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