I realize it’s been pretty quiet around here the past few weeks. I’ve been very busy with work lately, especially attending conferences and traveling to far-flung corners of the state, and my life has been kind of crazy in other ways too, so I haven’t had much time to devote to blogging. I have been working on a post on the Numic Spread to continue some of the themes from my recent posts on the Fremont, but I need to wait until I have more time to finish it. There are also a lot of other topics I’d like to post about when I get a chance. Hopefully things will calm down a little in the next few weeks and I’ll have some more time. In the meantime, have some pictures of Nome, where I attended a meeting yesterday.
Archive for the ‘Very Far’ Category
Today is the summer solstice, and here in the “land of the midnight sun” the longest day of the year is very long indeed. In Anchorage, we don’t quite get to 24 hours of daylight, but it is nevertheless well after 11:00 pm as I write this and the sun is still up. North of the Arctic Circle they do have periods where the sun doesn’t set at all, for varying lengths of time depending on latitude. The northernmost community is Barrow, which gets several weeks of non-stop daylight in the summer (with a corresponding period of darkness in the winter, of course).
Given that the solstice falls right in the middle of this period of extreme daylight, it might be expected that Arctic peoples would mark it in some way, as many other societies around the world do (including the indigenous cultures of the US Southwest, as extensively documented in prior posts here). And this does indeed appear to be the case, though with a typically Alaskan twist.
The Inupiaq Eskimos of the North Slope of Alaska, which lies entirely above the Arctic Circle, have traditionally had a whaling-based subsistence system, and to a considerable degree still do. They hunt whales in the spring (and in some villages also in the fall) using a type of traditional skin boat known as an umiak. These are large, open boats made of a wooden frame covered with the hides of walruses or seals, made according to a rigorous traditional protocol. They are used in other areas further south along the Bering Sea coast as well, but their close association with whaling is most pronounced on the North Slope. A recent article by Susan Fair discussed them in the context of their architectural uses as temporary shelters in various settings and their cultural importance in both whaling and the demarcation of ceremonial and other culturally important spaces at certain times.
One of those times is the Whale Feast, often known as Nalukataq (although that name technically refers only to the blanket toss that is one of the most famous elements of it). This ceremony is held only in years when at least one whale has been taken, and while its exact date varies it is scheduled for sometime around the summer solstice. As the name “Whale Feast” implies, the main focus of this event is on sharing the meat from harvested whales with the community, and it is an opportunity for the whaling captains (known as umialiit) who own the umiaks to demonstrate their generosity and show off their prowess.
Fair focuses in her article on the role the umiaks play in both the ceremony and the social system behind it, in which the small number of umialiit in a village form an elite within it and the umiak serves as a symbol of their power and prestige, but I was more interested in the timing of the feast. The spring whaling season at least in Barrow generally ends in late May or early June (it had recently ended when I was up there at the end of May and there were umiaks with flags raised indicating whaling success all over the place), so having the feast in late June makes a certain amount of just practical sense given the preparations necessary, but I do wonder if there is a deeper significance to the association with the solstice, perhaps as a vestige of a large role for indigenous astronomy in the pre-Contact era. I have not been able to find much information on archaeoastronomy or ethnoastronomy in Alaska, but given the high latitude and spectacular celestial phenomena that abound here I’m sure Native people have long been attuned to the sky. Recent changes, especially aggressive Christian missionization that sought to stamp out Native religion, has obscured a lot of the earlier cultural practices, but I wonder if things like the timing of the Whale Feast preserve bits and pieces of aspects of traditional knowledge that are otherwise forgotten. Certainly a topic that could use more attention, I think.
One hundred years ago today, one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history took place in southwestern Alaska. The volcano, known as Novarupta, is located in what is now Katmai National Park, which was established in 1918 as a direct result of the eruption and its effects on the landscape. As a result, this anniversary is a big deal for the National Park Service in Alaska, which has a special issue of its journal Alaska Park Science devoted to the eruption as well as a special webpage of information on volcanoes in the region. The main institution involved in Alaska volcanology, however, is the Alaska Volcano Observatory, a joint program of the US Geological Survey, the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, and the State of Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. They are spearheading much of the commemoration of Novarupta and have their own website listing events and other information on it.
The eruption of Novarupta began on June 6, 1912 and continued for three days. There are various contemporary reports of the eruption from people who were in the area at the time, including one by I. M. Dailey of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, who was stationed 150 miles away in Seldovia at the time, which was soon published in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society and is now available free through JSTOR. Other reports come from the larger town of Kodiak, even closer to the eruption, where a foot of ash fell in the course of sixty hours of darkness. A fuller picture of what had happened at the site of the eruption itself didn’t emerge until a series of expeditions over the next few years sponsored by the National Geographic Society traveled to the vent site and undertook a variety of studies that had an enormous impact on the emerging field of volcanology. In an article in the aforementioned special issue of Alaska Park Science Judy Fierstein, a USGS volcanologist who has done extensive research at Novarupta and other volcanoes at Katmai, summarizes both the early reports and studies and more recent work that has clarified the reconstruction of exactly what happened over those three days in 1912.
Many of the early National Geographic expeditions were led by the botanist Robert Griggs, who would be quite influential in shaping interpretations of Novarupta. He discovered and named Novarupta itself, although Fierstein notes that he actually concluded erroneously that the main vent for the eruption was not there but at Mt. Katmai six miles away, which collapsed dramatically into a huge caldera during the event. Subsequent research has revealed, however, that while most of the magma that erupted was indeed stored in a chamber under Mt. Katmai, it actually erupted through Novarupta. Understanding exactly how this complicated internal “plumbing” system of the two volcanoes worked is one of the continuing challenges in ongoing research on the eruption.
