The Essential Bird

The Cincinnati Tablet was discovered during an excavation of an Adena mound in downtown Cincinnati in 1841, along with several skeletons and other artifacts. It was initially thought to be a hoax, but eventually similar tablets were found in Ohio and other parts of the Adena culture's range.

Many of the tablets from Ohio share similar engraved designs or motifs, which are sometimes doubled or mirrored or seemingly purposely abstracted from already abstracted sources. The designs have been variously interpreted as representing Aztec-style horned serpents, "raptorial birds" (as opposed to "birdy birds?"), constellations, human skulls, assorted anthropomorphic figures including gods, shamans (if it's old, mysterious, and we don't understand it, it must be the work of shamans, after all), etc.

The designs are idiosyncratic and the meanings or messages perhaps impossibly inscrutable to anyone other than the Adena who made them or used them. Some of the tablets have grooves on the reverse side. What are those for? The tablets are generally the size of a postcard, maybe a little larger. Were they tattoo or body art kits, some have wondered? (Duncan Caldwell's "Two Undescribed Adena Tablets and Some Speculations as to their Significance" is a well-illustrated account of a number of Adena tablets, including the Cincinnati Tablet, and presents some theories on how the tablets were used and what they meant. The Cincinnati Tablet illustration below is from Caldwell's article, but I think it's a reproduction of an illustration from yet another source).

The discovery of the Berlin Tablet, which seems rather clearly to depict a bird, albeit a fanciful and stylized one, led many researchers to see similar bird motifs in a number of other known Adena tablets. If you look at the Berlin Tablet and compare it to the Wilmington Tablet, you can see a similarity in the basic "bird" shape--"The Essential Bird" as I read in Robert N. Converse's account of Ohio Adena tablets in his book The Archaeology of Ohio--although the design in the Wilmington Tablet is doubled or mirrored. It's harder to see the bird(s) in the mirrored, abstract images engraved on the Cincinnati Tablet:

but maybe they're there.

(You can see the Cincinnati Tablet or a copy of it, at least, at the Cincinnati Museum Center).

Can the basic attributes of the essential bird--head, wings, talons, tail--be depicted in a language we might use and know in a stylized manner similar to an Adena tablet, but without poaching whatever it is they intended the tablets to signify or represent? Does such an attempt merely look like graffiti? Should it be scratched into asphalt or concrete--the materials we're surrounded by--rather than sandstone, which the Adena often used? Can "the essential bird," whatever that might mean, exist today when we prefer our images of birds to be accurate to the last barbule and filtered through expensive lenses straight into our eyeballs or onto powerful memory cards or trapped in nylon nets and cataloged and marked like trophies? (Not that there's anything wrong with those approaches . . . who am I to say? I've taken part in all of them).

Maybe this is our best example of The Essential Bird: