Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective

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

8
Temporal Changes in Mortuary Behavior
Evidence from the Middle
and Upper Nodena Sites, Arkansas

ROBERT C. MAINFORT JR. AND RITA FISHER-CARROLL

Funerary rites are, of course, one sort of ritual. A key characteristic of rituals is that they are performed repeatedly within a time-honored structure. The performance of rituals as prescribed by tradition essentially constitutes an acknowledgment of the authority of the respected ancestors who passed down the rituals to their descendants (Geertz 1966; Lewis 1979; Rappaport 1979). Thus, rituals, including mortuary rites, have an element of unchanging timelessness about them. They invoke from the distant past (“so it has always been”) to the future (“so it always shall be”).

Certain aspects of mortuary ritual do, however, change over time (Cannon 1989; Mainfort 1979). For example, O’Shea (1984) has documented fairly dramatic changes in mortuary practices (more particularly, interment) among Native American groups on the Plains during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period of dramatic social and political changes in the region.

Few studies of prehistoric mortuary practices have explicitly investigated nuanced temporal changes in prehistoric mortuary practices within a region. Examples include research by Chapman (2005), Kerber (1986), O’Shea (1995), Rakita (2001), and Tainter (1977); all encompass spans of roughly 500 to 1,000 years. Charles (1995) looks at the longue durée of roughly 10,000 years on the lower Illinois River valley. In the Classical world, Morris (1987) demonstrates how changes in burial rites reflect social and political processes that led to the formation of the Greek city-state.

Our region of interest is the central Mississippi valley (Morse and Morse 1983), more specifically late-period mortuary populations therein, that are roughly contemporary and probably date between about A.D. 1350 and 1550 (Fisher-Carroll 2001a; Mainfort 2001). There are few radiocarbon dates, and none directly date human burials. The few proposed temporal markers that may be characteristic of the Soto era (circa A.D. 1540) occur infrequently in

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