Griggs also discovered and named the famous “Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes” where flows of ash from the eruption filled a large valley downslope from Novarupta. At the time Griggs visited just a few years after the eruption, this valley was filled with steaming fumaroles where the still-hot ash met various water sources, and the astonishing sight prompted the poetic name. Within a few more years, however, most of the fumaroles had stopped steaming, and they’re pretty much all dead now. Still, the name remains, as does the strikingly barren landscape with little vegetation having recovered even a hundred years later. The area is so otherworldly that it was actually used as a training ground in the 1960s for astronauts preparing to go to the moon.
Remarkably, despite the scale of Novarupta, which ejected more than three cubic miles of magma in the form of a cloud of ash thousand miles wide and 100,000 feet high that wind currents eventually carried as far as Algeria, there were no deaths from the eruption. The inhabitants of the three Native villages near the volcano had fled after a series of earthquakes in the days leading up to the eruption indicated that a major catastrophe was likely, and the few other communities in this sparsely populated area were far enough away that the levels of ash fall they received were substantial but not deadly. Even Kodiak, which was the hardest hit community due to both proximity and wind direction, managed to get through the initial period of fear and panic during which the whole population took refuge on a Coast Guard cutter docked in the harbor, and it soon recovered its earlier prosperity. The residents of the three closest villages were unable to return to their homes, of course, and were resettled in other communities elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, where their descendants reside to this day. All this is in striking contrast to the death toll of over 36,000 people from the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883, which was of a similar magnitude but occurred in a much more densely populated area.
Indeed, the lack of major cultural or long-term environmental effects from Novarupta (outside of the immediate area, of course) initially led one prominent archaeologist, Don Dumond of the University of Oregon, to initially discount the role of volcanic eruptions in general as a force shaping the culture history of the Alaska Peninsula. Dumond conducted long-term excavations primarily in the Brooks River area of Katmai National Park from the 1950s to the 1980s, and his interpretations based on that work have been enormously influential in shaping interpretations of the region’s prehistory. Initially he saw no particular correlation between the numerous volcanic ash layers in his Brooks River sites, which he assumed came from eruptions of the numerous local volcanoes, and the cultural changes visible in the archaeological record. More detailed geophysical work on the ash itself, however, led one volcanologist to suggest that some of the larger ash layers at Brooks had come from various known eruptions at Aniakchak, a very large volcano about 150 miles further south on the Peninsula. If eruptions had deposited ash that far away, they must have been much larger than Novarupta, which would therefore not necessarily be a good guide to their ecological or cultural effects. Dumond therefore decided to look over the record of ash deposits and culture history in other parts of the peninsula to determine if these ash layers really were as widespread as they should be if they came from Aniakchak or another very large volcano.
He published his findings in a 2004 paper, and the results were intriguing but inconclusive. Many other sites on the Peninsula did have ash layers that could potentially be from the same eruptions as the major Brooks River ones, but difficulties in precisely dating these layers and relating them to the dating of the known eruptions at Aniakchak left the issue largely open. While this particular study was largely inconclusive, I find the general idea of trying to determine the relationships between volcanoes and human history very interesting (as longtime readers will recall), so hopefully more research along these lines in this exceptionally volcanically active area will shed more light on the question, which is potentially of great importance in explaining certain cultural and linguistic phenomena.
Regardless of whether volcanic eruptions were major factors in the prehistory of Alaska, it’s clear that they are a major risk factor for us today because of a new development since 1912: the rise of air travel. We need only recall the havoc wreaked by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010 (a vastly smaller eruption than Novarupta) to realize how big an effect a major eruption can have on aircraft, and southwestern Alaska is one of the most heavily traveled air routes in the world for both passengers and freight. Indeed, one of the main reasons the Alaska Volcano Observatory was established was to monitor Alaska’s volcanoes for their risk to air traffic. One study using simulations based on the scale of the Novarupta event found that a similar event today could potentially shut down essentially all air traffic throughout the northern hemisphere (and, in the unlikely event that ash moved into the southern hemisphere as well, even the whole world). And note that this is by no means an extremely unlikely occurrence; eruptions of this scale happen regularly, and while there hasn’t been one since Novarupta, there’s every reason to think another one will happen at some point. The only thing to do is to keep watching the volcanoes and studying their past eruptions to try to glean insights for the future. This hundredth anniversary of one of the most important such eruptions is an excellent opportunity to remember that.
Dailey, I. (1912). Report of the Eruption of Katmai Volcano Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 44 (9) DOI: 10.2307/200811
I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Barrow, Alaska, which is a really fascinating place in a whole bunch of ways. It’s certainly unlike any other place I’ve ever seen, either in Alaska or outside it. The coexistence of a vigorous tradition of subsistence whaling with a huge influx of money from the North Slope oil fields, combined with the presence of numerous scientists and other researchers stationed at the former Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) gives the place a mixture of cultures and perspectives that I’m pretty sure doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. The unpaved streets and rough wooden facades of the buildings in Barrow belie the extremely sophisticated infrastructure supporting them.
The modern community of Barrow descends from the ancient Inupiat village known as Utqiagvik (also known as Ukpiagvik), and a portion of the old village is still visible as ruins within the modern city. There’s not much to see except a series of low mounds representing old houses, but some of the mounds still have bits of the whale bone supports of the houses protruding, which is interesting. Much of Utqiagvik has been excavated, and an interesting article by Georgeanne Lewis Reynolds published in 1995 explains some of the lessons learned for archaeology more generally from the excavations at this site. Reynold’s approach falls within the “behavioral archaeology” school established by Michael Schiffer at the University of Arizona, which emphasizes the “formation processes” that lead to the archaeological record as it uncovered in excavations. The basic idea behind this is that what we see in a site when it is excavated is usually not a “snapshot” of daily life at a given moment in the past, a la Pompeii; instead, it is usually a sort of palimpsest of a variety of activities in a given location over time, further complicated by natural processes that occurred after the final human use of the site that serve to further obscure human activities. This general area of study is known within archaeology by the term “taphonomy” (itself taken from paleontology), although Reynolds does not use this term in her article.
