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