Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective

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

4
Multiple Groups, Overlapping Symbols, and
the Creation of a Sacred Space at Etowah’s Mound C

ADAM KING

There is a long tradition in the in the scholarship on the Southeast to interpret mortuary treatment as a way to understand ranking systems and the social status of individuals. This tradition is based on the presumption of a direct relationship between investment in mortuary treatment and social status—a proposal that derives from seminal works by Saxe (1970) and Binford (1971). The application of this so-called Binford-Saxe paradigm in the Southeast was first seen in an influential volume edited by James Brown (1971) containing not only papers by Binford (1971) and Saxe (1971), but also papers on Spiro (Brown 1971), Moundville (Peebles 1971), and Etowah (Larson 1971). The paradigm gained popularity through influential works by Jim Hatch (1974, 1976a, 1976b) on the Dallas area of Tennessee, Chris Peebles’s work on Moundville (Peebles and Kus 1977), and George Milner’s (1984) writing about the American Bottom. A look at the pages of this volume or recent issues of Southeastern Archaeology will show that this approach to exploring mortuary behavior continues to be used productively in the Southeast region.

Critiques of the Binford-Saxe paradigm abound (see McGuire 1992 for a review). They all center on the realization that the material world is part of social action and that material manifestations of death must be viewed as part of the actions of the living. From this perspective, although investment in mortuary treatment may be related to social status, the relationship is not always a direct one. In some cases, the material may be used to mask social inequality rather than reflect it (McGuire 1988). In order to ensure that we do not misinterpret the past or miss opportunities for interpretation, it is important to understand that funerals are as much about the living as they are about the dead—about negotiating ideology, interacting with tradition, creating or recreating society. In all burial rites, the death of the individual becomes part of the larger community’s efforts to influence the natural and supernatural worlds. In fact, in

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