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1.1: The Art of the Eastern Woodlands

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    231681
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University
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    Thirty-five hundred years ago, people all over the world were constructing cities and making art. In the Middle East, the Tigris and Euphrates River Valleys, north of the Persian Gulf, were the home of numerous Sumerian city-states. On the Huang-he River, in China, the rulers of the Shang dynasty lived in earth-walled precincts, and made burials in which slaves, chariots, and animals shared the afterlife with their owners. By 1500 B.C.E. the city of Mohenjo-daro, built above the floodplains of the Indus River, in Pakistan, had reached its cultural peak and was already in decline. Likewise, along the Egyptian Nile River, the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, such as Rameses II and Tutankhamun, controlled vast cities and claimed a place for themselves in the afterlife by building rock-cut tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

    Framing the Discourse

    ONE OF THE MOST PERPLEXING topics in archaeology is the date of the peopling of the Americas. For generations, archaeologists theorized that the first Americans were Asians who crossed a land bridge from Siberia to Alaska (now the waterfilled Bering Strait) in pursuit of large game animals at the end of the last Ice Age-about twelve thousand to fifteen thousand years ago. A large body of archaeological evidence from several regions of North and South America points to this idea and suggests a rapid peopling of the entire hemisphere sometime before 10,000 B.C.E. Other evidence, from Monte Verde, Chile, suggests that humans may have been making rudimentary tools there some thirty thousand years ago, but that dating remains controversial. The dating of other recent finds also challenges the traditional theory. In some circles, the ethnicity of early Americans is hotly debated, with some people arguing that Asians may not have been the only racial stock to arrive in prehistoric times. Furthermore, the question of whether humans arrived in a single migration or in a series of discrete migrations has remained difficult to answer conclusively. These questions can become "hot-button" political issues when they challenge common assumptions. Today, new techniques such as DNA analysis are being added to existing methods of archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics to help render a more complete picture of the prehistoric peopling of the Americas.

    In any event, it is clear that many successive generations of humans lived in diverse parts of North America between the peopling of the Western Hemisphere, at least twelve thousand years ago, and the emergence of art making in nonperishable materials, about five thousand years ago. Lost to us, except in the most fragmentary evidence, are intervening stages of cultural development: the invention of basket-making technologies, for example, or the earliest stages of the making of masks and other ceremonial regalia. New finds and research will continue to improve our understanding of the earliest Americans, their movements, and their efforts at establishing culture.

    Table 1.1: Time Periods in Ancient America
    Region Dates Sites Discussed
    EAST Archaic Period c. 6000 B.C.E.-500 B.C.E. Poverty Point, LA
      Woodland 500 B.C.E.-400 C.E. Hopewell, OH
      Mississippian 800 c.E.-1400 C.E. Cahokia, IL
        Moundville, AL
        Spiro, OK
    ALASKA Old Bering Sea Culture 500 B.c.E.-500 C.E.  
      lpiutak Stage 100-800 c.E.  
    SOUTHWEST B,asketmaker Culture 100 B.C.E.-700 C.E.  
      Anasazi Culture 700-1300 C.E. Chaco Canyon, NM
      (Great Pueblo Period 1050-1300 C.E.)  
      Classic Mimbres-Mogollon Culture 1000-1150 C.E.  
      Proto-historic Era 1400-1600 C.E. Hopi
        Zuni
        Acoma
    A Note on Dating

    In this book, we follow the custom in archaeology of using the letters "s.c.E." (Before the Common Era") and "u." (Common Era"), rather than B.c. (Before Christ) and A.O. (Anno Domini, Latin for "Year of Our Lord"), which reference a Christian tradition.

    In eastern North America, almost all ancient cities were founded along the riverine network that crisscrosses this part of the continent. In the rivers, fish and turtles were caught for food. The floodplains along their banks provided fertile soil. Village life relied on farming, as well as on hunting and the gathering of abundant natural resources. Great flocks of birds, and mammals such as deer and rabbits, which were hunted for their flesh and their pelts, were plentiful. These rivers also served as highways, on which long distance travel and economic exchange were conducted.

