Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Architecture of the Plains

Liebmann, Matthew.
2002 Demystifying the Big Horn Medicine Wheel: A Contextual Analysis of Meaning, Symbolism, and Function. The Plains Anthropologist 47: 61-71. 

     The Bighorn Medicine wheel is one of the most well-known North American archaeological sites; however, questions about who built it, its purpose, and for how long it has been used have no consensus among archaeologists. The article attempts to address two aspects of the Big Horn Medicine Wheel in northern Wyoming. The first element is the significance of the placement of the structure in Medicine Mountain. The second is the symbolism and meanings within the structure.
     There are 135 known medicine wheels in the Plains but many have differences. Thus, it is likely that they had a variety of different purposes and meanings behind them. Past hypotheses about their purpose include burial or memorial structures as well as astronomical architecture.  The architecture studied by Liebmann, the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, is at an altitude of 9640 feet with a diameter of 25 meters, with a cairn of four meters in diameter in the center. There are 28 spokes that connect the center cairn with the outer circle. The time in which the wheel was constructed is difficult to determine. It has been predicted from anywhere from a few hundred years old to 3,000 years old. The most reliable date is from a dendrochronological sample that dates to AD 1760.
     Using comparisons with contemporary Cheyenne, Liebmann claims the location of the wheel is important. The Cheyenne believe the lower stratum of the earth contains spirits as well as places as high elevations. Therefore, the geography of the area in which both are exposed makes it a sacred place. Cheyenne oral tradition tells of people coming to such places for regeneration and renewal which makes the location important. Apart from the location itself, the design of the wheel is significant. The number 28 is significant to the Lakota (there are 28 spokes). This sacred number is apparent in other things such as the Piegan netted hoop used in ceremony and the Lakota Sun Dance lodge. Thus, the article claims the numerical symbology and the location are important to understanding the purpose of the wheel: a sacred site with spiritual meaning behind the numbers associated with it.
     The Bighorn Medicine Wheel is still utilized today by Native Americans. It remains a site for vision quests and thus was likely used for such activities in the past. Because it has been estimated to be around for a long period of time and used by many different tribes, the uses and meanings associated with the wheel have likely varied through time. Liebmann offers just some explanation of the meaning behind the architecture of the wheel. Bringing to light the “why” questions of archaeology, not simply the “what,” remains a significant part in understanding the prehistoric past. Instead of only explaining the Bighorn Medicine Wheel, Liebmann attempts to ascribe meaning to why it was built the way it was and why it is still significant in contemporary times.

McKusick, Marshall
1974 Reconstructing the Longhouse Village Settlement Patterns. The Plains Anthropologist 19:197-210.

     The article presents the first effort to reconstruct the prehistoric Oneota Grant longhouses as well as the historic Osage, Kansa, Quapaw, and Santee settlements by using ethnohistorical combined with archaeological data. To illustrate the historical villages, McKusick used the descriptions written by various people who visited the settlements: for the Osage Longhouses, he used Zebulon Pike’s narrative of 1806; for the Kansa village settlement, he used Major George Sibley’s description from 1811; for the Quapaw longhouses, he utilized Marquette-Joliet account of his expedition in 1687. For the reconstruction of the Oneota tradition longhouses, excavations by previous archaeologists that documented post mold patterns combined with ethnohistorical accounts were used to create the illustrations.
      Generally Oneota lodges are 8 to 14 feet wide and 20 to 55 feet long. Specifically, the Grant Oneota village of Iowa - specified in the article - is from the 11th century AD. Post mold patterns revealed large oval ended longhouses that were 20 to 30 feet wide and 60 to 90 feet long. Based on the presence of storage pits as well as the fact that the Osage, a historic Plains culture, used longhouses in the summer, it is suggested the longhouses were occupied as a residential summer lodges. By using explorers’ narratives, the internal structure of the longhouse was also drawn. The interior includes a raised platform at one end of the longhouse and the placement of the center posts. Using square footage occupancy data, it was calculated that the longhouses at the Grant site could hold 200 to 250 people.
       Because of missing archaeological features and the dubious task of assigning tribal identities to prehistoric sites due to the inconsistencies between the science of archaeology with the ethnography of tribes described by Hanson (1988), it difficult to illustrate the architecture of prehistoric peoples. Even though there are speculative aspects tin illustrating prehistoric dwellings, it remains an important task. Such illustrations are useful for museum exhibits and for the use in textbooks and other publications.

References Cited:
Hanson, Jeffrey R.
1998 Late High Plains Hunters. In Archaeology on the Great Plains, edited by W. Raymond Wood, pp. 456-480. University Press of Kansas.

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