July 19, 2020

The Mysterious Figurine-Making Forest People

Were these 1000 year-old artifacts tokens of black magic?

Much mystery surrounds the small, clay figurines found in the forest south of Prescott, as well as the people who made them.

Prehistoric figurines are rare in the Prescott region; except for a 31 square mile section that extends from Prescott to Maverick Mountain and Mt. Trittle. What we do know about them was written about by Thomas Motsinger in his report: “Ceramic Figurines at the Hassayampa Ruins and Simmons’ ‘Groom Creek Effigy Culture.’”

JW Simmons, a self-taught archeologist who studied the Fitzmaurice Ruins in Prescott Valley, was the first to note the figurines in the Groom Creek area around 1930.

“The abundance of ceramic figurines was so great in the Groom Creek area that Simmons referred to the prehistoric residents (as) the ‘Groom Creek Effigy Culture’ or simply the ‘Groom Creek Culture,’” Motsinger related. These figurines represented both animals and human-like effigies that measured about 2 cm across and up to 4 or 5 cm tall. It was noted that the forest south of Prescott was “one of only a handful of locales in the southwest where ceramic figurines were produced in relative abundance."

“Various crude animal forms were represented, including a possible bear,” deer or pronghorn, “and a bird in flight. In all, Simmons recovered 403 animal and human figurines from the Groom Creek area,” Motsinger wrote. “This remarkable collection…is now housed at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson.” 


Yet their condition was puzzling—only one was found intact. “This breakage rate is far greater than chance would allow,” the report declared, and was consistent with other finds in the region. Animal figurines were missing any number of parts “including legs, tails, ears, noses, and entire heads.” In fact, this fragmentary condition as well as a lack of detail made most of the effigies only identifiable “to the broad category of quadrupedal mammals”

Two of the animal effigies were formed around a small twig as “molded perforations …extended entirely through the long axis of their bodies.” This could have been done to hang them from string. “The hindquarter fragment from another quadruped” also contained a hole from which it could be suspended. However, the role and reason for these holes is unknown.

It might seem that these dismemberments were “related to either real or hoped-for hunting expeditions,” Motsinger wrote. Most of these figurines were found in middens (waste piles.) However, in the midst of this discarded material, several effigies were found under a small pile of rocks which Simmons called “shrines.” These shrines consisted of “4 or 5 stones or small boulders formed in sort of a housing over and around the fetish.” Some were also found in burials.

A near equal amount of human figurines were also discovered and showed “a fair range of variability,” the report stated.  A pinch of clay formed the nose and horizontal impressions represented the eyes. Two examples showed an impression for the mouth. Curiously, the “human figurines generally suffered the same fate” as the animal effigies. It was common for heads to be broken off at the neck as well as missing noses and limbs. Were these meant as some kind of curse against their enemies?

Simmons wrote: “An identical disfigurement noted on a number of human figurines seemed to smack of superstitious practices—probably the killing or injury of an enemy by remote control. The injury or mortal wound was identical on each.” In each case the right side of the face was mutilated leaving the nose intact. Another interesting clue was that Simmons found heads only—“never a trace of a bust.”

More recent studies were done in the north-western portion where these forest people lived. “The Hassayampa Ruin included 3 middens, 9 inhumations and a two-room masonry structure surrounded by 3 stone-lined pithouses,” Motsinger described. “39 fragmentary figurines were recovered (there). Excavations at the Stony Ridge site, which included 2 stone-lined pithouses, turned up 2 more examples.”

At the Hassayampa site, however, none of the human figurines were missing the right side of their faces and torsos were plentiful. When limbs were found on human figurines, they ranged from proportional to stubs. “Only 2 torsos exhibited breasts, and no items contained indications of genitalia. Typically they were made from a cylinder of clay with one end flattened into a head and the other terminating either in a blunt point or an expanded base that sometimes allowed the figure to stand on its own.”

Hassayampa did not show any indications of Simmons’ “shrines” and although 9 inhumations were found, none had figurines with them. The find only seemed to deepen the mystery as to how they were used.

Unlike other Native Americans at this time, the people of the Groom Creek Culture did not live in the large masonry pueblos of their neighbors. Instead they lived in small hamlets that “were probably comprised of several conjugal families—each living in a separate domicile,” the report explained. 

Motsinger agreed with Simmons that the figurine making, Groom Creek Culture was ethnically different from their pueblo neighbors, but Montinger also points out the possibility of a short-lived “cult.”

What were the beliefs of the Groom Creek Culture people? Did their neighbors look upon them with friendship, or in fear? 

It was Motsinger’s hope that “much better chronometric information (would) help resolve these and other fundamental issues.”

A description of the archeological findings of the Fitzmaurice Ruin in Prescott Valley, AZ. It's the largest Indian Ruin in the Prescott region.


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Archeology in West-Central Arizona: Proceedings of the 1996 Arizona Archeological Council Prescott Conferenece. Ed. By Thomas Motsinger et al. Sharlot Hall Museum Press, Prescott, Arizona; 2000. ISBN 0-927579-18-9. Chapter 13: “Ceramic Figurines at the Hassayampa Ruins and Simmons’ ‘Groom Creek Effigy Culture’” by Thomas N Motsinger.

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