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Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms

Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms
Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography
Foreword by Vincas P. Steponaitis

A major reconstruction of the rituals, cosmology, ideology, and political structures of the prehistoric native peoples of the Mississippi River Valley and Southeastern United States.

Series: The Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre Columbian Studies, The Linda Schele Series in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies

January 2007
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
312 pages | 6 x 9 | 13 b&w photos, 68 line drawings |

Between AD 900-1600, the native peoples of the Mississippi River Valley and other areas of the Eastern Woodlands of the United States conceived and executed one of the greatest artistic traditions of the Precolumbian Americas. Created in the media of copper, shell, stone, clay, and wood, and incised or carved with a complex set of symbols and motifs, this seven-hundred-year-old artistic tradition functioned within a multiethnic landscape centered on communities dominated by earthen mounds and plazas. Previous researchers have referred to this material as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC).

This groundbreaking volume brings together ten essays by leading anthropologists, archaeologists, and art historians, who analyze the iconography of Mississippian art in order to reconstruct the ritual activities, cosmological vision, and ideology of these ancient precursors to several groups of contemporary Native Americans. Significantly, the authors correlate archaeological, ethnographic, and art historical data that illustrate the stylistic differences within Mississippian art as well as the numerous changes that occur through time. The research also demonstrates the inadequacy of the SECC label, since Mississippian art is not limited to the Southeast and reflects stylistic changes over time among several linked but distinct religious traditions. The term Mississippian Iconographic Interaction Sphere (MIIS) more adequately describes the corpus of this Mississippian art. Most important, the authors illustrate the overarching nature of the ancient Native American religious system, as a creation unique to the native American cultures of the eastern United States.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction (F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber)
  • 2. Some Cosmological Motifs in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (George E. Lankford)
  • 3. The Petaloid Motif: A Celestial Symbolic Locative in the Shell Art of Spiro (F. Kent Reilly III)
  • 4. On the Identity of the Birdman within Mississippian Period Art and Iconography (James Brown)
  • 5. The Great Serpent in Eastern North America (George E. Lankford)
  • 6. Identification of a Moth/Butterfly Supernatural in Mississippian Art (Vernon James Knight and Judith A. Franke)
  • 7. Ritual, Medicine, and the War Trophy Iconographic Theme in the Mississippian Southeast (David H. Dye)
  • 8. The "Path of Souls": Some Death Imagery in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (George E. Lankford)
  • 9. Sequencing the Braden Style within Mississippian Period Art and Iconography (James Brown)
  • 10. Osage Texts and Cahokia Data (Alice Beck Kehoe)
  • References
  • Index

F. Kent Reilly III is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for the Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America at Texas State University in San Marcos.

James F. Garber is Professor of Anthropology at Texas State University in San Marcos.


Between A.D. 900 and 1600, the native peoples of the Mississippi River Valley and other areas of the Eastern and Southeastern United States conceived and executed one of the greatest artistic traditions of pre-Columbian America. Many of the artistic and iconographic elements that make up this complex had originally been defined as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (Waring and Holder 1945). Objects of this complex were produced in the media of copper, shell, stone, clay, and almost certainly wood, although little of this material has survived in the soils of the eastern woodlands. Many of these ritual objects were incised or carved with a complex system of symbols and motifs. In many ways it has been this symbolic system of communication along with the extraordinary objects that carry it that has sparked the most intense scholarly interest.

Simply stated, this Mississippian Period artistic tradition consists of the artifacts, symbols, motifs, and architectural groupings that provide the physical evidence for the ritual activities practiced by the numerous ethnic groups comprising the demographic and cultural landscape of the Mississippian Period. It is also the discernible cosmology, ideology, and political structures of those various Mississippian Period groups. This physical evidence is examined primarily through structural analysis of Mississippian iconography and the identification of style regions, combined with the ethnohistorical approach.

