Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective

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

3
Cosmological Layouts of Secondary Burials
as Political Instruments

JAMES A. BROWN

Secondary burials offer a fertile field for research that has barely been tapped. The very diversity of secondary burial treatments allow us cultural insights that offer surprising rewards when coupled with fresh analytical perspectives. When we reflect on the deep and myriad cultural connections that bones have as an essence of human life, we can readily recognize the extent to which hard organic residues of life constitute a potent cultural resource in ancient societies. From this observation one can conclude that an important role of bones is to aid in the reproduction of social life. Core structural schemas become acted upon, including notions of how the universe perpetuates itself (Williamson and Farrar 1992). The goal of this chapter is to identify ways that secondary interments can actively portray visions about the cosmos in the pre-contact Americas. My point of departure will be the storied Great Mortuary located in one of the mounds at the Spiro site of eastern Oklahoma. Although this burial display has garnered most of its fame from the sheer volume of graphic art material, the provocative mortuary context is what makes this burial display such fertile ground for the following analysis. Of particular relevance is the unprecedented scale of the piles of scarce artifacts that were amassed among secondary burials. One could slot this feature into ready-made customary categories, but there are too many unique aspects to the feature to make this operation credible. Instead, I advocate detailed comparisons of collective mortuary displays. The burial display from the summit of Submound 1 of Mound 72, Cahokia, which looks very different from others, is the focus of this essay. This approach throws diverse cultural priorities into relief.


Social Display and Secondary Burials

The principle that sometimes human bones are employed as a social resource without any necessary connection to actual social identity is relatively new to

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