Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power


This dramatic and controversial new interpretation of Cahokian leadership strategies examines the authority a ruling elite exercised over the surrounding countryside through a complex of social, political, and religious forms. Using the theoretical concepts of agency, power, and ideology, this study explores the development of cultural complexity within the hierarchically organized Cahokia Middle Mississippian society of the American Bottom from the 11th to the 13th centuries. By scrutinizing the available archaeological settlement and symbolic evidence, Thomas E. Emerson demonstrates that many sites previously identified as farmsteads were actually nodal centers with specialized political, religious, and economic functions that were integrated into a centralized Cahokian administrative organization. These centers are accompanied by such "artifacts of power" as figurines, ritual vessels, and sacred plants. The consolidation of this symbolism into a rural cult marks the expropriation of the cosmosas part of,the increasing power of the Cahokian rulers.


One day several blind men encountered an elephant in their path. One man surrounded the elephant's leg with his arms and exclaimed, "An elephant is like a tree!" Another man grasped the animal's hairy tail and pulled, saying, "No, an elephant is like a rope."The last blind man, as he was encircled by the beast's trunk, shouted, "Help! The elephant is as a snake and it is crushing me!"

--An old fable

Robert Hall (1975a: 25) once equated the efforts of archaeologists to understand Cahokia with the blind men and the elephant, each archaeologist gazing intently into his or her own small part of the beast, seeking to comprehend this extinct megalopolis. Cahokia has been labeled both a state and a chiefdom, perceived as an economic giant and as economically inconsequential, as a regional military power and as a polity only in partial control of its own immediate hinterlands. How do we reconcile such divergent views? I believe comprehension is possible and that, as Hall alluded, what has been missing is perspective. Perhaps to understand Cahokia we must, perforce, leave it.

To gain that perspective I examined a series of rural Middle Mississippian sites that existed in the American Bottom between about A.D. 1050 and A.D. 1375 (cf.Hall calibrated chronology 1991), i.e., the full span of Cahokian existence. Many of these sites have been excavated within the last decade using similar approaches and techniques, and in a majority of cases I directed, participated in, or observed the excavation process. It was during the excavation of these sites that I perceived their possible differential func-

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