The large earth-toned pots on display on the lowest level of the New Jersey State Museum look deceivingly simple — even dull. But do not be fooled. They are the canvases for perhaps the most important and mystifying pieces of New Jersey art: designs created by the state’s indigenous people, the Lenni-Lenape (translated as Original People).
In short, these vessels, created between 200 and 900 C.E. and in the permanent museum exhibition, are guides to both an ancient and lost tradition and the nature of art. The designs also have a direct connection to the Trenton area.
To put the pottery and tradition in context, consider the following note regarding the Abbott Farm National Historic Landmark (AFNHL) district in the Hamilton and Trenton region — formerly known as the Hamilton Trenton Marsh — where much of the NJSM’s important designed pottery was found:
“Evidence of American Indian occupations at the AFNHL spans the time from roughly 13,000 years ago into the 18th century, well after Europeans had explored and established colonies in the area.”
The words belong to Michael Stewart, a New Jersey-based member of Temple University’s anthropology department.
One of the current archaeologists specializing on the region’s Native American history, Stewart has produced reports for the New Jersey Historic Preservation Office, consulted with Hunter Research in Trenton and the New Jersey State Museum, and has a long history of engagement with the Abbott Farm district.
The farm is named after Charles Conrad Abbott, a 19th-century archaeologist whose excavations on his and surrounding property only scratched the surface of the rich archaeological site and caused international interest in the region.
The site’s ongoing importance earned it National Landmark Status in 1976.
While documents ranging from the Colonial era — such as William Penn’s accounts — to current historic and archaeological studies provide a trail of facts and details, little is known about the internal lives of the Lenapes or their thoughts on creating art.
And while the Lenapes held annual rituals that combined percussive sound, the retelling of stories, and the use of materials with symbolic imagery, few objects remain for study.
The reason, according to New Jersey archaeologists, is that the objects were generally on wood, fabric, bark, or other organic materials that decayed from exposure or use.
What remains are expressions created in pottery and stone.
Stewart, who has written extensively on Lenape pottery, says the use of pottery started gradually and was generally plain.
Then there was the appearance of beautiful and now mystifying designs.
The NJSM highlights that beauty with an exhibition text that says, “As early as 1903, pottery types associated with the Abbott Farm Site were recognized as the most elaborately decorated pottery in the Northeast.”
So much so that in 1911 Ernest Volk, a German archaeologist working for Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, wrote, “I have found (in Trenton) the most beautiful patterns of fine lines that I have ever seen east of the Alleghenies.” The museum uses that quote in its permanent exhibition.
Stewart says Late Woodland potters in the Trenton area (500 to 1000 CE) were potentially influenced through their interaction and trading with people living in the Lower Delaware Valley and other regions.
Yet that doesn’t explain why they embellished their work with their noted aesthetic approach.
While the NJSM has been an important early and ongoing participant in the Abbott Farm excavations and pottery studies, museum archaeologist Dorothy Cross (1902 to 1972) is the unsung heroine of the endeavor.
Her accomplishments include excavating and documenting the Abbott site and unearthing the large pot at the center of the museum’s Native American exhibition. She also cataloged and printed the district’s pottery designs in her 1957 book, “Archaeology of New Jersey.”
Here is how Stewart puts Cross in context: “During the Depression era Dr. Dorothy Cross directed major excavations in the AFNHL and throughout New Jersey with funds and people from the Works Progress Administration. The large scale of her investigations during the 1930s and 1940s is basically unmatched by most archaeological projects today. Although her interpretations may no longer be current, her data and publications continue to be a valuable tool for ongoing research.”
After examining various remains and fragments, Cross notes the following about the Lenape designs: “Favorite motifs are ticked and cross-ticked lines and zigzags, often combined in horizontal rows with the ticked line above or below the zigzags. Ticked lines are also used to outline elements in the few more complicated designs such as a frieze of triangles. Usually the ticked line is placed over the paddled-net surface finish even though the surface under the rest of the design has been smoothed. Multiple rows of horizontal or vertical incisions, a band of cross-hatching bordered by horizontal lines, and rude interlocking zigzags frequently are placed below the rim. Punctuations appear only in a single horizontal row just below the rim.”
With Cross’ factual details of the designs and Volk’s exclamation regarding their beauty, a couple of natural questions arise: Why were they made and do they symbolize anything?
And while there is no reliable information regarding the reasons and no known individual with Lenape heritage who can provide verbally passed down information, clues have been offered by archaeologists.
Some suggest the pottery represented status.
That includes Stewart who, as one writer reports, “has theorized that these vessels were related to feasting and public ceremony related to activities (or made possible by activities) at sites of intensive resource exploitation, and that their limited distribution is indicative of their role in strictly defined public ceremonies or activities.”
NJSM curator Gregory Lattanzi, another of the current generation of those building and maintaining Lenape knowledge, says via email, “When it comes to consensus (of meaning) on pottery designs there is none. The only possible starting point is that the designs come from a known existing medium and are transferred to pottery (e.g., baskets, blankets, rugs). The designs could also be something that relates to a specific gathering place for larger groups of people who meet periodically.
“There are a number of studies that show specific types of pots that have similar designs are found across a wide geographic area and are also of similar shape and size. For archaeologists who study these types of pots the thought is that they are used for specific ceremonies or when large groups of people get together for an annual fish run or hunt. At the Abbott Farm that is something that Michael Stewart and myself have proposed. That at the [farm] during two or more times during the year, large groups of native people from the Middle Atlantic gathered around and made and exchanged these pots or something inside these pots.
