During the early Woodland period, in the final centuries of the first millennium B.C., the native populations of the central Ohio River Valley flourished under the Adena culture, known from its principal site near present-day Chillicothe in southern Ohio. Like the Hopewell peoples who followed them, the Adena were great mound builders; hundreds of their ceremonial funerary complexes have been found over an area extending from southeastern Indiana to southwestern Pennsylvania.
One of the distinctive features of the late Adena complex in Kentucky and Ohio is the presence of small, rectangular stone tablets incised with curvilinear designs. The Art Museum’s example is one of thirteen that have been discovered so far; all come from mounds in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Like most pieces in the group, the Art Museum’s tablet bears a highly stylized representation of what appears to be a raptor, or bird of prey. Raptorial birds, symbols of the sky and the celestial sphere, were represented so frequently that they must have played an important symbolic role in the Adena and later Hopewell cultures.
Traces of pigment found on several of these tablets indicate that they were used as stamps, possibly for decorating organic materials such as textiles or the walls of bark houses. They also may have served as body stamps designed to distinguish and identify members of a particular cult or kin group.