Sitting Bull’s Pipe: Determining Authenticity

From: Sitting Bull's Peace Pipe: Separating Myth From History Rediscovering the man, Correcting the Myth, by Kenneth B. Tankersly, Ph.D, and Robert Pickering, Ph.D. Tatanka Press

By Robert Pickering

In the museum world, it is common for an artifact to surface with a wonderful story tying it to an important person or a significant event. It is rarer to be able to authenticate the connection between the artifact and the person or event. Recently, Forrest Fenn brought a pipe to light that, if genuine, is an important historical object associated with a truly great man, Sitting Bull. The story about how the pipe was researched is well worth recounting and it is the key to authentication.

Sitting Bull was, without doubt, one of the most important Indian leaders of the 19th century. Since his death, Sitting Bull has come to symbolize the nobility, reverence and charisma of Plains chiefs. At the same time, his story epitomizes the great wrongs that were committed against Indian peoples. As Dr. Tankersley states in a previous section, any objects associated with Sitting Bull, including pipes, had monetary value before he died. Many objects have been attributed to Sitting Bull but not all of them can be authenticated.

A study of Mr. Fenn's pipe was needed to verify the Sitting Bull connection. In addition, the steps taken demonstrate how new imaging techniques have become powerful new tools in evaluating authenticity. Sitting Bull frequently was photographed and often" he carried a distinctive pipe with a long spiral stem. Even a quick visual comparison demonstrates the overall similarity between the two pipes. However, the important question is whether or not Mr. Fenn's pipe is the pipe. The historic photographs show an elaborate pipe stem with long gentle spiral ridges carved along most of its length. There are carved raised rings around the stem that have been decorated with brass tacks. While the stem is rather complex, the catlinite bowl is of a simpler design. Yet, both stem and bowl were made by hand and therefore show individualistic traits. One of the joys of working with handmade objects is being able to observe the artistry and craftsmanship of the individual maker.

Both the stem and the pipe have general characteristics that identify the type of pipe as coming from the Northern Plains. Patina and wear patterns and patina show that the pipe is old. In addition, there are individual characteristics that separate this specific pipe from any others of similar form. Using these characteristics and shapes to determine authenticity is not unlike the work of a physical anthropologist, which compares a skull to photographs of a living person to see if the two represent the same person.

The term "photo superimposition" describes the use of various photographic techniques used to compare the skull and face. In their 1937 book, Medico-Legal Aspects of the Ruxton Case, John Glaister (M.D., D.Sc.), and James C. Brash (M.A., M.D., F.R.C.S. Ed. ), exposed the details of the case that revolved around the brutal death and dismemberment of Mrs. Ruxton and Miss Rogerson, her nursemaid. Ruxton was a medical doctor. His poor explanation for the disappearance of the women of his household was insupportable. The detailed and efficient dismemberment of the bodies would have required the type of anatomical knowledge that the doctor possessed. Ruxton was a prime suspect in the murders.

Before he could be charged, however, the various packages of body parts that had been distributed widely over the landscape around the small town of Moffat in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, had to be reassembled and identified. The medical examiner had two skulls and two missing women. However, did the skulls represent the women or were they from some yet unreported missing persons? Which skull belonged to whom?

The enterprising police investigators conducted an experiment that has evolved into a useful forensic tool. They contacted local photographers to see if they recently had taken any pictures of Mrs. Ruxton or Miss Rogerson. In fact, recent photos did exist. Mrs. Ruxton's were the most useful. The local photographer and the police mounted the skull in the same position and distance from the camera as Mrs. Ruxton had been photographed in life. When the images of the skull and the face were superimposed, comparisons were made. The bone structure of the face, the shape and size of the eye sockets and other traits matched. With the identification of the bodies, Dr. Ruxton was charge and convicted of both murders. Although a good example of early attempts, this is an old case. Photographic superimposition has advanced dramatically as have virtually all fields of forensic investigation in recent times.

Mr. Fenn used the photo superimposition technique in researching the Sitting Bull pipe. He commissioned high-resolution digital images of Sitting Bull's pipe from period photographs. Those images alone produced an intriguing clue. Enlargements showed wood grain patterns that could be compared to those of his pipe. The next step was to place the pipe as close as possible to the position and distance from the camera as the pipe in the vintage images. The Fenn pipe digital image was enlarged to the exact length of the pipe in the Sitting Bull pictures. Next, a transparency of the Fenn pipe was laid over the best quality enlargements from the vintage prints. Superimposition enables the observer to compare the spirals, the size and placement of tacks, small notches near the mouthpiece and the wood grain. Any variation in shape or in the location of a tack or a notch would indicate that the pipe from the old Sitting Bull pictures and the Fenn pipe were different. The complexity of the stem provided many points of comparison. If no discrepancies emerged, there is a high probability that the pipes are one and the same. In this case, the overall shape matched, as did the pattern and location of the tacks. Although faint, one view of the wood grain of the stem appeared to match the appropriate view from the pipe in hand. There were no points of difference between the two pipes.

However, another knotty question remains. Did the pipe stem and catlinite bowl go together? In the museum world, it is not uncommon to be offered a great "treasure" that turns out to be a pastiche of parts from different objects. Each element of an object needs to be examined and verified.

The bowl of the purported Sitting Bull pipe is of a fairly common Northern Plains type. Yet, as a finely crafted, handmade pipe, it possesses individualistic traits. Pipes are not all the same size or precise form. The pipe's overall shape, being round in cross section on the stem side of the bowl but flattened top to bottom on the distal end is distinctive. Fenn used the same techniques of digital imaging and photo superimposition to compare the bowls. While there are fewer idiosyncrasies to compare, the size and shape match. The length ratios for various portions of the pipe were identical.

Moreover, the portion of the stem that is inserted into the bowl fits well. There is no "play" between the two. This point is not definitive but is worth mentioning. Looseness between the two would indicate that the stem was not made for the bowl. If the stem showed evidence of being forced into the catlinite or if there was evidence that it had been cut down, then, it probably would be that the two were not made for each other.

Is the Fenn pipe, the pipe carried in the Sitting Bull portraits or is it a look-alike? The evidence indicates they are the same. The digitizing and photo superimposition are appropriate and useful techniques and the results are compelling. Through the process, no morphological discrepancies, or lack of matching tack placements or notch locations were revealed. With virtual matches on all morphological points and no evidence to the contrary, we must conclude that the Fenn pipe and the pipe in the Sitting Bull pictures are the same (but always subject to further research, as is true in any scientific/forensic investigation).

For many of us, there is power in objects that are associated with important people and great events. Sitting Bull shaped history. His legacy has become more important with time and his pipe was an important personal possession that, today, embodies his spirituality and significance. In the 21st. century, this pipe is a link to the greatness of the man and the cultural conflict of his time.

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