As Reynolds points out, these natural processes are particularly important in the Arctic, where freeze-thaw cycles lead to major movements of soil layers and associated artifacts, coastal erosion destroys significant parts of sites like Utqiagvik located on coastal bluffs, and the sudden movement of large blocks of ice onto the bluff top, known in Inupiaq as ivu, can catastrophically destroy anything in the ice’s path. One famous ivu at Utqiagvik appears to have killed the well-known “frozen family” at Mound 44, preserving in place a Pompeii-like scene of domestic life that has provided details of ancient domestic life not generally available, but at the cost of also destroying much other evidence about the house on account of its destructive nature.
As for cultural formation processes, Reynolds identifies abandonment and reuse of structures as the main processes that can be detected at Utqiagvik. Many house mounds were abandoned, with most of the usable artifacts and bulding materials in them either taken away by the inhabitants who left or scavenged later by others, with the result that few conclusions about specific uses of space within the structures can be made. Some of these were later reused, which adds additional complications to interpretation.
Ultimately, Reynolds concludes that formation processes are more easily determined at sites like this at the level of architectural units (i.e., houses), rather than at the level of individual artifacts. All the formation processes she describes have a tendency to move artifacts away from their original locations where they were used, meaning that few conclusions about artifact use or social practices can be made from the locations where artifacts were excavated. The overall assemblage of artifacts from a given structure is a more reliable guide to the use of that structure in general, although even here processes such as abandonment and reuse complicates the picture for any given time period.
This may all seem fairly obvious, but it actually constitutes a fairly strong critique of the influential approach to archaeological inference promoted most famously by Lewis Binford, whose “processual” approach (part of the “New Archaeology” he and others spearheaded in the 1960s) depends crucially on the ability of archaeologists to draw wide-ranging conclusions about prehistoric societies based in part on the distribution of artifacts in excavated sites. Schiffer’s focus on the ways the archaeological record was actually formed is an important reality check on this approach, emphasizing that these sorts of conclusions can really only be made when certain specific conditions obtain. Reynolds’s paper serves largely to apply this general approach to the exceptionally complicated situation in the Arctic, where things are not necessarily as they seem.
On this date in 1964, which happened to be Good Friday, the largest earthquake in US history struck Southcentral Alaska. With its epicenter in Prince William Sound and its magnitude measured as 8.6 or even higher on the Richter Scale, the Good Friday earthquake caused massive destruction throughout the region. The nearby town of Valdez was completely destroyed and later rebuilt on a different, less seismically vulnerable site. Other towns such as Seward and Whittier didn’t suffer that fate, but 13 of the 70 residents of Whittier died in the quake and the following tsunami, and port facilities both there and in Seward suffered so much damage that they have never fully recovered their economic importance.
Anchorage, which was a bit further away, suffered somewhat less, although it was still hit hard. Indeed, its port managed to stay open in the aftermath of the quake and tsunami, which was one of the factors making Anchorage become the main economic center for the region and the whole state in the following years. This is not to say that the earthquake wasn’t a major disaster for Anchorage as well, however. The city was built on sediments that turned out to be pretty vulnerable to shifting when hit with an impact of that scale, and parts of the downtown were literally torn apart. An upscale residential area known as Turnagain Heights suffered a landslide so devastating that the city, rather than attempt to rebuild, designated it as a park. It is now aptly named Earthquake Park, and while there isn’t much obvious evidence of the effects of the earthquake anymore, there are interpretive signs that tell the story quite effectively.
Earthquakes are a fact of life in Alaska, which just north of the area where the Pacific Plate slides under the North American Plate (known as the Aleutian Trench). This movement is continual, but it only occasionally occurs in the form of massive slips of the sort that cause earthquakes on the scale of the one in 1964. The more usual effect is to warp and compress the land of Southcentral Alaska. This warping, along with other factors such as glaciation, leads to complicated changes in sea level over time, changes which can vary substantially in areas only a few miles apart.
And that, in turn, greatly complicates study of the archaeological record of Alaska. Rising sea level typically destroys archaeological sites (although in certain very specific circumstances it may instead preserve them in excellent condition), and changes in sea level over time may make sites from a given time period difficult to locate even if they haven’t been submerged. Furthermore, cultures of coastal Alaska have generally been oriented toward the sea, with settlements typically located fairly close to wherever the coastline was at the time. This means that sea-level fluctuations have even more profound impacts on understanding the archaeological record here than they might in some other areas.
These factors are illustrated dramatically in a 1996 article by Aron Crowell and Daniel Mann reporting on research in Kenai Fjords and Katmai National Parks attempting to carefully document sea-level changes and their effects on the archaeological record. These two parks are not very far from each other, being about 200 miles apart and both located on the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, but their geological and cultural histories differ dramatically. Kenai Fjords, as its name implies, is dominated by coastal fjords created when rising sea level inundated glacial valleys. Its archaeological record is sparse and limited to the past few centuries.
Katmai, on the other hand, has a relatively stable coastline and an enormously rich and well-documented archaeological record dating back several thousand years. Much of what is known about the archaeology of southwestern Alaska is based on long-term research in various parts of Katmai by Don Dumond of the University of Oregon from the 1950s through the 1980s, and there has been considerable additional research since then. The cultural sequence in this area closely parallels that of the nearby Kodiak Archipelago, which was one of the most densely populated parts of Alaska when the Russians arrived in the eighteenth century. The Kenai Fjords area, on the other hand, had a much lower density at this time, as did Prince William Sound further east, with which it has many similarities. This lower density has been plausibly attributed to lower resource productivity in these areas, but Crowell and Mann point out that the extremely low density of prehistoric archaeological sites in Kenai Fjords is perhaps also due to geological processes and seal level change.
