Southeast: Mound Builders/Southeastern Ceremonial Cult
Welcome to the North American Indian series. For my first post I will be talking about the Moundbuilders of the Mississippian Period and the Southeastern Ceremonial cult within the Southeastern culture area. I will be focusing mostly on the burial sites of the Mississippian period and the artifacts of the ceremonial cult, both of which go hand in hand with each other. Once again if you have any questions or need me to clarify anything feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com.
The Mississippian period was a period in history of the Southeast, specifically near the Mississippi river valley, that lasted from 800 AD to the 18th century in some parts of the region (which means some chiefdoms in the area were around when the Europeans arrived). It was a period where the societies were classified as chiefdoms. To give you the simple version, chiefdoms is a type of leadership that is characterized by ascribed status. This means that the chief gained his position by inheritance or status and not by earning it. The chief then is loosely defined as a leader who has “inherited a permanently established leadership position within their society” (Rochete 2010).
I won’t get into the intricacies of the chiefdom settlement hierarchy, but the main set up is that there is a major important village that dominates part of the river valley. These important villages almost always contained at least one flat-topped earthen mound usually surrounded by open plazas. These earthen mounds were a fixture of the Mississippi river valley as well as other area in both North, Central and South America and showed the status of the village. These mounds were usually used for burials, temples and sometimes even the residence of chiefs or other important people (Rochete 2010).
One of the most important things that characterized these mounds were the exotic artifacts that were found buried along with important leaders. These exotic goods were traded over large areas mostly by the high-ranking members of the society. The most commonly traded goods were carved figurines and engraved shells that had spiritual symbolism. The figurines and carvings featured the Cherokee concept of the world (cross within a circle) depictions of warriors and the effigy of the birdman that was the symbol of war and authority. These good and trading of the goods is often referred to my archaeologists as the Southeastern Ceremonial Cult or Complex (Rochete 2010).
There are many sites around the Southeast that have these mounds and subsequently have the exotic goods that were buried in the mounds with the high-ranking officials. Perhaps the most well known of these sites are the sites of Moundville in Alabama and Cahokia and Illinois.
Moundville was occupied from around AD 1000 – 1450 and was made up of 20 of the earthen mounds then all surrounded a giant plaza. At its height as a civilization the population of this area reached the peak of 10,000. The main reason that the population was so large for this time period was because of the fertile soil of the river by which the site was located. Another thing that was unique about this site is the village was a large wooden palisade that protected the site from enemy chiefdoms on three sides and then on the fourth side they had the river. On some of the mounds themselves archaeologists have found remains of wooden structures which they have since determined were most likely temples or the residence of the chiefs (Rochete 2010).
Even larger than the site of Moundville is the site of Cahokia (which is right near present day St. Louis). In fact this site is the largest prehistoric North American site with more than 100 mounds and a population of as many as 40,000 people at its peak. The fixture of this site is Monk’s Mound (Pictured Above) which is around 100 feet tall and covers an area of 16 acres. This is the largest mound ever built in North America and also has evidence of a large temple on top of it. There are many other mounds at the site that were used for other building platforms, temples and other purposes (Rochete 2010).
Besides Monk’s Mound the other most important mound at this site seems to be the one that was deemed as “Mound 72.” At this mound 53 people were buried (both men and women) surrounding a Chief who was adorned in a robe that was covered in thousands of shell beads. Along with these individuals archaeologists also found a wealth of arrowheads though void of the shafts they had been attached to since they had rotted away. It was hypothesized then that these individuals were in fact sacrificed to be buried with the chief at his passing (Rochete 2010).
All these mounds including Mound 72 also had a plethora of grave goods such as pots, the figurines mentioned before, shells and other such goods that showed the status of the individual that was buried. Using these sites as models archaeologists can now figure out the importance of individuals in burial sites all around the Americas.
2010. Anth 146 Lecture for September13, 2010.
The Pennsylvania State University.