With its beginnings around A.D. 900, the Mississippian Period and its numerous cultural and ethnic traditions came to an end with the French destruction of the Natchez polity in 1731. The Mississippian Tradition emerged from an earlier tradition that flowered in the Woodland Period (500 B.C.-A.D. 500). Just as the Mississippian Period witnesses an artistic florescence in its latter half, so too does the Woodland Period, with its analogous florescence commonly referred to as Hopewell.

The Hopewell artistic tradition is partially identified by its naturalistic depictions of birds and animals, while the Mississippian artistic tradition features often-bizarre configurations of dragon-like creatures whose images invoke mystery and hidden knowledge (Chapter 5). Previously, any explanation of these images primarily rests on the pioneering work of Antonio Waring. In 1945 Waring and Holder organized ritual objects and symbols into a series of four lists of traits, which they categorized as a Southeastern (centered) Ceremonial Complex (SECC). Within the SECC, the organizational categories consisted of motifs, god-animal representations, ceremonial objects, and costume details, and were perceived as an internally consistent system of symbolic communication with a brief temporal duration. They also conceived of the complex as a specific cult manifestation that originated with the Muskhogean speakers of the lower Southern United States. Since the classic Waring and Holder identification of the SECC, scholarly opinion has expanded the definition while using the trait list as the foundation for a critical analysis of the entire system concept. Most significant for the recent and expanding efforts at interpretation have been the recognition of specific styles and themes within the SECC definition, the realization that symbols and themes can change over time, and the linkage of these changes to specific geographic areas.

In contrast to the Waring and Holder trait list approach, Jon Muller (1989:11-25) has proposed a more archaeologically centered procedure for defining the Mississippian artistic tradition, placing it within the social evolution of the chiefdom-level societies of the Mississippi Valley and the lower Southeastern United States. Muller accurately suggests that a temporal organization that views such objects and symbols as a series of interrelated traditions that change over a definable period of time would be a more productive model for identifying and interpreting this material. Within this model, Muller temporally classifies the complex into five Horizons. He defines each of these Horizons as a discrete tradition that saw not only the origin of a specific number of motifs, symbols, and ritual objects, but also specific developments in political structure and long-distance exchange.

The first of these periods Muller labels as "Developmental Cult." Developmental Cult (A.D. 900-1150) is marked by the appearance of such distinctive objects as the "long-nosed god" shell and copper masks and the "square cross" symbol. Muller identifies a "Southern Cult Period" (A.D. 1250-1350) as the apogee of the tradition. During this brief century, perhaps a century and a half, there was a rapid expansion of exchange networks, particularly in terms of such prestige materials as copper and shell. The Southern Cult Period is also the temporal point at which a number of the traits defined by Waring and Holder (bi-lobed arrows, striped pole, baton/mace, fringed apron, Ogee, and the chunkey player) make their appearance. In the "Attenuated Cult Period" (A.D. 1350-1450) the long-distance exchange networks that so typify the proceeding Southern Cult Period appear to diminish if not disappear altogether. Interestingly, the motifs and symbols that were, in the previous period, carried on stone, copper, and shell migrate to the medium of clay. Muller also sees an emphasis on stylization in the art of the Attenuated Cult period. He implies that this stylization is linked in some way to the collapse of such important Mississippian centers as Cahokia. Muller associates his "Post-Southern Cult Period" (A.D. 1450-1550) to the rise of a large number of regional artistic traditions that manifest distinct stylistic differences in their art, specifically in the production and ornamentation of carved shell gorgets. Muller also associates the production of large shell masks with this increased regionalization and hypothesizes that these masks and gorgets reflect a period of dramatic social and ideological change throughout much of the lower southern United States. Muller's final period, "Historic Times Period" (after A.D. 1550), is the termination of the ideological and artistic formats of the complex, as well as the transformation of the chiefdom-level societies of the pre-Columbian Eastern Woodlands into the tribal social orders that were described by the French and English explorers and colonists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While we generally agree with Muller's chronologically focused model, it does not incorporate the importance of regional variation in the meaning of the SECC art and symbols in its various contexts.