    People had been living in small communities for several thousand years, when, around 1500 B.C.E., a new mode of living arose. Some communities became gradually less egalitarian and more hierarchical. In these societies, people used items obtained through long-distance trade to create works of art. Judging from the rich burials found in ancient American cities, these art objects held status for their owners, both in this life and in the afterlife. These hierarchical societies also built large-scale earthworks. Found throughout the Americas, these mounds manifest widely shared religious ideas; they served as focal points for the ceremonial expression of spiritual beliefs, as well as validations of status and power. They were not an architecture of shelter and enclosure; perishable structures would do for that. Unlike the builders of ancient Europe, who focused on spanning large spaces with roofs, arches, and domes, Native builders, especially in the Eastern Woodlands, strove to create solid structures that resembled mountains or animal forms. In some cases, the intended viewers must have been the denizens of the sky world, for some of the grandest earthworks of ancient America became apparent only with the advent of aerial photography in the twentieth century.

    The Art of Archaic and Woodland Cultures

    By about 1500 B.C.E., people in the Eastern Woodlands had been gathering for some time in settled communities and engaging in long-distance trade. Much of what we know about these people is derived from objects found in their graves- evidence of a custom of honoring the dead by burying them with valued gifts. Part of a correct relationship with other people in many societies is the presentation of gifts, especially finely crafted objects. In Native belief systems, to conduct oneself in a ritually correct way, toward the forces of nature and toward the community, has always been important. In the colonial era, Native peoples bestowed gifts upon the newcomers, just as they do upon valued individuals today, and it is evident from the archaeological record that the custom of honoring the dead by the bestowal of gifts goes back to ancient times. The characteristics of the objects interred with the deceased have helped us to piece together a picture of the living societies that created them.

    Framing the Discourse

    In the last few decades new attention has focused on the names used to refer to Native American peoples. The power to name is a formidable one, and Native peoples are increasingly rejecting the names imposed on them by others. In the absence of a perfect consensus about names, in this book we follow the practices currently accepted among most scholars.

    We interchangeably use the terms American Indian, Native American, Native, and Indigenous people to refer to the original inhabitants of North America-as do most Native people themselves (except in Canada, where the term First Nations is widely used). Regarding the names of particular ethnic groups, we use those terms that are currently recognized by anthropologists and that cause the least amount of confusion. For example, we use Cheyenne rather than Tsistsistas, a designation that some Cheyenne people prefer. In another example, we use Anasazi and Ancestral Pueblo interchangeably to refer to the ancient town-dwellers of Arizona and New Mexico, though Ancestral Pueblo is becoming more common. In the Arctic, the indigenous peoples of Alaska today routinely use the word Eskimo as a general term, in addition to regionally and ethnically specific terms such as Yupik and lnupiat. The term Inuit refers to the Eskimoan peoples of Canada and is almost never used in Alaska.

    POVERTY POINT. Numerous towns, from western Tennessee down to the Gulf of Mexico, were part of the Poverty Point culture, which arose around 1700 B.C.E. , in what is now northeast Louisiana, a region where people had lived for several thousand years. This era is called the Archaic Period (see Table 1.1), for it is the oldest time period during which Native people were beginning to develop complex art and architecture. Perhaps the earliest hierarchical society of the Archaic Period, Poverty Point was the locus of a complex chiefdom where people created large-scale earthworks and used the products of long distance trade to create high-status goods.

    Poverty Point is the largest site in North America dating from the period before 600 B.C.E. Most of the large-scale construction there was done between 1500 and 1000 B.C.E., and it is a remarkable example of engineering and artistry (fig. 1.3). Six concentric embankments of earth form a large C-shape oriented toward a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River floodplain. The diameter of the outermost ridge is nearly 4000 feet across-more than three-quarters of a mile. Atop these ridges, small houses faced a vast plaza, measuring some 37 acres. Several avenues led out of this plaza like spokes of a wheel. In addition to the ridges, nearby there are several large mounds, the most significant of which is shaped like a flying bird, with a wingspan of over 600 feet.