To investigate the differences between the two parks, Crowell and Mann intensively investigated certain parts of each, with intriguing results. One of the areas investigated in Kenai Fjords was a narrow sand spit with a series of beach ridges containing a total of four archaeological sites (most dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the earliest about 500 years old) and a small tidal pond surrounded by trees killed when the 1964 earthquake caused the land to drop about one meter, exposing their roots to the seawater that permeates the sandy soil. This same seawater also fills the pond, so the sediments in and around it could be interpreted as a record of changes in relative sea level over time. Digging down in search of radiocarbon-datable material, the archaeologists found a series of buried tree stumps 1.8 meters below the present surface that seemed to have been killed in a sudden cataclysm surprisingly similar to what happened in 1964. Six radiocarbon samples taken from the bark of these stumps gave dates that were statistically identical and averaged out to about AD 1170.
This strongly suggests that there was a major earthquake at least as strong as the Good Friday one in or around 1170. This is consistent with evidence from several other parts of the region, where other studies have found less precise evidence for major geological changes around this time. The implication for the issue of archaeological site preservation is that any coastal sites in this area predating 1170 would have been destroyed by the earthquake. Since the geomorphology of Kenai Fjords means that the only usable settlement locations here are on low coastal sand spits like this one, this earthquake probably completely destroyed the previous archaeological record. This would explain why there are so few sites in the park, and why they basically all date to the late prehistoric period or later. The relatively low productivity and other drawbacks of the area may well have limited population earlier as well, but with the earthquake having destroyed any evidence of what was going on previously there’s no way to know for sure.
Katmai was a different story, however. Crowell and Mann discovered 22 new sites there in the course of this project (as compared to 16 sites total in Kenai Fjords documented by this and other projects), suggesting that further survey along the coast will likely reveal even more as yet unknown sites in this very productive area. Interestingly, many of the sites they found were located away from the present coastline, often in uplifted areas that may have been coastal at times of higher sea level than at present. Radiocarbon dates from these sites and from peats in the intertidal zone allowed Crowell and Mann to reconstruct a tentative sea level curve for much of the past several thousand years, with the main conclusion being that sea level has been pretty consistent over the past 4000 years, with a slight rise sometime in the past couple hundred years, possibly as a result of subsidence of land in the 1964 earthquake. (Crowell and Mann don’t discuss the possibility that global sea level rise as a result of climate change may be another explanation for this, but it strikes me as plausible.) In any case, whatever the source of this slight recent rise in sea level, it had few apparent effects on archaeological site preservation beyond contributing to the exceptional preservation of one waterlogged site. The subsidence from the 1964 earthquake was very slight in this area, and this appears to have been true for the 1170 one as well. The rich archaeological record of the Katmai coast, then, appears to be in part a function of the relative stability of sea level in this area over thousands of years, in striking contrast to areas just a few hundred miles away.
The archaeological record is always incomplete, and any conclusions drawn from it have to be tempered by knowledge of that incompleteness. As this paper demonstrates very effectively, however, the factors determining just how much of the past is left for us to study vary a lot, especially in places like Alaska where the forces of the earth are exceptionally active. The modern population of Alaska learned just how active those forces can be in 1964, and it stands to reason that the ancient population learned the same lesson in 1170.
One of the major areas of interest for the “New Archaeologists” who came to dominate American archaeology in the late twentieth century was mortuary analysis. In keeping with the arguments of Lewis Binford and other leaders of the movement that archaeology as a discipline should be “problem-oriented” and focused on reconstruction prehistoric societies as fully as possible using archaeological evidence, the patterning evident in the way those societies disposed of their dead was held to reveal important information about social structure and the positions held by the deceased in life. Many important studied of mortuary behavior in various cultures were published in this period, including a 1984 article by George Milner on the burial patterns of Mississippian sites in the American Bottom of southwestern Illinois.
Milner’s article is a classic example of the New Archaeology as applied to mortuary patterns, hampered only slightly by the immense complexity of Mississippian mortuary behavior and the scanty evidence from the many burials excavated in the nineteenth century and poorly documented. Noting that most Mississippian burials in this area were placed in dedicated cemetery areas, he divides these cemeteries into three broad categories, reflecting two dimensions of variation in social structure. The categories are elite burials at major centers such as Cahokia, non-elite burials at those same centers, and non-elite burials at peripheral sites (which do not appear to contain elite burials).
By far the most and best information available to Milner was from the third category, and this is the one he focuses the most attention on. There is quite a bit of diversity even within this category of cemetery, but some general patterns do emerge. Cemetery sites are typically either on prominent bluffs above the Mississippi River floodplain or on low ridges within the floodplain, with a trend apparent over time of a shift from the former to the latter. The bluff-top cemeteries tend to be quite large, and they probably represent the dead of multiple rural communities in the general area. This inference is backed up by the diversity of mortuary treatments even within these cemeteries. Some burials are intact, articulated skeletons, often laid out in one or more rows, sometimes with the heads pointing toward a nearby mound center. Others are disarticulated jumbles or bones, often containing the remains of multiple individuals. There is considerable evidence of complicated mortuary treatment involving exposure of the bodies for some period after death, perhaps in the “charnel structures” that accompany some of the cemeteries, followed by secondary burial. Grave goods are rare and usually relatively mundane items such as pottery, although shell beads and certain exotic minerals are found in some cases.
Ironically, burials at the major mound sites are generally poorly documented compared to those in the rural hinterland. This is in part because the former were often excavated haphazardly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with little or no detailed documentation, while the latter have been largely excavated by systematic cultural resource management salvage projects more recently and extensively documented. Nevertheless, Milner combed through the available data on the mound center burials in the American Bottom, and he comes to a few tentative conclusions about them.
