Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Thomas E. Emerson, William S. Dancey, Timothy R. Pauketat, Alasdair Whittle, Elizabeth Demarrais, Warren R. Deboer, A. B. Kehoe

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The days are long gone when archaeologists would automatically interpret any major prehistoric monument as evidence of a hierarchically organized society. Faced with a Stonehenge or a Silbury Hill, the evident deployment of large labour forces might naturally lead to thoughts of social élites and stratified societies. The task facing archaeologists today, however, is to interpret such monuments not as programmatic products of parallel social processes but as elements in unique and dynamic configurations of social, political and ideological interactions. This is the approach which the present volume seeks to exemplify, taking as its focus the famous site of Cahokia in the Mississippi valley. Cahokia itself is the greatest monument complex of prehistoric North America, marked by 120 mounds spread over an area of 13 square kilometres across the Mississippi river from the modern city of St Louis. During the twelfth century AD this was a settlement with a population estimated to have numbered in the thousands if not tens of thousands. What does such a phenomenon represent in social and political terms? In this book, Thomas Emerson considers not just the monuments of Cahokia themselves but the evidence for ideology and the power relationships which might have supported a hierarchical society, and the mechanisms which may have connected Cahokia with its rural hinterland. The wealth of detailed information available from the sites in and around Cahokia — some of them excavated by Emerson himself — allows a detailed analysis at a level which is rarely possible in archaeological cases of this kind. Drawing on concepts of individual agency, power and ideology as forces for social change, Emerson interprets the rise of Cahokia as the successful manipulation of ideology by élites, an ideology in which the subordinate layers of society are compelled to participate. Emerson's study raises key questions about the rise and fall of complex societies, and the role of ideology and agency in that process. That these questions remain open to debate, the contributions to this review feature amply demonstrate. How hierarchical was Cahokia, how effective was élite ideology, and, above all, how can we go about analyzing this kind of question from the archaeological evidence? The results have a bearing on archaeological interpretation at the very broadest level.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)249-275
Number of pages27
JournalCambridge Archaeological Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Oct 1999

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Cultural Studies
  • Archaeology


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