Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective

By Lynne P. Sullivan; Robert C. Mainfort Jr. | Go to book overview

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Mississippian Mortuary Practices
and the Quest for Interpretation

LYNNE P. SULLIVAN AND ROBERT C. MAINFORT JR.

Mississippian Period (ca. A.D. 900–1500) native peoples in the southeastern and midwestern United States are known for towns that typically include platform mounds and plazas and for elaborate and well-crafted copper and shell ornaments, pottery vessels, and stonework. Some of these objects were socially valued goods that often were placed in ritual contexts, such as graves, within or near Mississippian towns. The funerary context of these artifacts has sparked considerable study and debate among archaeologists, raising questions about the place in society of the individuals interred with such items as well as the nature of the Mississippian societies in which these ancient people lived.

The intellectual bridges that connect archaeologically observed mortuary practices with the social behaviors of past populations are of significant interest to archaeologists, and the study of Mississippian mortuary sites was instrumental in the development of archaeological mortuary theory. Notable examples include publications by Brown (1971, 1981a), Goldstein (1980, 1981), Peebles (1971), and Peebles and Kus (1977). These studies were among the first to break from the old school archaeological axiom that “one cannot dig up a social system.” While this old saw technically is true, pioneering researchers realized that Kroeber’s (1927) long-standing argument that mortuary behavior could not be connected with other aspects of society was flawed and that mortuary sites could indeed provide data sets relevant to the organization and operation of past social systems. Furthermore, these data could be used to develop ideas and models based on observations rather than on speculation or solely upon ethnographic analogy. The social dimensions of mortuary practices thus have become an important arena of study, and these studies have had a significant impact on how archaeologists envision and interpret the late prehistoric Mississippian societies of the eastern United States.

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