For one thing, there is definitely a big difference between the elite and non-elite burials. The non-elite burials are similar to the ones at outlying sites in many ways, including linear arrangements of graves and modest assemblages of grave goods, but there is also more substantial variation in mortuary treatment, which Milner plausibly attributes to greater diversity within the more populous mound communities, perhaps including more subtle gradations of status than are accounted for by his crude “elite”/”non-elite” dichotomy.
The elite burials, however, are quite different. They are generally in mounds, specifically in conical mounds as opposed to the flat-topped ones that served as platforms for buildings. A common pattern seen at Cahokia and other sites, is for mounds to be paired, with a conical mound accompanying a platform mound. The Fox and Roundtop mounds (the so-called “Twin Mounds”), south of Monks Mound on the opposite side of the Grand Plaza, are the best-known of these paired mounds, but since they are largely unexcavated relatively little is known of their contents. Much of the Cahokia data Milner uses comes instead from Mound 72, which was excavated relatively recently and extensively documented. The very complicated mortuary deposits in this mound include two burials associated with numerous shell beads, as well as various other groups of both articulated and disarticulated remains. One group of articulated skeletons was missing skulls and hands, apparently indicating some sort of human sacrifice.
One of the most striking ways the elite burials differ from the non-elite ones is in the sorts of grave goods. Mundane items such as pottery are generally rare, while very elaborate, labor-intensive artifacts are numerous. The shell beads from Mound 72, also common in several of the other mounds Milner discusses, are one example. Mound 72 also contained various other items, including a cache of finely made chert projectile points, and other exotic materials including copper items were found in other mound burials.
Another interesting characteristic of the elite burials Milner describes is that they are quite communal in nature. Individual burials are not present, and even the most elaborate assemblages of grave goods seem to be associated with large groups of burials within the mounds. This may have important implications for the nature of political power in Mississippian society, although Milner doesn’t go into the implications in any detail in this paper.
Some of Milner’s conclusions in this paper have been superseded in part by newer discoveries and refinements to the chronology of the American Bottom since the time he wrote, but this is still an important paper, not least because of the way it draws on what information is available on the early excavations. The tentative nature of Milner’s conclusions is due in part to those data limitations, but also to the fact that what becomes glaringly obvious from this work is that Mississippian burial practices were extremely complicated and shaped by a wide variety of possible factors, not all of them easily discernible from this type of study.
Milner, G. (1984). Social and Temporal Implications of Variation among American Bottom Mississippian Cemeteries American Antiquity, 49 (3) DOI: 10.2307/280355
Mississippian societies are best known for their mound centers, with Cahokia in Illinois being the largest and most impressive but by no means the only one. These sites have drawn the interest of archaeologists since the very beginning of American archaeology as a field of study, but the focus on mounds meant that other aspects of Mississippian culture got relatively little attention until much later.
One of these aspects was domestic architecture. While Mississippian mounds, unlike those of many earlier societies in the Eastern Woodlands, often served at least in part as platforms for elite residences, the fact that both these and more humble dwellings were made of perishable materials and did not survive in the damp conditions of the region led their subtle remains to be largely ignored until well into the twentieth century. At this time archaeology as a discipline was rapidly professionalizing, and archaeologists began to shift their focus from acquiring impressive specimens for museum display to investigating the remains of ancient societies in an attempt to understand them as totalities, including the more humble parts.
When it came to Mississippian residential architecture, what these newer, more careful excavations revealed was that Mississippian houses were relatively flimsy, at least as compared to the impressive stone architecture of the Southwest and Mexico. Indeed, masonry architecture was apparently totally unknown in the East throughout the prehistoric period, even in areas near outcrops of useful stone. The conception thus entered the archaeological literature that the Mississippians, for all their effort at building mounds, didn’t do much to build substantial houses.
This is kind of a misleading way to think about it, however, as John Bennett of the University of Chicago pointed out in a 1944 article. As he put it:
There can be no doubt that a dwelling or ceremonial structure built of such perishable materials as wood, canes, and grass thatch is hardly as durable or lasting as a stone building. From the standpoint of preservation such construction is “flimsy.” This interpretation unfortunately implies, however, that this architecture was flimsy in terms of its own cultural setting. That is, it represented a poor attempt at sheltering and housing the people.
Bennett goes on to argue that this is a mistaken conclusion to draw, basing his remarks on his institution’s recent excavations at the Kincaid site in southern Illinois, which had exceptionally well-preserved remains of burned houses. Basically, he argues that while the individual materials may have been flimsy, they were put together in an ingenious way that gave the result structures plenty of strength and durability for their intended purposes:
Walls were constructed by placing poles or saplings in a trench and bending these over at the top to produce a peaked or domed roof. Horizontal poles were lashed to the sides, to produce a lattice. Reeds were then lashed to the lattice. The next step was to plaster a thick layer of clay on both sides of this lattice, over the reeds, then to cover this clay with a matted layer of grass fibers. The final step was to cover this grass with cane mats—large and thick for the outside, thinner for the inside. The wall thus formed was nearly one foot thick, and obviously very rigid—hardly a “flimsy” structure.
There was actually quite a bit of variation within the Mississippian tradition in house construction; some areas had straight-walled houses with gabled thatch roofs, while others had houses with more of a curved shape. This basic pattern of wall trenches filled with upright poles which were then covered with some sort of wattle-and-daub was widespread, however, and in some areas the appearance of wall trenches is considered a sign of the beginning of the Mississippian period. It’s true that these houses didn’t last very long and had to be replaced frequently (which has been used in some cases to estimate occupation spans and population totals at certain sites), but any type of construction short of stone masonry would have this drawback in the rainy East. Given that these houses would have provided quite useful shelter with relatively little effort, they seem quite well suited to their context.