    Figure 1.3: Reconstruction of ceremonial enclosure (by Jon Gibson), Poverty Point, Louisiana, c. 1500 B.C.E. University of Southwestern Louisiana.
    Figure 1.3: Reconstruction of ceremonial enclosure (by Jon Gibson), Poverty Point, Louisiana, c. 1500 B.C.E. University of Southwestern Louisiana.

    The existence of this huge plaza suggests that 3500 years ago indigenous Americans conducted public festivals and ceremonies, as the people at Spiro did in 1300 C.E. (see fig. 1.1), and as Native Americans have done ever since. All of the types of earth architecture seen in eastern North America over the next 3000 years are in evidence at Poverty Point: giant geometric embankments, temple mounds, and effigy mounds (earthworks in the shape of animals). Such architectural complexity indicates a culture capable of marshaling a large workforce and housing and feeding them while they labored. It also assumes the existence of a surplus of labor-that some individuals within a village could be spared from food gathering and production in order to devote themselves to such an ambitious project. In addition to specialists in building, there was a lapidary industry (working precious stones) at Poverty Point. This was a direct result of long-distance trade, which had brought to this region materials from a variety of sources, both distant and close at hand: copper from the Great Lakes; chert, flint, and other stones from the upper Missouri River area; mica and jasper from Alabama. Red jasper, feldspar, hematite, and magnetite were made into practical items that showed an appreciation of the beauty of finely polished stone. Spears and spear throwers (among many finely wrought tools), stone weights for fishing nets, beads in the shape of owls and locusts-all of these demonstrate high technical proficiency, as well as a well developed aesthetic sensibility.

    The people at Poverty Point set the pattern that would continue in North America for the next few thousand years: interdependent cultures that drew upon vast trade networks for raw materials and for ideas. Within these cultures arose towns and cities, thanks to various factors such as location, high levels of artistic skill, and a genius for urban planning, or compelling ritual and symbolic systems. Because we know of Poverty Point only through archaeological excavation, much of what existed at this city has been lost. We have their earthworks, and over a hundred thousand small items: beads, clay figurines, finely crafted stone weights, and spear points. Yet, when we look at historic American Indian art and see how much artistic ingenuity is displayed in the way that fur, hide, feather, wood, plant fiber, shell, and other perishable materials were crafted, we must remember that this prehistoric culture, too, must have produced much fine work in such materials, which has now been lost.

    HOPEWELL CULTURE. The Hopewell culture took shape in the eastern United States from 200 B.C.E. to 400 C.E. The greatest elaboration of this culture was in Ohio, where large earthworks, like those of the Archaic culture at Poverty Point, were also constructed. These included effigy mounds as well as complex burial mounds in which high-ranking individuals were interred with finely worked grave goods. Hundreds of thousands of basket-loads of earth were then heaped over the burial to form an imposing mound. Like those at Poverty Point, the Hopewell mounds contained goods and materials that had been traded from afar, including copper from Lake Superior, mica and quartz from the Appalachian Mountains, shells from Florida, and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains.

    Figure 1.4: Falcon-shaped cut-out, Hopewell culture, Mound City, Ohio, 200 B.C.E.-r c.E. Copper. Mound City National Monument, National Park Service, Chillicothe, Ohio.
    Figure 1.4: Falcon-shaped cut-out, Hopewell culture, Mound City, Ohio, 200 B.C.E.-1 C.E. Copper. Mound City National Monument, National Park Service, Chillicothe, Ohio.

