Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective

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

9
The Materialization of Status and Social Structure
at Koger’s Island Cemetery, Alabama

JON BERNARD MARCOUX

The explanatory frameworks used to interpret the mortuary practices of Mississippian societies have undergone a significant amount of change within the last 35 years. Early mortuary studies of these societies relied heavily on the socio-evolutionary typologies of the late 1960s and early 1970s (Fried 1967; Service 1962) and the related notion of a cross-culturally valid social type known as a “ranked” society (e.g., Binford 1971; Brown 1971; Goldstein 1980, 1981; Peebles 1971, 1974). The authors of these works developed their interpretations around this notion using the Binford-Saxe mortuary program, a theoretical construct that considered mortuary events to be expressions of the social persona of the deceased individual and his/her inherited place in the rigid and hierarchical social order of a ranked society.

While the authors of more recent studies continue to use the Binford-Saxe program to derive information about Mississippian social structure, they have largely moved away from interpretations that are cast in the language of social evolution. These authors consider mortuary practices within the social contexts of particular native southeastern societies (e.g., Eastman 2001; Rodning 1996, 2001; Sullivan 2001). Consequently, their attempts to understand the social context of mortuary practices rely more upon ethnohistoric accounts of southeastern Indian societies than upon ethnographic analogies to Polynesian groups and other societies exhibiting a similar level of social complexity.

This essay addresses the current shift in explanatory frameworks by offering an alternative interpretation of the mortuary practices materialized at the Koger’s Island site, a Mississippian cemetery located in the middle Tennessee River Valley of northern Alabama (Figures 9.1 and 9.2). I contrast my interpretation with that of Christopher Peebles (1971), who structured his analysis of the Koger’s Island cemetery around the Binford-Saxe mortuary program and the socioevolutionary concept of the ranked society.

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