The Making and Meaning of a Mississippian Axe-Head Cache

Article excerpt

Researchers in eastern North America have previously associated the caching or hoarding of large quantities of craft objects with the centralised economies of Mississippian peoples (see Brown 1996; Cobb 2000; Muller 1997; Pauketat 1997a, b). While this association is well founded, it is under theorised. A recent discovery of a cache of 70 groundstone axe-heads prompts us to examine how the production, circulation, and subsequent burial of such objects constructed social memories, cultural identities, landscapes, and centralised economies (e.g. Bradley 2000; Connerton 1989; Dobres 2000; Joyce 2000; Pauketat & Alt 2003; Van Dyke & Alcock 2003). We do this by considering the diversity of axe-head technological styles and the contextual details of the recently discovered cache in the backdrop of other Mississippian axe-head cache data from the greater Cahokia region (Figure 1). We conclude that there were multiple axe-head makers around AD 1100, some of whom ostensibly made axe-heads for their own use and others for regional consumption. In either case, the axe-head makers or possessors were involved in a series of production and distribution practices and commemorative rituals that, we suggest, embodied a "coming-together" process that created the centralised early-Cahokian polity and its agricultural landscape (see Pauketat 1998b, 2004a).

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The Grossmann discovery

In c. AD 1050, Cahokia was converted from a very large village to a planned centre of proto-urban proportions (Pauketat 2004a). Along with large-scale public works projects and political-religious festivals, there was a rapid nucleation of population at Cahokia along with pervasive alterations in almost every aspect of social life and daily routine (Pauketat 1998b, 2004; Pauketat et al. 2002). There was also a region-wide resettlement of farmers that, among other things, saw the founding of a series of relatively large upland villages (Pauketat 2003). Based on the artefact assemblages and village layouts, Alt (2001) has argued that these contemporary upland settlements were unlike one another in ways that suggest cultural pluralism at a village level.

One such village was the Grossmann site which lies approximately 17 km east-south-east of the Cahokia site. Excavated over three seasons (1998, 2001 and 2002), the remains of nearly 100 buildings (counting major rebuildings) and their associated refilled storage pits, hearths, post pits, and post moulds were found to occupy an upland hill top. Unlike other known upland villages but similar to Cahokia is the evidence for several large public or special-purpose buildings at this site (Figure 2). There are also unusual burial treatments, a miniature charnel house, and four likely temple-refuse pits containing incinerated bits of maize, fabric, roof thatch, crystals, chipped-stone hoe blades, chert cores, pottery vessel sections, a sandstone paint palette, and a rare carved flintclay figurine pipe depicting a bird-like creature (Alt 2002, 2003).

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In addition, 70 groundstone axe-heads (of an ungrooved variety also called "celts" in North America) were found tightly packed into the bottom of a small circular pit, Feature 206, less than a metre in diameter and only 30 cm below the base of the plough zone. The pit was situated immediately outside one apparent residence and eight metres north of the entrance to a large public building. After packing in 70 axe-heads, it appears that the pit was filled with a sterile, refuse-free loam (Figure 3). Although not directly datable themselves, we suspect that the axe-heads were cached during the first two or three decades of the Grossmann site's presumed 50 to 75 year occupation span based on the stylistic attributes of the pottery from one house that produced celt-making debitage (see below).

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The Grossmann find is the second largest of 16 axe-head caches or isolated unfinished axe-head finds in the greater Cahokia region, all of which seem to date to c. …