    Here, too, fine craftsmanship is evident. Copper was pounded into thin sheets and fashioned into elaborate bird and animal shapes (fig. 1.4). The example shown represents the ever-important falcon seen in so much ancient art of eastern North America (see figs. 1.1 and 1.8). The graves of the highest ranking dead were remarkable for the splendor of their contents. For example, a pair of burials in one mound contained nearly one hundred worked copper plates similar to that in figure 1.4. Other graves contained hundreds of copper ear spools, or thousands of shell beads. Such gifts honored the dead, who would intercede for the living in the spirit world.

    Stone pipes, used to smoke ritual tobacco, were also carved into bird and animal forms. (Although they might not look like pipes to a modern viewer, the platform served as both the mouthpiece and the handle.) Such pipes were often broken before being grouped in large offerings, which were ritually burned and covered with earth. Although rendered useless for smoking in this world, they remained a valuable offering taken out of human circulation and placed with the honored dead. Some pipes were made, used, and buried locally, while others traveled hundreds of miles; for example, the Raven pipe (fig. 1.5) was buried in a site in Illinois. Again, long-distance relationships were for~ed through the exchange of art and ideas, a practice that would become elaborated more fully during the subsequent Mississippian era.

    Figure 1.5: Raven-effigy platform pipe, Crab Orchard culture, Rutherford Mound, Illinois, 200 B.C.E.- 200 C.E. Stone, 2¾ x 4¾ in (6.2 x r2.2 cm). Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois.
    Figure 1.5: Raven-effigy platform pipe, Crab Orchard culture, Rutherford Mound, Illinois, 200 B.C.E.- 200 C.E. Stone, 2¾ x 4¾ in (6.2 x 12.2 cm). Illinois State Museum, Springfield, Illinois.

    The animals in Hopewell iconography have continued to be ·important to Native people throughout North America. The falcon and other raptors represent powers of the sky realm; the raven represents the wise and cunning trickster who teaches by bad example; the snake and other reptiles represent earthly and subterranean powers. Both falcon and reptile imagery are signs of power throughout ancient and recent times in the Eastern Woodlands.

    Mississippian Culture

    While there are numerous regional variants of ancient Woodland cultures in the eastern United States, some of the most famous sites and artifacts are part of what is known as the Mississippian culture (c. 800-1500 C.E.). This has been described by one archaeologist as "a complex patchwork of chiefdoms large and small [ which J flourished for about six centuries up to European contact and beyond." In Mississippian art, we see the expansion of Hopewell ideas into a more complex iconographic system, which emphasized human/ animal supernatural figures, rites of agriculture, and warfare as a sacred pursuit of chiefs. Moundville, near Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Spiro, in eastern Oklahoma; and Cahokia, near St. Louis, were all substantial communities and trade centers ruled by chiefs who held religious as well as political power. A shared religious ideology expressed in the arts linked these centers, though each metropolis had its own distinct variant.

    Myths and Legends
    Figure 1.6: JOHN EGAN , Marietta, Ohio from Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c. 1850. Tempera on muslin. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri.
    Figure 1.6: JOHN EGAN , Marietta, Ohio from Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c. 1850. Tempera on muslin. Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri.

    IN THE LATE EIGHTEENTH and early nineteenth centuries, many theories were proposed to explain the origins of the mysterious mounds in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. Were they built by the lost tribes of Israel or some other unknown precursor to the American Indian? People found it hard to reconcile the impression of these monumental undertakings with their view of Indians as "savages."

    Before the advent of archaeology as a scientific discipline, many interested amateurs (writers, politicians, military men) dug in the mounds of the eastern and midwestern United States. George Washington (who himself owned land upon which ancient burial mounds were located), like most of his contemporaries, believed that the country had been "once inhabited by a race of people more ingenious, at least, if not more civilized than those who at present dwell there."

