In March of 1942, Charles Snow, a Harvard-trained physical anthropologist at the University of Kentucky, sent a letter to Richard Morgan, then the Ohio Historical Society’s Curator of Archaeology, asking permission to reproduce an image of the Adena Pipe for a paper he was writing about two “Indian Dwarfs from Moundville.” He expressed his opinion that “in its realistic treatment the figurine appears to be that of an achondroplastic dwarf.”
Richard Morgan, then Curator of Archaeology for the Ohio Historical Society, readily granted permission for Snow to use the image, but expressed his doubts that the man on the pipe actually represented a dwarf:
“I was talking to Dr. Frank Roos (Dept. of Fine Arts, Ohio State Univ.) who is making a study of primitive art throughout the world. He remarked that the Adena figurine was like other representations of the human figure in primitive art. He stated that squatty figures with large heads were typical of such art and that it would be dangerous to draw definite conclusions concerning the physical type represented.”
This argument didn’t persuade Snow. He replied on 10 March:
“Several persons have remarked about the pipe-figurine and its figure which in its realism suggests to some that the model may have been an achondroplastic dwarf. Of course, it is very difficult to assert that any such art reproduction represents all of the things artists read into them. In this case, the proportions of the arms, the elbow level, the short, heavy legs the protruding buttocks are all too suggestive in my opinion. Furthermore, the little Indian reported by Fowke, buried at the center of Mound 4 Waverly Group probably was an achondroplastic dwarf. Thus the Adena artist may well have used an actual model I am using the figurine purely as suggestive.”
Snow makes some good points, but I think the issue is not what “artists read into” ancient artifacts such as the Adena Pipe, but what physical anthropologists read into them.
While doing research on the Adena Pipe for my 2010 Timeline article, I contacted the Pre-Columbian Art Historian Johanna Minich and asked her for her views. She is “not entirely convinced” that the man on the pipe was intended to represent a dwarf. For example, the arms are roughly in proper proportion to the body, and the seemingly shortened legs are bent, which may have made it difficult for the sculptor to get the proportions right. She concluded that “if the artist of the Adena man was trying to show us a dwarf, in my mind, it would be more obvious.”
So, the man on the Adena Pipe may be a dwarf, but sculpture is not photography and we simply don’t know enough about the art of the Adena culture to make such a claim with any degree of confidence.
Note: Thanks to OHS volunteer Sara Nuber Thomas for discovering the Snow-Morgan correspondence in the Archaeology files and for recognizing its timeliness!