Rethinking Moundville and Its Hinterland

By Vincas P. Steponaitis; C. Margaret Steponaitis | Go to book overview

11
Crafting Moundville Palettes

JERA R. DAVIS

Palettes are some of the largest and most beautiful stone artifacts found at sites in the Moundville polity of west central Alabama and so have attracted a good deal of attention (figure 11.1). We know a lot about them as a result. They are typically thin, circular objects averaging about 25 cm in diameter, often with notched or scalloped edges and incised lines about the rim; less frequently they are rectangular in shape. A few are so elegant that they have acquired names like the Willoughby Disk and the Rattlesnake Disk (Alabama’s state artifact); these bear elaborate representational engravings on the reverse face in the local Hemphill style (Steponaitis and Knight 2004; Knight and Steponaitis 2011).

We also know how they were used: organic and mineral residues smudge the reverse faces of many palettes where paints or medicines were prepared (Moore 1905: 146–47), so archaeologists have suggested that these objects featured in ritual settings in which human bodies were either painted or tattooed, the latter achieved with fish spines sometimes found in related archaeological contexts (Knight 2010:153, 299; cf. Jackson et al., this volume), or in which sacred objects were anointed with pigments (Steponaitis et al. 2011). Steponaitis (this volume) argues that palettes were included in sacred bundles, because some show signs of having been wrapped in fabric or placed in baskets, and examples from Etowah show unequivocal evidence of being wrapped with grinding stones and lumps of mineral pigment (Steponaitis et al. 2011).

We also know that palettes were made somewhere near Moundville. Several lines of evidence support this. The vast majority have been found at Moundville despite their recovery from sites up to 300 km away (Lafferty 1994; Steponaitis, this volume), they were embellished in the local style (Steponaitis and Knight 2004; Knight and Steponaitis 2011), and archaeologists have confirmed petrographically that the distinctive gray mi

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