    The scene of Marietta, Ohio, in John Egan's Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley (fig. 1.6), encapsulates mid-nineteenth century attitudes. The buckskin clad Indians, on the left, are mere passive onlookers to the orderly layout of the ancient mounds. Many nineteenth-century people believed that the Indians they knew had forcibly overrun the land inhabited by a distinct, peaceful people who had built the mounds (when, of course, it was they themselves who had engaged in that enterprise). Thus, white Americans created a mythic history that justified their own displacement of Native peoples. Many cities of the Midwest and South-Cincinnati, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Natchez among them were built upon the ruins of these ancient cities. By the midtwentieth century, more than 90 percent of the ancient aboriginal architecture that had been visible a century earlier was obliterated by the expansion of American cities.

    Figure 1.7: Wood-duck effigy bowl, Moundville, Alabama, 1250- 1500 c .E. Diorite, u ½ x 15¾ in (29 x 40 cm). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 1.7: Wood-duck effigy bowl, Moundville, Alabama, 1250- 1500 C .E. Diorite, 11⅜  x 15¾ in (29 x 40 cm). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

    MOUNDVILLE. As we have noted, ancient Native Americans hunted animals, told elaborate stories about supernatural animals, and, above all, used animal imagery in their art. The stone objects in figures 1.7 and 1.8 are remarkable examples of the interplay between abstraction and naturalism that is the hallmark of much of this art, particularly its animal imagery. The bowl (fig. 1.7) is made of diorite, a hard stone, painstaking to carve using only stone tools. The body of the crested wood duck forms the bowl, nearly 12 inches in diameter, with walls that are only ¼ inch thick. The body is plain, but the arching neck and head are incised with curving and straight lines. The pipe (fig. 1.8) depicts a falcon lying on its back, its talons curving between the two holes of the pipe. The bird's head, with its open beak, wraps around the stone in low relief. While stylizing the image to fit within the shape of the pipe, the artist also managed to convey realistic details, such as the distinctive feather shape, and the hump on the eagle's tongue. Smoked in solemn ceremony, this pipe connected the smoker to the sky realm through the intermediary of the eagle-the great raptorial warrior of the sky.

    Figure 1.8: Falcon pipe, Moundville, Alabama, 1250-1500 C.E. Limestone, 4½in (11.9 cm).
    Figure 1.8: Falcon pipe, Moundville, Alabama, 1250-1500 C.E. Limestone, 4⅝ in (11.9 cm).

    Both of these objects were discovered in excavations at Moundville, an important Mississippian site on the Black Warrior River, in Alabama. Around 1250 C.E., the ruling elite at Moundville apparently consolidated both power and population, for there is evidence that many people from the surrounding region moved into the city, where they were protected by a great wooden palisade. Within, a large plaza was marked by numerous burial mounds and flat-topped residential mounds for the elite. But by the time the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto arrived, in December of 1540, Moundville was much diminished, only a shadowy remnant of the former vigorous metropolis.

    SPIRO. Spiro, the westernmost Mississippian city, was founded near the Arkansas River, in eastern Oklahoma, in a region where woodland gives way to plains. Although Spiro was inhabited before the ninth century, the height of its importance in the Mississippian trade network was between 1200 and 1350 C.E. One great earthen mound at Spiro, Craig Mound, was used as a burial site for more than 600 years. Perhaps the single richest grave mound in all of North America, it was looted in the 1930s; thousands of pots, effigy pipes, beads, and copper plaques were sold by the plunderers. The impressive number of high-status goods in Craig Mound and elsewhere at Spiro attests to the wealth and prominence of the chiefs buried there.

    Figure 1.9: Mask with antlers, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma, 1200-1350 C.E. Wood, 11½ in (29.2 cm). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 1.9: Mask with antlers, Spiro Mounds, Oklahoma, 1200-1350 C.E. Wood, 11½ in (29.2 cm). National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

    Elite families from the region around Spiro may have been brought to this great city of the dead for burial. Lavish graves contained litters covered with fine textiles, used to carry the bodies, fine basketry, vast quantities of shells, and transformational masks (fig. 1.9). This nearly life-size wooden mask was one of thousands of rich offerings in Craig Mound. The mouth and eyes are inlaid marine shell, and the deer antlers are carved of wood. Perhaps it is a three-dimensional rendition of one of the transformational figures engraved on shell cups. Particularly distinctive and plentiful in the art of Spiro are incised whelk shells from the Gulf of Mexico, shaped into cups and interred with the dead (see fig. u). Here, the Mississippian artist has engraved a figure of a dancing Birdman. He wears a breechcloth and a necklace, from which hangs one of these whelk shells. Part human and part falcon, he is one of many mythic heroes and animal ancestors combining attributes of more than one species (fig. 1.10).