“Furthermore, I believe that the designs on the Abbott zone incised ceramics mimic things to do with fishing. So they have produced nets or fish weirs on the pottery in a design that goes all around the pot.”
Meanwhile, about 60 miles north of the New Jersey State Museum there is another canvas — in rock — that provides a different glimpse into the ancient Lenape culture.
Here in South Orange at Seton Hall University in a corner of the library’s second floor, the Jennings Petroglyph is hidden in plain sight.
Step up and gaze at the whitened carved shapes in the stone. They are a mixture of both figurative and geometric designs. Examined for decades, the figures have yielded some insight into the northern and Delaware River Lenape cultures — and their use of designs.
“Similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs, the symbols are used to convey meaning,” note Seton Hall materials. “Because creating petroglyphs was a difficult and time consuming process, requiring specialized tools for Native Americans to carve into the rocks, we know that their meaning is important. The meaning of the Jennings Petroglyph has been obscured over time, but it is most likely sacred. Anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures and cupules (dots and circles) are distinctive elements of this petroglyph. Herbert Kraft (1927 to 2000), professor emeritus of anthropology at Seton Hall University, described the glyphs as lizard-like figures or men with sexual appendages.”
Kraft, who also wrote the authoritative 1986 book “The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography,” said the carvings where created sometime before the current common era, formerly noted as B.C.
Discovered in 1965 on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River across from Dingmans Ferry, the petroglyph was removed to Seton Hall to save it from being covered by a lake to be formed by the proposed Tock Island Dam. It was named after the individual who found it.
Rhonda Quinn, Seton Hall professor of anthropology, writes in a statement that the Jennings Petroglyph is “one of the best-preserved and unique works of rock art yet found in New Jersey,” even though “we cannot know for certain what function it served prehistoric Lenape Peoples or the meaning its crafters intended to signal.”
Yet scholars have accumulated information regarding the significance of the designs.
For example, archaeologists with the Pennsylvania Historic Commission, who also deal the same Native American cultures along the Delaware River, say petroglyphs are a form of symbolic communication with an important message. “We now know that they are not a form of prehistoric graffiti as was widely believed in the past. For Native Americans to carve in rock with stone tools required too much effort to be done without serious intention. These locations were probably important, possibly sacred, places prior to the placement of the images. The petroglyphs probably formalized and verified their significance in the cosmology of Native American belief systems.”
They add that the petroglyphs conveyed information “perhaps describing tribal boundaries, hunting grounds, or served to describe the people who lived in or passed through the region.”
Yet there was more and images could include “humans, animals and birds, their footprints and tracks. Other more symbolic designs include circles, spirals, and dots (cupules), as well as figures that can be described as human or animal-like but changed (anthropomorphic or zoomorphic), or even part animal, part human. Still other designs represent conventionalized religious, mythological, or supernatural symbols.”
The writers also say the petroglyph sites “were almost certainly sacred places where people came to communicate with the supernatural. Some sites may have been places where medicine men, community, or spiritual leaders went to meditate to receive visions or guidance to lead or heal their people. Some of the symbols may have had special significance for hunting or fishing or for solving family or tribal problems.”
Edward Lenik, an 86-year-old New Jersey archaeologist and author of several books on rock art, including the 2002 “Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands,” says via email, “The Jennings Petroglyph is the only non-portable site found along the entire Delaware River Valley in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The anthropomorphic images on the rock are certainly unique to this area. There are 11 figures with sexual appendages with four having uplifted arms. Two with arms extended down and four with arms extended horizontally. I believe that these human figures represent shamans who were seeking supernatural power from the spirits (skyward) and earthward. The various depictions of humans on the Jennings stone strongly suggest that several different shamans carved these images, depicting their visions and encounters with the spirits.”
Asked how the images relate to an argument several prominent archeologists propose about designs being entopic, or generated internally, Lenik says, “The neuropsychological model is an analytical tool used to determine whether certain geometric shapes are the result of hallucinations or visions experienced by individuals during an altered state of consciousness.
“Many typical images such as grids, cupules, concentric circles and spirals, zigzag lines, etc. appear on non-portable petroglyph sites and on portable artifacts found in the northeast region. I believe they were produced by shamans or other vision seekers. Some, however, could simply be decorative elements on artifacts or pottery and unrelated to A.S.C. (altered states of consciousness).”
That later point may include the NJSM pottery that bears the designs Lenik mentions, described by Cross and supported by Lattanzi, who says, “Typically shamans or religious leaders would not be working with pottery or have anything to do with it.”
While time may bring more insight into the meaning or reason for the designs and expression, the works are as significant as any site in the world. They connect with the inner life of those who once lived here for millennia and are now gone, leaving traces of their spirit on pottery and stone.
And those sphinx-like objects with their secrets in the NJSM, Seton Hall Library, under the ground, and in the Delaware River can cast spells that lasts a lifetime.
That is something Lenik attests to when he says, “I discovered my first petroglyph in Parsippany, New Jersey. I was fascinated by the images carved on a large rock in front of a rock shelter that had been occupied by American Indians for thousands of years. I asked, ‘Who carved them? When? And what do they mean?’ I soon discovered that the inventory of rock art sites in the northeast region was meager and sparse, and so I began a lifelong quest to find and document these artifacts of American Indians culture in the northeastern U.S. and Atlantic Canada.”
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Free, donations requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov.
Walsh Library, Seton Hall University, 400 South Orange Avenue, South Orange, New Jersey. Free. For library hours: library.shu.edu