The context for the early evidence of the southeastern ceremonial complex at Cahokia

John E. Kelly, James A. Brown, Jenna M. Hamlin, Lucretia S. Kelly, Laura Kozuch, Kathryn Parker, Julieann Van Nest

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Commonplace emphasis on the burial record of the three big sites in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC)-Etowah' Moundville' and Spiro- has the unfortunate effect of deflecting attention from the nonmortuary contexts that relate to the complex and perhaps even frame its expression. What is lost by this emphasis on the mortuary domain can be expressed in part by posing a couple of questions. If the "ceremonial" in the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex had as much to do with propitiating practices as it did with dressing for status' then votive offerings and a range of activity traces should be part and parcel of the complex. If the motifs had more than some abstract' nonmaterial reference' then the solar motifs and the imagery about falcons' snakes' and other animals should have nonmortuary contexts. While these contexts may not be easily recognized' that does not rule out the existence of such analogues. It is the task of analysis to argue for the connections between the mortuary and nonmortuary manifestations. There is a historical issue here as well. As long as the complex rests upon mortuary contexts' then documentation of the antecedents begs for a comparable preceding record. Such a record is absent at Cahokia and perhaps elsewhere for reasons having to do with sampling in the context of altered disposal practices through time. The SECC thereby becomes perched in time awaiting the disclosures about its earlier history that a convenient document might reveal. Meanwhile' an abundant record from potentially relevant contexts exists. Plazas' mound summit structures' refuse pits filled with feasting debris' and mound architecture await analysis. These and other contexts have the potential to enlighten us on a more complete history of the ceremonialism that is highly relevant to the mortuary disposal of finely crafted objects' if not central to the under standing of this tomb source record. The radiocarbon- dated age of Mound 34 at Cahokia and the age of its associated ceramics and lithics indicate a construction date around a.d. 1200. In a recently completed comprehensive study of engraved shell gorgets documented for the Mississippian period' Brain and Phillips (1996) concluded that none of their gorgets date earlier than a.d. 1400. Furthermore' they revert to the thesis that this iconographic system was largely influenced by the initial impact of European contacts. In the case of Cahokia' which was abandoned as a Mississippian mound center by a.d. 1400' their conclusion was made possible by challenging directly the published contexts and radiometric date (Griffin 1960) for the engraved shell fragments from Mound 34 (Perino 1959; Phillips and Brown 1978). If we were to accept their view' we would have to conclude that the canonical imagery enshrined in the term Southeastern Ceremonial Complex was totally absent from the social and political promotion of elites and the development of craft specialization at Cahokia' one of the largest population aggregations known in the precontact Southeast (Muller 1997b). This is an old perspective enshrined in the benchmark study of Waring and Holder (1945)' but it has been repeatedly challenged. Waring and Holder articulated an argument that the SECC was a kind of cultural veneer or "cult" superimposed upon independent traditions shortly before European contact. In this scenario' the introduction of the SECC was largely independent of social' cultural' and political changes taking place during the Mississippian period. In contrast' James B. Griffin (1966) long argued that the SECC was an expression of elite southeastern culture during this period (Brown 1976a; Griffin 1952a' 1961; Knight 1986). His thesis placed greater importance on the beginnings of the SECC as signifying the emergence of elite control of supernatural forces in an increasingly hierarchical social environment. Thus the emergence of the SECC as a codified' canonical' iconographic system is related intimately to the rise of hierarchical societies. Likewise' its breakup follows the decline of such societies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSoutheastern Ceremonial Complex
Subtitle of host publicationChronology' Content' Contest
PublisherThe University of Alabama Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9780817354091
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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