    Figure 1.10: Line drawings of Mississippian iconographic themes on shell cups, c. 1300 C.E.
    Figure 1.10: Line drawings of Mississippian iconographic themes on shell cups, c. 1300 C.E.

    Their presence in Native art signifies a relationship to a complex world in continual and fluid transformation, within which humans-rather than dominating-are merely a part.

    The imagery on these engraved shells suggests that public performances involved high-ranking men impersonating falcons, panthers, and rattlesnakes. By claiming ancestral relationship to these powerful animals, they legitimized their rule. They also legitimized acts of aggression against other communities, linking such acts with supernatural stories and rituals. Intense rivalries among neighboring polities were common in Mississippian times, as their chiefs vied for control of natural resources and power.

    The line drawings depict some of the most common emblems of Mississippian cosmology, warfare, and rulership. In the upper right, a successful warrior brandishing a club holds the severed head of a sacrificial victim-a trophy of war. In the drawing at the bottom, a hawk-among the most skillful birds of prey-metaphorically represents a warrior preparing for a war expedition. The rattlesnake capes worn by performers (large central drawing) and the other rattlesnake emblems refer to the swift death inflicted by a venomous serpent-or a powerful ruler. The earthly powers of the serpent balance those of the falcon's sky domain. Sometimes the serpents themselves are feathered, uniting both realms (lower left). Powerful supernatural beings and their earthly representatives at Spiro, Cahokia, and elsewhere were represented in the act of crossing temporal and spatial boundaries, and conjoining seemingly opposite powers (sky/ earth, bird/ snake).

    CAHOKIA. The widespread Mississippian iconographic system can be found from the Atlantic to Oklahoma and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. One of the earliest and by far the largest Mississippian city was Cahokia, east of modern St. Louis (fig. 1.11). People had lived in the fertile land around Cahokia for many generations, but after about 1000 C.E. the site became increasingly urbanized, even though it was based on an agricultural economy. The city's network of trade spanned much of the continent. By 1150, Cahokia had a population of about 20,000 people-larger than London at that time and probably larger than any other North American community. Shortly thereafter, palisades of huge wooden logs were erected around central Cahokia ( emblematic of the regional raids and warfare that were so common). The fence was nearly two miles in circumference, and within it rose a number of small temple mounds and one enormous one. Monk's Mound may be the largest earthwork in the world. Archaeologists estimate that it contains some 22 million cubic feet of earth (deposited by the basket-load by a giant workforce). It is 100 feet high-as tall as a ten-story building, and covers more than 16 acres at its base. It presided over a vast plaza, used for ceremonial gatherings. Outside the central plaza, scores of other mounds dot the landscape.

    Figure 1.11: Plan of Cahokia Mounds, East St. Louis, Illinois, c. 1200 C.E. Courtesy William Morgan Architects, Jacksonville, Florida.
    Figure 1.11: Plan of Cahokia Mounds, East St. Louis, Illinois, c. 1200 C.E. Courtesy William Morgan Architects, Jacksonville, Florida.

    As at other Mississippian sites, Cahokia's rulers were interred in lavish burials, sometimes accompanied by human sacrifices. The extravagant attention paid to the high-ranking dead at places such as Spiro and Cahokia can be understood in part through comparisons with the beliefs among the historic southeastern tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek, and Natchez. In Cherokee belief, a powerful supernatural being called Uktena has the body of a rattlesnake, the head of a deer, and wings. In its forehead a crystal emits a blinding light-a means of divining the future. Similar composite beings are found throughout Mississippian iconography. Several carved figures unearthed at Cahokia reveal an iconography derived from birds of prey and the transformative powers of male rulers.