Speaking of stone, though, why didn’t they use it? Some sites in alluvial plains wouldn’t necessarily have had nearby sources of stone, but this isn’t the case for Kincaid and many other sites. As it turns out, Bennett has an answer to this too:
The proximity of Kincaid to stone outcrops in the hills might make us wonder why the Indians never utilized stone for building materials. The answer is twofold: (1) The southeastern cultural tradition did not include such a trait, and (2) the climate and frequent floods in the bottoms required just such a structure as described. The architecture can be considered as a nearly perfect adaptation to the environment.
It’s interesting to see here, given the early date of Bennett’s article, that he hits on both of the major categories of explanation that have dominated archaeology in recent decades: environmental determinism and cultural specificity. Neither is necessarily all that convincing on its own, but between the two of them they probably cover whatever the true answer was. It’s noteworthy that when Europeans began to settle eastern North America they mostly didn’t build with stone either, instead preferring wood until well into the nineteenth century when cities grew to such a size that local wood resources became scarce and fire became a major concern. This even though they, unlike the indigenous tribes, did have a cultural tradition of building in stone which reached quite a high degree of elaboration in the castles and cathedrals of medieval Europe.
One way to interpret this information is to posit that building with stone is sufficiently difficult that people are only going to do it when they have few other options, as in arid regions with little wood and when local wood resources have been largely exhausted. In the forests of the Eastern Woodlands this was never really a problem during the prehistoric period (and well into the historic), so people just built with wood and other easily available materials. Even for monumental purposes, such as mound-building, they used dirt rather than bothering with stone. Ironically, this meant that everything they built except the mounds eventually rotted away in the wet climate, so their ingenuity in this regard wasn’t discovered until rather recently.
Bennett, J. (1944). A Note on Middle Mississippi Architecture American Antiquity, 9 (3) DOI: 10.2307/275792
Among the rarest and most fascinating artifacts associated with Mississippian sites are figurines made of carved stone. These are most numerous in the Cahokia area, although they have also been found in various other parts of the Mississippian world, most notably at the Spiro site in Oklahoma. Regardless of where they are found, however, many of these figurines show striking similarities in raw material and iconography, and they have accordingly been the subject of considerable study.
Most of the known examples of these figurines were excavated a long time ago under conditions that are poorly documented. This is most notoriously the case at Spiro (on which more later), but it is also true of many of the Cahokia-area specimens. A reevaluation of all these early finds was spurred largely by the discovery of new examples through carefully controlled excavations as part of the FAI-270 highway salvage excavations in the 1970s by the University of Illinois. Probably the most famous of these new finds was the Birger Figurine, found at the BBB Motor site northeast of Cahokia in 1979. The context of this and other figurines discovered during this project indicated that they dated to the Stirling Phase (AD 1050 to 1150). During this period the BBB Motor site appears to have functioned as a rural ceremonial center devoted primarily to the processing of human remains for burial, so the presence of figurines there at this time may have some relevance for interpreting their function.
A few years after the discovery of the Birger Figurine Guy Prentice published an article analyzing its iconography in relation to the mythology of various Native groups of the Eastern Woodlands. The figurine depicts a woman using a hoe on the body of a snake that encircles her, the tail of which bifurcates into two vines bearing what appear to be gourds or squashes. As Prentice notes, this seems to pretty clearly symbolize agricultural fertility, and the woman may therefore represent some sort of “Earth-Mother” figure. Various Native groups in the East did in fact worship such a goddess, and the more specific attributes of these deities shed further light on the symbolism of the figurine. They typically had strong associations with serpents, hence the snake, as well as agriculture and fertility more generally. Additionally, and not at all obvious from the figurine itself, they tend to have associations with the moon and with death (with which snakes are also associated). There is typically a sort of “circle of life” motif tying together the Earth-Mother, fertility, agriculture, death, and rebirth. Prentice makes a convincing case that the Birger Figurine fits well into this motif.
One of the issues Prentice has to deal with in his article, however, is which groups are most relevant for interpreting these figurines. Recall that they are found both in the Cahokia area and at Spiro. It was long assumed that they were manufactured at or near Spiro, since they are made of a type of stone that resembles a bauxite known to occur in Arkansas. However, as Prentice points out, similar types of stone are found in various other areas, including the Ozark Highlands of southeast Missouri, near St. Louis (and therefore quite close to Cahokia). He deals with this issue by analyzing myths from throughout the Eastern Woodlands along with those of the Caddoan tribes of the Spiro area.
A research program led by Thomas Emerson of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey has sought to address this issue more directly, by chemically sourcing the figurines to determine where they were made. They began by analyzing figurines from the Cahokia area, including the Birger Figurine, and determined that they were in fact made of flint clay from the Ozarks and not from Arkansas bauxite. They followed this up by analyzing figurines from other areas to the south and southeast of Cahokia, including Spiro. This involved developing a new, non-destructive method for analyzing figurines, as these specimens were mostly museum pieces that were not available for any sort of destructive testing. The results of this study indicated that all of these examples also came from the Missouri Ozarks. Basically, all of the tested figurines appear to have come from the same source area (possibly even the same quarry), which was in the Cahokia area, and it is most plausible to think that most or all of them were also sculpted in or around Cahokia regardless of where they ended up.
There are several implications of this finding. For one, there is a striking difference in subject matter between the figurines found in the Cahokia area and those found in areas to the south, especially at Spiro. The former largely depict female figures and themes related to agriculture and fertility, while the latter more often depict male figures and themes related to warfare, violence, and the chunkey game. It was once thought that this might reflect a difference between Cahokian and Caddoan worldviews, but since all the figurines now seem to be Cahokian in origin it seems more likely that all of these themes were important in Cahokia but that only the more masculine, warlike figures ended up traveling to the southern centers, which may indicate something about the nature of Caddoan societies in the relevant period.
