Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World

Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World

Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World

Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World


The prehistoric native peoples of the Mississippi River Valley and other areas of the Eastern Woodlands of the United States shared a complex set of symbols and motifs that constituted one of the greatest artistic traditions of the pre-Columbian Americas. Traditionally known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, these artifacts of copper, shell, stone, clay and wood were the subject of the groundbreaking 2007 book Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, which presented a major reconstruction of the rituals, cosmology, ideology and political structures of the Mississippian peoples. Visualizing the Sacred advances the study of Mississippian iconography by delving into the regional variations within what is now known as the Mississippian Iconographic Interaction Sphere (MIIS). Bringing archaeological, ethnographic, ethnohistoric and iconographic perspectives To The analysis of Mississippian art, contributors from several disciplines discuss variations in symbols and motifs among major sites and regions across a wide span of time and also consider what visual symbols reveal about elite status in diverse political environments. These findings represent the first formal identification of style regions within the Mississippian Iconographic Interaction Sphere and call for a new understanding of the MIIS as a network of localized, yet interrelated religious systems that experienced both continuity and change over time.


I began with the desire to speak with the dead.

Stephen greenblatt, “Towards a Poetics of Culture” (1989)

Linda Schele often said that the primary focus of those who study ancient cultures should be the revival of the voices of the ancient peoples who created those cultures. Agreeing with Linda, the contributors to this volume interpret the past not as a dead and static series of events but as an active and animated influence that has messages for both Native American and Euro-American cultures today. The primary means of listening to these ancient Native American voices has been the Mississippian Iconographic Workshop held at Texas State University in San Marcos since 1993. The workshop is sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Arts and Symbolism of Ancient America (CASAA) and hosted by the Department of Anthropology, Texas State University-San Marcos. No endeavor of this magnitude can be successful without adequate funding. Fortunately for the workshop, the Lannan Foundation of Santa Fe, New Mexico, has generously provided that funding, and the workshop participants will forever be indebted to that foundation.

Objects produced by Native American artists and craftspeople during the Mississippian period (AD 900–1600) in the Eastern Woodlands of the United States (Map 1) are the common currency of our workshop discussions. Created from copper, shell, stone, and clay, many of these objects are equal in beauty and craftsmanship to the objects produced in the ancient Andes or Mesoamerica. Unfortunately, even though this corpus of Mississippian artistic production has been the subject of two major art exhibitions in recent years (Brose et al. 1985; Townsend and Sharp 2004), it has not gained the recognition from the broader public that it so richly deserves. During the Mississippian period certain of these finely crafted objects, particularly those created from copper and shell, undoubtedly functioned as items of great ideological significance and, like many of their Mesoamerican counterparts, almost certainly were “employed as social currency in the realm of ritual regal gifts” (Reents-Budet 1994:4).

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