    In their encounters with the chiefdoms of the Southeast, early Spanish and French explorers reported that the paramount ruler was thought to be the brother of the sun, or was sometimes himself called "The Great Sun." Temples contained the bones of the honored relatives of this ruler as well as all previous rulers. The temples housing these bones, and the lavish mortuary offerings deposited with them, were considered the spiritual heart of the community No doubt this was true at many late Mississippian sites, too. Interest in the sun was of astronomical as well as religious significance. Sites dating as early as the Archaic period evince some interest in orienting buildings to the cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), or to the places on the horizon where the sun reaches its most distant point from our northern hemisphere (the winter solstice) or its closest point (the summer solstice).

    The best evidence of the astronomical orientation of structures comes from Cahokia, where archaeologists have determined that several circles of cedar posts once stood--one circle as large as 410 feet across. Particular posts marked the solstices. In the winter, such observations would have ceremonial use, for they indicated when human intervention was needed to "persuade" the sun to return from its most distant point in the heavens. Such observations would also be useful in determining times for planting and for agricultural rituals.

    Although the observations needed to determine astronomical alignments may seem mysterious to us today, since we are accustomed to telescopes and accurate clocks and calendars, many societies in the Americas, lacking these conveniences, were expert at "naked-eye" astronomy. Many ancient cities and ceremonial centers were oriented to astronomical positions, especially to the movements of the sun. (As we shall see, this was of interest in the ancient Southwest, as well.)

    The central role of the sun, linked to the power of the ruler, forms a part of a broader cosmology found throughout the ancient Mississippian world. As in much of Native America, this worldview pictured a multilayered universe, with certain powers belonging to the underworld, others to the land upon which humans live, and yet others to the beings of the sky. The cardinal directions are also important to this schema; the center-the place of human community-occurs at the juncture of the vertical dimensions (underworld, land, and sky) and the horizontal (points of the compass). Spiritual transformation entailed movement between such realms, and between the realms of the living and the dead.

    Figure 1.12: Female figurine tilling the jaguar-serpent earth ("Birger Figurine"), Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, c. 1100 C.E. Bauxite.
    Figure 1.12: Female figurine tilling the jaguar-serpent earth ("Birger Figurine"), Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, c. 1100 C.E. Bauxite.

    While much Mississippian art expresses the identification of male powers with birds of prey (the sky world) and powerful snakes (the earth world), the Birger figurine (fig. 1.12) suggests that female powers also relate to the earth and its powerful inhabitants, such as the serpent-but in the realm of agriculture, rather than warfare and human sacrifice. Carved of local hard flint clay (a reddish brown substance that looks like bauxite), the figurine depicts a woman who kneels on the ground. Her right hand tills the soil with a hoe. Her left hand seems to caress the surface of the earth, but as one turns the figure to look at it from another angle, it becomes evident that she is caressing the head of a coiled snake on which she kneels. The tail of this earth serpent bifurcates into a gourd vine that coils around the body of the woman. Does this object commemorate the female ancestor who first domesticated plants? Is she the Earth Mother who interceded with the serpent to obtain plants for human use? This remarkable image recalls many Native American stories about women's powers over plants. The talents of female horticulturalists were crucial to the rise of complex society in North America, and perhaps such works of art signified that their success depended upon supernatural powers.

    Many Indian groups of eastern and midwestern North America are the descendants of ancient Moundbuilder cultures. Although the elaborate Mississippian system of rank and rulership was deteriorating even before the coming of Europeans, the system fractured completely in the seventeenth century, as a consequence of its own internal problems, as well as the diseases, forced migration, and decimation of Native cultures wrought by invaders from Europe.


    This page titled 1.1: The Art of the Eastern Woodlands is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.