However, Muller's categories that are based on a temporal organization force a reexamination of the SECC concept in its entirety. As previously stated, when first proposed some sixty years ago, the interpretation of Mississippian iconography, as well as the objects that carried the motifs and elements of this symbolic system, was organized under the label of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or SECC. However, in the past decade many students of ancient Native American archaeology in general and the Mississippian Period in particular have become convinced that this SECC label is woefully inadequate as a cultural, religious, and artistic identifier.

The results of the decade-long study of SECC material that has emerged from meetings held at Texas State University only emphasize the inadequacy of this SECC label. After much thought and discussion we believe the term Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere or MIIS appears better suited as an organizational phenomenon for this large corpus of art and symbols currently classified as the SECC. Certainly the interaction sphere model more accurately describes a Mississippian Period ideologically derived symbolic system and its accompanying artistic output. Unquestionably, a close examination of SECC objects within their archaeological and temporal context reveals a large number of regional and stylistically distinct systems that appear to have their origin in the greater or Classic Braden Style. However, within the corpus of SECC symbols there are several symbols that appear to cross recognizable regional and stylistic boundaries that exist in the eastern United States through both time and space. The number of these shared symbols varies as to the time and the proximity of these specific style regions.

At the beginning of the MIIS (Muller's Developmental and Southern Cult Horizons), MIIS symbols and motifs in all of the style regions are primarily carried by objects created from exotic materials, the majority of which are mica, marine shell, imported stone, and copper. Over time the exchange system that was the mechanism for the procurement of these exotics disappears, and by Muller's Post-Southern Cult Complexes Horizon, much of the MIIS symbolism has migrated from exotics to clay vessels or gorgets created from easily obtainable riverine shell, though marine shell remains an important resource throughout the Mississippian Period.

That several of these symbols consistently cross stylistic and regional boundaries over time is undoubtedly due to the fact that these symbols and motifs carry the fundamental tenets of an overarching religious system that covered the enormous geographical area that included the diverse ethnic and cultural boundaries of the then Native American Eastern United States (Lankford:personal communication). The studies that are recorded in this volume clearly demonstrate that the MIIS was affected by the multiethnic complexity of its origin and its broad geographical distribution. The action, or indeed the interaction, of these cultural and stylistic areas underlines the importance of the interaction sphere model, particularly in the light of the recognition of the importance of specific style regions outside of what was previously thought to be the point of origin of this great body of art in the Southeastern United States.

Most of the authors who have contributed to this volume readily recognize that style distinctions are clearly apparent within the corpus of MIIS objects and symbols. Also, even though the themes are conservative and relatively limited, we believe that the MIIS label is an adequate organizing principle that covers such diverse factors as ideological emphasis, temporal change, style distinctions, and multiethnic adoption and adaptations, as well as shared thematic and aesthetic qualifiers within the seven-hundred-year life span of this truly remarkable ancient Native American ideological and artistic phenomenon.

One of the successes of the Texas State University Conference series has been the general acceptance of Cahokia as the point of origin for the Greater Braden Style. Furthermore, there is a general consensus that the "Greater Braden Style" (Chapter 9) was the primary "mother style" from which many of the regional styles of the MIIS were derived.

Thematically, there has also been a general acceptance that much of the Mississippian imagery and symbolism has a linkage to ethnographic material that describes the location of the "realm of the dead" and the journey of dead souls to that otherworld location (Chapter 8). Additionally, much of the imagery presented on Spiro shell engravings executed in the Braden and Craig styles consists of vignettes occurring in the celestial realm of the Mississippian cosmological model (Chapters 2 and 3). This hypothesis interprets this celestial imagery as depictions of the "path of souls" and the otherworld actors that ethnographic sources describe as occupants of that starry path (Chapter 8).

There is a general consensus that another set of images, figures, and regalia details is associated with sets of deities and/or mythological heroes. In particular, among these otherworldly entities is the celestial deity Morning Star, who, within the ethnographic literature, carries the epithets "Red Horn" and "He Who Wears Human Heads in His Ears." This Above World/Otherworld hero was strongly associated with elite rule in at least Muller's Developmental Cult Period, and perhaps in other periods as well.

