank-faced hooded effigy bottles as a possible hallmark of Tyler’s potters. While blank-faced hooded bottles with negative painting are known from the Nashville area, the designs on the Tyler examples are very distinct – consisting of both rectilinear and curvilinear designs along with rows of dots in repeating panels (Figure 1). The temper appears to be grit and/or grog rather than shell, another factor that makes them distinct from Nashville’s shell tempering.

Figure 1. Surface collected negative-painted sherds from the Tyler Mound, with closeup of probable hooded bottle fragment (Kevin E. Smith)

One of these blank-faced hooded bottles, reportedly found at the Tyler Mound sometime in the 1940s  (Figure 2), exhibits a head treatment well known from Nashville’s female effigy bottles and figurines (Figure 3) – a cap, a braid of hair joining hair emerging from beneath the cap to culminate in a small bun. Many more examples can be seen in Robert Sharp’s recent article “Our Lady of the Cumberland: Styles, Distribution, and Community” in the e-journal Tennessee Archaeology (https://www.tn.gov/content/dam/tn/environment/archaeology/documents/tennesseearchaeologyjournal/arch-journal-Volume10-Issue1.pdf).

Figure 2. Negative-painted blank-faced female effigy bottle reportedly from Tyler Mound. The negative painting is faded but consists of swirls of negative painting obscured in places by fire clouds (© David H. Dye)
Figure 3. Negative painted female figurine from Davidson County, Tennessee showing a similar head treatment (Kevin E. Smith).

Another blank-faced bottle from Tyler Mound (Figure 4) exhibits the same head treatment and retains better preserved examples of the curvilinear design. On at least one example, however, a potter elected to fully model the face and head – creating a stunning bottle with the female head emerging out of a set of swirling motifs surrounded by a petaloid border.

Figure 4. Negative-painted blank-faced female effigy bottle reportedly from Tyler Mound, exhibiting a slight variant of the same head treatment and swirling negative-painted motifs on the body (© David H. Dye)
Figure 5. Negative-painted hooded female effigy bottle reportedly from Tyler Mound (© David H. Dye)

Unfortunately, the absence of detailed information about Tyler Mound prevents firmer statements at this time about the chronology and context of these ceramics. The location of Hickman, a small community in Fulton County, Kentucky with the adjacent Hickman County (with its own mound sites) has also led to confusion in published images of these objects. At the very least, however, western Kentucky merits strong consideration as another significant and major center of production for negative-painted bottles – with a distinct regional style differing from all of the previously recognized centers in Missouri, Indiana, and Tennessee. Stay tuned, as more detailed examinations of these western Kentucky pieces are in process.

Acknowledgements: I express my thanks to my colleagues David H. Dye and Robert V. Sharp for permission to share these images.

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