Interpreting the Mississippian Hinterlands

By Clay, R. Berle | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Interpreting the Mississippian Hinterlands


Clay, R. Berle, Southeastern Archaeology


A consideration of some smaller Mississippian sites with and without mounds outside the Ohio River Valley in western Kentucky suggests that they went through complex, subtle settlement shifts through time. Although it is difficult to fully identify these shifts, or, more important, understand their significance, it would seem prudent to hedge bets and eschew their interpretation in terms of grand schemes of social political levels of complexity based on the interpretation of major Mississippian centers nearby such as Kincaid and Angel. Rather, we should try explaining them in terms more closely tied to local settlement history. In turn, given the interpretive ambiguity that these shifts produce in the smaller sites, possibly more recognizable simply because the sites are smaller, it is suggested that an understanding of the historical complexity of the large sites, equally, cannot be ignored in their interpretation, however imperfectly it may be documented. This said, the political interpretation of these large centers as chiefdoms, which views these sites simply as the sum of their spectacular parts, must be tempered by interpretive caution. Their political organization at any moment in time may have been less spectacular, their evolution through times far more complex than it seems.

This paper considers Mississippian settlement history and polity structure as reflected principally in two sites in Hopkins County, Kentucky, Andalex (15Hk22) and Morris (15Hk49) (Figure 1). What is at issue is some sense of the polity that can be developed for either one. Andalex had a low structure I will call a platform (pointedly not using what I feel is a conceptually loaded term, mound); Morris did not. As Wesler has noted, speaking from a west Kentucky vantage (2006), the construction of platforms, and presumably their use, is highly identified with the exercise of chiefly power. These two Kentucky sites suggest that this may be a simplistic, possibly misleading assumption, at least for them. The paper concludes with the implications these sites may have for the interpretation of Kincaid, a major regional center where a chiefly presence is highly implicit in its major platform complex.

In the western Kentucky coalfields, Hopkins is one county inland from the lower Ohio Valley, drained by a network of lesser streams that flow into the Green on the east and the Tradewater on the west, both Ohio River tributaries. Thus, by waterway travel, these two sites are somewhat removed from the large Ohio River floodplain Mississippian centers of Angel in southwestern Indiana and Kincaid in southern Illinois, long regarded as major Mississippian political centers styled as chiefdoms (cf. Muller 1978, 1998:194), and a string of smaller sites which are generally interpreted (cf. Kreisa 1995:174), because they have one or, at the most, two platforms as hierarchically "secondary" political centers incorporated into a larger paramount chiefdom.

Because of distance and river communication, it is difficult to incorporate these Hopkins County sites into lower Ohio polities stemming from the chiefdom concept, although this has been the custom (cf. Muller 1986:185-187), at least implicitly. While the pottery types that occur are also found at the complex Ohio Valley sites, an interpretation of the "peripheral" communities cannot be based on assumptions that "shared pottery decorations make for shared social institutions and ideology" (Pluckhahn and McKivergan 2002:149). Furthermore, it is difficult to see them fitting into a larger site power hierarchy from the ceramics alone, although this has been tentatively suggested in part for secondary sites on the Ohio (Kreisa 1995:173). All this said, traditional constructions of the regional Mississippian polity, generally developed out of the chiefdom concept which has a long history of use in the explication of Mississippian, seem less applicable here than, for example, along a major water course like the Ohio. …

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