Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

By Tiffany, Joseph A. | Plains Anthropologist, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power


Tiffany, Joseph A., Plains Anthropologist


Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power. By THOMAS E. EMERSON. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. 1997. xii +317 pp., figures, tables, index. $29.95 (paper, ISBN 0-8173-0888-1).

Plains archaeologists have long been aware of the varying influence of Mississippian culture as expressed at Cahokia on the material culture and belief systems of early Plains Village farmers. The resurgence of research at the Cahokia site and the American Bottom sparked by the massive FAI-270 data recovery project has resulted in a wealth of new information regarding the impact of Mississippian economic, settlement, and exchange systems directly relevant to Prairie-Plains archaeology. In this study, Emerson follows a different tack, more in the venue of Pauketat's The Ascent of Chiefs (University of Alabama Press,1994). Emerson is concerned with modeling the socio-political and ideological dimensions of the economic redistribution system manifest in the complex chiefdom at Cahokia and the American Bottom. He does this through an examination of site types and features in the non-mound centers, specific artifact classes such as figurines, and the iconography represented in such things as the design motifs of Ramey Incised pottery. The inferred linkages among specialized sites and features, and material culture and the belief systems they are thought to represent, constitute "the archaeology of power" used by the elite ranks to maintain their "domination" through "coercion" of lower ranks in what is perceived as a highly stratified Formative stage society.

Early on, Emerson eschews what he calls the "eco-functionalist" and "positivist" approaches of the process school of archaeology. He strikes forth in Chapter 2 to "create a model for hegemonic-driven social change" (page 9). His postprocessual, neoMarxist theorizing on Mississippian sociopolitical systems is provocative. It will please some readers and annoy others. Emerson is a well regarded, practicing archaeologist of long standing. Not surprisingly, the aim of his theoretical overview is to operationalize the body of theory he presents into classes of empirical data for examination and evaluation. These classes are grouped under the headings "Manifestations of Political (Coercive) Power" and "Manifestations of Religious (Ideological) Power" (Figure 2.2, page 37). Manifestations of religious power, for example, include architectural patterns (temples and charnel houses, specialized ritual structures, [and] recreation of sacred landscapes), artifacts, symbols and cults of power (concentrations of religious and symbolic artifacts and ritual plants), and mortuary practices (page 37). I cannot imagine many archaeologists objecting to such categorizations of the archaeological record for analysis and interpretation. In fact, Emerson presents basic, practical, and very traditional approaches to the study and meaning of the material culture record of the Mississippian occupation of the American Bottom. In my estimation, this makes the theoretical proselytizing in this chapter and throughout the book largely incongruous to the data presentations and interpretations he makes.

Emerson's focus in the American Bottom is on modeling synchronic and diachronic relationships among the Mississippian leadership and the dispersed population of the rural countryside or the non-temple mound sites, as reflected in the archaeological record. The traditional settlement model for Cahokia and the surrounding environs involved a four-tiered hierarchy. The Cahokia site itself is at the first tier, under which were secondand third-tier mound centers and associated towns. In the fourth tier are numerous individual farmsteads, hamlets, and villages tied to one of the third-tier mound centers. Emerson utilizes new perspectives on the organization of other Mississippian centers regionally, as well as data garnered from the FAI-270 project research to propose a dif ferent spin on the site hierarchy. "Civic nodes" apparently linked individual farmsteads to form dispersed villages. …

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