Another issue is just when that relevant period was. As noted above, the recent finds of figurines at the BBB Motor site and others in the Cahokia area indicate a time frame of AD 1050 to 1150 for most examples, and it is very unlikely that any were being made in the American Bottom after around 1200. This is around the time Cahokia starts to decline in influence, though it wasn’t totally abandoned until a while later, and it seems likely that some major changes made figurine-making a much less important activity than before. Outside of the Cahokia area, however, figurines don’t start to appear until even later, after around 1250, and mostly in burial contexts. This suggests to Emerson and his colleagues that it was only after the decline of Cahokian power that figurines began to be exported in significant numbers to the Caddoan and other southern centers, which were increasing in power and influence at that time.
When the Caddoans and other rising stars in the Southeast began to acquire Cahokian figurines, it appears that they strongly preferred the masculine warrior styles rather than the feminine Earth-Mother ones, although it is also quite possible that the Cahokians themselves refused to part with the latter, which tended to be ritually broken and buried at religious sites like BBB Motor. In any case, it was mostly the warrior figures that ended up moving south, and once they arrived (probably), many were drilled to be used as pipes rather than as static figures. The Cahokians seem to have made some figurine pipes, with the pipe mouthpiece and bowl incorporated into the design, but these Caddoan examples were clearly made secondarily out of non-pipe figurines, since the drill-holes interfere with the original design. This change is significant; as Emerson and colleagues put it in their 2003 paper:
This was a critical transition (i.e., from figurine to pipe) from an object of elite or religious sacra that was “observed” and to which obeisance was due to an instrument with which an individual “interacted.” There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one. For this transition to have occurred it seems reasonable to assume that either fundamental changes occurred in local religious or social practices or that the figurine had moved into a different cultural context where its original meaning was not comprehended or was irrelevant. We have no evidence for this type of transformation of a figurine into a pipe in the American Bottom. Conversely, at present, we have no large undrilled figurines in areas outside of Cahokia. The production of large flint clay icons or idols was a uniquely Cahokian phenomenon. The conversion of such figurines to pipes seems to have been a uniquely Caddoan practice.
The discovery that these figurines were apparently all manufactured in the Cahokia area in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is a very important piece of evidence for untangling the importance of Cahokia for the development of Mississippian iconography and other cultural features. Interpreting that evidence is of course difficult, but this research shows the importance of archaeometric techniques for providing a baseline from which rich cultural interpretations can proceed.
Emerson, T., & Hughes, R. (2000). Figurines, Flint Clay Sourcing, the Ozark Highlands, and Cahokian Acquisition American Antiquity, 65 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2694809
Emerson, T., Hughes, R., Hynes, M., & Wisseman, S. (2003). The Sourcing and Interpretation of Cahokia-Style Figurines in the Trans-Mississippi South and Southeast American Antiquity, 68 (2) DOI: 10.2307/3557081
Prentice, G. (1986). An Analysis of the Symbolism Expressed by the Birger Figurine American Antiquity, 51 (2) DOI: 10.2307/279939
One of the distinctive characteristics of Cahokia and its area of strong influence is the prevalence of filed teeth in many human burials. Filing of teeth as a cultural practice was common in Mexico for thousands of years before the Spanish conquest, but further north it is very rare and found mostly at Cahokia and sites in the immediately surrounding area. Gregory Perino published an article in 1967 summarizing the data as of that date on filed teeth at Cahokian sites. He notes that most of the burials with this characteristic were excavated non-professionally and that many of the early excavations were not reported in sufficient detail to know whether tooth-filing was present in the burials they uncovered. Nevertheless, Perino’s article is a useful summary of the evidence at the time.
Interestingly, Perino notes that while most of the reports of filed teeth in North America are from the Cahokia area, there are some scattered early mentions in other regions, including Georgia and the Southwest (!). The Southwestern mention is interesting, as Christy Turner has claimed that some of the remains at Chaco Canyon show filed teeth. None of the other physical anthropologists who have analyzed the relevant remains have noted the same, but that’s not very many people and in general the published physical analyses of the Chaco burials are woefully inadequate. Perino’s reference to a Southwestern example of filed teeth is unclear, but he appears to be citing a previous study of the practice in Illinois which I have not been able to track down.
Setting the comparative question aside, Perino finds three types of tooth filing at Cahokia:
- V-shaped notches in the cutting edge of the upper medial and (more rarely) lateral incisors. The number of notches varies from 1 to 4 in the medial incisors and 1 to 2 in the lateral incisors. One example has a single notch in each of the lower medial incisors; this is the only example of filing of any of the lower teeth.
- Shallow horizontal grooves along the upper medial incisors above the cutting edge. There can be either one or two grooves, and the grooves can be either parallel to the cutting edge or slightly oblique.
- A combination of both of the above types on the same teeth.
Of these, the first category is the most common. The number of notches varies, and they are found more often in the teeth of younger than older individuals, although Perino notes that this is probably because the relevant parts of the teeth have worn away in older individuals. The second and third category are less common, though still somewhat widespread.
Perino finds examples of tooth filing both at the Cahokia site itself, particularly in the area of Mounds 19 and 20 east of Monks Mound, and at various locations showing Cahokian influence both to the north in the lower Illinois River valley and to the south in the southern American Bottom. All of the sites he discusses are in the modern state of Illinois. Tooth filing is generally found in only a few individuals in any given burial population, indicating that while it was fairly widespread around Cahokia it was far from universal and generally limited to a small number of people within the society, possibly an elite class. Most of the examples are from men, but there are a few women as well. The chronology of Cahokia was not very well developed at the time, but it appears that the examples of filed teeth mostly date to the height of Cahokia’s power and influence, now dated to approximately AD 1050 to 1200.