Iconographic studies conducted at the Texas State meetings generally concluded that there is a link between the ethnographic figure of Morning Star and the image of the widely recognized Hawk Dancer or Falcon Impersonator. These figures most often appear on the mediums of copper or shell. Mississippian elites who validated their elite status in rituals in which they impersonated this Above World deity would wear an elaborate headdress centered on a copper plate that depicted a falcon, hawk-wing cape, raptorial bird beak, and forked eye markings (Chapter 4). The elite Morning Star impersonator usually carried a mace or club in one hand, and often a severed head in the other. Many examples of these maces and clubs have been recovered by collectors, and more recently by archaeologists. They are magnificently crafted from single pieces of stone or slate, but they would have been useless as weapons, since they would have shattered at the first blow. Nevertheless, the carrying of these weapons and their associations with severed heads in the iconography have caused most scholars of the subject to link the falcon impersonator with warfare (Chapters 4 and 7).

The function of art as a material expression of cultural (and therefore mental) constructs is a well-documented phenomenon among ancient civilizations as well as contemporary small-scale societies. A common characteristic of such societies is the construction of analogies between the social order and the natural world, expressed in religious beliefs and practices (i.e., ritual) and given tangible form in art. Many of the authors in this volume note that the function of the Mississippian objects was twofold: (1) as ritual regalia, and (2) providing a visual validation for the elite authority of the rulers of the various chiefdoms that populated the Mississippian Period geographical landscape. In order to understand the interrelatedness of these two essentially ideological functions, it is necessary to understand both the role of art in the ritual activity of pre-Columbian Native Americans and the meanings carried by the MIIS motifs and symbols (Chapter 3).

Traditionally, theories of the evolution of political society have been framed in terms of "Western" economic models, which stress the importance of the control of limited resources and military force. Ongoing research in Mesoamerica, Central and South America, as well as the pre-Columbian United States, has shown that in the Americas the evolution of political power was based equally on ideological factors. This demonstrates that forms of political validation among the ancient chiefdoms of the Midwest and Southeastern United States were identical to those of many other chiefdoms of the Americas. Various chapters illustrate that within Mississippian art, cosmological imagery was used to publicly validate the power of a stratified elite social order. An analysis of symbols that carry this cosmological imagery illustrates that the cosmic model described by these symbols deals primarily with the celestial realm of gods and heroes and the realm of souls (Chapters 2 and 8). Furthermore, the repeated use of zoomorphic supernatural imagery on the costumes and ritual objects of Mississippian elites demonstrates that these individuals were incorporating major concepts of ideology and their ritual expressions into these striking visual forms of political validation (Chapter 7).

During the workshops and meetings held at Texas State University, a methodology was developed to recover these ancient Native American "cultural constructs." This methodology consists of a fourfold approach, including recognition of style regions, visual structural analysis, archaeological content, and ethnographic analogy. The plethora of ethnographic data comes primarily from past and more recent studies of the Native American cultures of the Midwest and Southern United States. Some of the most important ethnographic data have been collected by Native Americans themselves. Archaeological data from the ongoing excavations at Mississippian and Woodland Period sites have also proved critical for our ongoing study. The authors of this volume contend that the Mississippian artistic output can only be properly understood within this archaeological context.

The authors represented in this volume have produced chapters that in many ways are pioneering efforts in the structural analysis, style recognition, and interpretation of Mississippian artistic material. Structural analysis alone has been extremely fruitful in our endeavors and has led to the recognition of a cosmic model as well as specific categories of supernaturals (Chapters 5 and 6).

These same authors have either considered an iconographic problem or have dealt with questions of meaning, chronology, interpretation, or ideological foundations within the art of the Mississippian Period. It is our hope that the discussions and conclusions contained within this volume, along with the workshop interdisciplinary methodology that has led to those conclusions, will provide specialist and interested readers with new definitions, along with fresh and critical interpretations of a superb body of Native American art that has been too long neglected by professional scholars as well as the general public.


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