Architectural Symbolism and Cherokee Townhouses

By Rodning, Christopher B. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Architectural Symbolism and Cherokee Townhouses


Rodning, Christopher B., Southeastern Archaeology


Public structures known as townhouses were hubs of public life within Cherokee communities in the southern Appalachians before and after European contact. Townhouses themselves were architectural manifestations of Cherokee towns. The architectural symbolism of townhouses was related to the symbolism of late precontact Mississippian platform mounds, mythical connections between earthen mounds and Cherokee townhouses, and color symbolism that was widespread in the Southeast during the eighteenth century. These points are evident from documentary sources, oral tradition, and the sequence of protohistoric Cherokee townhouses at the Coweeta Creek site in southwestern North Carolina.

Architecture communicates. Structures and outdoor spaces create settings for the practice of public and domestic life, but the built environment also reflects status distinctions, social structure, social values, and cosmology (Barrett 1994; Bourdieu 1977; Cunningham 1973; Fisher 2009; Hodder 1994; Horton 1994; Kuper 1993; Lane 1994; Parker Pearson and Richards 1994a, 1994b; Richards 1990). Architectural spaces themselves shape cultural activity, senses of community, and senses of place, and the built environment has both communicative and mnemonic dimensions (Beck 2007; Creel and Anyon 2003; Crown and Wills 2003; Knight 1998; Lawrence and Low 1990; Lekson 1996; Lewis and Stout 1998; Lewis, Stout, and Wesson 1998; Shafer 1995; Thompson 2009; Van Dyke 1999a, 1999b, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009; Wesson 1998). Household dwellings and outbuildings mark the residences and activity areas of particular groups within a community, they reflect environmental conditions and considerations, and they often convey the status and other characteristics of households themselves. Amos Rapoport (1969) has explored these and other dimensions of dwellings in his influential comparative study of vernacular architecture. Mircea Eliade (1957) has identified evidence for cosmological symbolism in architecture in several cultural traditions in his ethnological study of the nature of religion.1 Public structures and outdoor spaces such as plazas mark the presence of communities within regional landscapes, and they create settings for the public events and activities through which community ties are created and renewed. The meanings of particular architectural forms, and of specific structures, are not always easy to decipher, especially when dealing with archaeological evidence (Bailey 1990), but ethnohistoric sources and oral tradition can, in some cases, guide archaeological interpretations. Such is the case with Cherokee settlements in the southern Appalachians, for which we can draw upon archaeological and ethnohistoric sources, and oral tradition (Mooney 1900), in an effort to identify symbolic aspects of architecture, including those related to the color symbolism of red, black, and white.2

During the eighteenth century, public structures known as townhouses, and the plazas beside them, were focal points for Cherokee towns (Baden 1983; Goodwin 1977; Rodning 2001a, 2002a, 2007, 2008, 2009a, 2009b; Russ and Chapman 1983; Schroedl 1978, 1986, 2000, 2001, 2009; Smith 1979; Sullivan 1987, 1995, 2001, 2006; Sullivan and Rodning 2001). Only settlements with townhouses were known as towns (Figure 1). Townhouses and plazas were venues for dances, deliberations by town councils, ritual preparations for warfare, and events related to trade and diplomacy. At the Coweeta Creek site (31MA34) in southwestern North Carolina, at least six successive stages of a townhouse span the period from the 1600s through the very early 1700s (Figure 2). In this paper, I review characteristics of Mississippian platform mounds that have parallels in the series of townhouses at Coweeta Creek, and I consider the significance of color symbolism to Cherokee townhouses in general and those at Coweeta Creek in particular.

The sequence of townhouses at Coweeta Creek spans a period of considerable geopolitical instability and uncertainty for Cherokee towns and for other native societies in eastern North America. …

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