Near the end of the paper Perino proposes some suggestions for other areas where similar practices might be identified through further research:
It would not be unreasonable to expect filed teeth to occur in the Tennessee-Cumberland area, in southeast Missouri, and in earlier parts of the Caddoan area, especially at Spiro. Relationships in these areas are noted through trade objects and a similarity in their religious practices.
These are certainly among the areas showing extensive contact with the American Bottom during the Mississippian period, but they are not the only such areas. What additionally distinguishes them is that they all lie south of Cahokia, and it seems likely that what Perino has in mind here (although he doesn’t say so explicitly) is that these areas may have served as conduits for the transmittal of tooth-filing from Mexico to Cahokia. Be that as it may, as far as I know this practice has not in fact been identified in any of these other areas, which would cast doubt on the idea that it diffused from Mexico to Cahokia, unless Cahokian elites actually went directly there themselves and brought back this (and other?) ideas.
The question of the extent of Mesoamerican influence on Mississippian culture has been hotly debated over the years; the current trend seems to be to downplay the possibility of direct connections and focus on in situ explanations of the Mississippian Emergence. I’m not sure what to think about this, myself. There are a lot of things about Mississippian societies that certainly look very Mesoamerican, at least at first glance, but it’s not clear how many of these are specifically Mesoamerican developments rather than things that typically happen at a certain level of sociopolitical complexity cross-culturally and that are therefore likely to have emerged in the Mississippian context from underlying trends the same way they did in Mexico much earlier. Tooth-filing seems a lot more specific than that sort of thing, though, and I can see it as a strong piece of evidence for direct influence, but the lack of it in the intervening area (if that does in fact turn out to be the case) would be problematic for that interpretation. It seems like a weird thing to do, but it’s not totally unique to Mexico in a global context, so it’s certainly possible that the Cahokians came up with it on their own as well.
Perino, G. (1967). Additional Discoveries of Filed Teeth in the Cahokia Area American Antiquity, 32 (4) DOI: 10.2307/2694083
Monks Mound is both the largest mound at Cahokia and the largest at any Mississippian site, by a huge margin. It’s 100 feet high and about 1,000 by 800 feet at the base, covering more than 18 acres. Its mass is five times that of the second-largest Mississippian mound (Mound A at the Etowah site in Georgia). The thing is just gigantic, and it has long been of intense interest to archaeologists. Back in the nineteenth century there was considerable debate over whether it was an artificial mound at all rather than some sort of unusual natural formation, and even into the early twentieth century there was some discussion of whether it might have been a natural rise of some sort that was built up artificially. Those debates had largely been settled by the 1960s, with increasing evidence that it was in fact an artificial construction like the smaller mounds surrounding and forming the core of the Cahokia site around the Grand Plaza. There still remained a dearth of detailed information on the composition of the mound, however, and after some excavation of various small parts of the mound in the early 1960s the archaeologists working at Cahokia came up with the idea of doing some core drilling to get a more general sense of its composition. They reported their results in a paper published in 1968.
After reviewing the techniques available to them, the researchers decided to go with the heaviest equipment they could find, a truck-mounted rig used to take soil samples for highway and building construction. This rig worked by ramming a three-inch diameter tube down at two-foot increments, after each of which the core sample would be extracted and a new tube attached to take the next two-foot sample. This worked pretty well, although some of the tubes broke loose, broke, or were otherwise lost in the course of drilling. The clay soils of the American Bottom are notoriously tough on equipment, so it’s probably a good thing they chose the most heavy-duty rig they could. They found that the core samples were somewhat compacted from the pressure of the drilling, but this didn’t end up being a major problem for interpreting them.
To check on the accuracy of interpretations derived from the core sampling, a small area adjacent to one of the sampling holes was excavated to get a better look at the stratigraphy. This digging generally confirmed the interpretation of the cores, especially the interpretation of thin bands of limonite, which often forms on exposed surfaces in this area, as indicating discrete construction stages of the mound. The coring and excavation also resulted in the submission of a few pieces of wood for radiocarbon dating to give a sense for the absolute chronology of mound construction. Since this was early in the history of radiocarbon dating, the standard deviations on the resulting dates are so large as to make the results of limited usefulness in delimiting substages within the Mississippian period, but they do show the general period when the mound was most likely under construction to be between AD 800 and 1300, which matches the dating of the Emergent Mississippian and Mississippian periods at Cahokia.
Probably the most important result of this research was the discovery that two of the major construction stages, including the earliest, consisted of massive deposits of black clay which likely came from topsoil deposits in various areas around the mound. The later paper I discussed earlier suggested that some of this clay may have come from the upper layers of the area to the south that would later be filled in to become the Grand Plaza, while the authors of the original paper suggested that some of it may have come from the area to the north along Cahokia Creek. It probably took a hell of a lot of clay to build these layers, so both could easily be right.
Another interesting proposal from the authors of the coring paper is that the other mounds at Cahokia may have postdated Monks Mound. This is based on the fact that the handful of radiocarbon dates from excavations beneath other mounds that had been obtained as of that time were uniformly later (though not necessarily very much so) than the dates obtained from the coring and excavation at Monks Mound. This idea is supported by the fact that some of the other mounds are clearly aligned with Monks Mound. There has been a lot of excavation and reanalysis of older materials since the 1960s, of course, so I’m not sure if this pattern still holds up.
Monks Mound is both so huge and so important that this sort of broad-scale coring, like the conductivity survey done later in the Grand Plaza, is a reasonable way to quickly get a general sense of patterns that would take much longer to uncover via excavation, which might not even be possible to do on account of preservation concerns. This is therefore a pretty important paper. Even though it doesn’t reveal a whole lot of detail about the construction stages of Monks Mound, it’s unlikely that we’ll get much more detail than this without a seriously huge effort.
Reed, N., Bennett, J., & Porter, J. (1968). Solid Core Drilling of Monks Mound: Technique and Findings American Antiquity, 33 (2) DOI: 10.2307/278515