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