Monday, February 6, 2012

Religion- The Plains

Yerkes, Richard W.
 1988 The Woodland and Mississippian Traditions in the Prehistory of Midwestern North America. Journal of World Prehistory 2:307-358.

This article provides an overview as to the history of the Woodland and Mississippian traditions. It is quite extensive, covering many theories. Yerkes makes his main point a question-- why did the Mississippian societies develop where they did, when they did? (346) He leaves this question for future archaeologists and delves into describing what we know already about the societies in question.
The article makes many interesting points regarding religion. The first true cemeteries of the Midwest are associated with the Late Archaic period (314), demonstrating that religion, or at the very least, ceremony, was something that was utilized by the people in that time in the Central Mississippi Valley. Red ocher was used to cover bodies in graves with some regularity, and many artifacts found in these early graves were clearly manufactured only to be grave goods, rather than serving some purpose prior to death. (315)
The article also spends a great deal of time talking about the Hopewell tradition in various respects. Hopewell art that has been found in Illinois was more than the expression of a mortuary cult, as has been suggested in the past. Art pieces may have served as status-specific ritual objects. (318) Archaeologists in the past have classified the Hopewellian phenomenon as a religious system that was added to the culture of the local Woodland populations. (318) It was unclear whether or not the author agreed with that assessment, but his description of the belief as something that was "in the past" led me to the assumption that he believed something different, although he did not describe what. He did suggest that the Hopewell tradition was something like a spiritual cult that could be compared to the Ghost-Dance religion that came much later in time, or an "interaction sphere" of communities that influenced each other. (322)
Yerkes then goes on to discuss the Middle Mississippians, and says that their culture had a theocratic political system with the ruling elites also serving as high priests, and with public buildings that included temples. (335)

Brown, James A.
1997 The Archaeology of Ancient Religion in the Eastern Woodlands. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:465-485.

Eastern Woodland religion has not been extensively studied by archaeologists up until this point, claims the author of this paper. Therefore, the belief that people above Mezoamerica had no history was reinforced. An archaeological, not an ethnological, understanding of the religious aspects of Eastern Woodland culture is necessary to understand it. (466) The archaeological record shows that the history of religion in the Eastern Woodlands is very complex. Ethnology can give us information-- but it's not ENOUGH information. (468)
Cosmology, the cult of the dead, and the structure of theistic beliefs all leave behind things that can be traced with the archaeological record. (468)
Many people have said that the practice of spirituality is inaccessible through archaeological means, but the author of this article disagrees. He says that although a number of connections between various tribes have been offered, they have been less than favorable because there is a distinct lack of cases where clear, chronological history connecting them can be established. (471)
Sacred architecture can serve as a valuable source of information for religious archaeology, as can public spaces. Ritual objects are another major source from which we can glean information, as are grave objects and decorations. For example, the decorating of bodies with red ocher is plausibly of religious or spiritual significance. (473) As populations grew during the Middle and Late Woodland periods, more and more physical objects representing spiritual or religious significance became available. They also took on elaborate material form, with complex designs and/or animal effigies.
As maize became more important, it can be seen to gather more ritual significance, as did various other floral objects like tobacco. The author asks the reader to consider the possible importance of hallucinogens in Eastern Woodland religious and spiritual practice. Some archaeologists have argued that the appearance of birds on smoking pipes demonstrate that out-of-body experiences were associated with smoking. (474)
There are several foci of ritual activity that can be found, including mounds. Mounds may have served as platforms on top of which ceremonies for the community could have been preformed.
The article also discusses things like cosmology and how that can be found through the archaeological record, including through site layout and orientations.
Overall, the article makes the argument for an archaeological approach to ancient religion, rather than an ethnological approach.


  1. Your article has some relation to my own. The red ocher you mentioned, being painted on the bodies. In one of my articles, there is mention of evidence of red ocher being used to stain five or so pendants found in a burial. There were raven bones as well that had been stained with the red ocher (Carlson 1999).It is interesting to find that the bodies were also covered with red ocher to some regular extent. Your article from Brown makes mention of ritual objects. Carlson also makes mention of various other intentionally placed burial goods, such as mussel shells and an unused notched biface, suggesting a purely ceremonial purpose to the biface. Perhaps the biface is ritualistic, since there are no wear marks on it.

    References Cited:
    Gayle F. Carlson, John R. Bozell, Terry L. Steinacher, Marjorie Brooks Lovvorn, and George W. Gill
    1999 The Sidney Burial: A Middle Plains Archaic Mortuary Site From Western Nebraska. Journal of the Plains Anthropological Society 44:105-119

  2. Although my topic is completely different, the specific topic of religion in prehistoric times seems fascinating. My topic is focused more on gender roles and the interactions men and women may have had in relation to certain activities or lifestyles. One article I found centered around Pawnee society in the Late prehistoric period. The article is written by Patricia O'Brien, who used archaeological evidence as well as using the Direct-Historical Approach. This approach is seen as more ethnological, which is in direct contrast to the article by Brown who claims that ethnographic data is simply not enough. O'Brien was able to combine archaeological evidence with more ethnographic data to create a more holistic image of prehistoric peoples and their activities. Furthermore, within the article by O'Brien were very similar findings about rituals, especially in relation to cosmology and birds. Within the site located in Kansas, O'Brien found that the structure of the lodge held a significant cosmological role within Pawnee society. The lodge was structured so that sunlight upon sunrise could shine through the entrance, crossing the central fireplace, and ultimately lighting up the opposite wall. Additionally, within the entrance of the lodge they found bird remains, specifically the wings. These birds were found to be economically unimportant and instead held symbolic significance. Specific birds, such as ground-living and non-ground living birds, were extremely symbolic of gender roles. Thus, we can see that cosmological structures and the importance of birds are also seen in other regions suggesting cultural contact of some sort.

    O’Brien, Patricia J.
    1991 Evidence for the Antiquity of Women’s Roles In Pawnee Society. Plains Anthropological Society 36(134): 51-64

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I find the subject of Native American cosmology to be fascinating. The reason I chose to comment on this entry is because of this interest but also I wonder what the implications are for archaeological analysis of sites and artifacts, and their subsequent interpretation. Since the majority of my studies have involved not only Anthropology and Archaeology but also Native American cultures, the question I find intriguing is, to what extent can ethnographic records and research materials can be reconciled with the archaeological record? Additionally, I feel it necessary to consider ethnohistoric data and oral histories in order to find and assess the possible importance and/or relevance of the information to ongoing archaeological research and publication.

    An interesting read I recommend to others is called "Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions" by Andrew Guilford. This text covers a range of topics from repatriations and NAGRPRA to the preservation of sacred landscapes. The view of of Native American cultures as living and fluid is implicit throughout the text; and it offers useful interpretations which attempts integrate the available information from an array indigenous historic records including oral histories and ethnographic data in conjunctions with the archaeological information available from many of the known sites in North America. Another salient point was brought up in an assigned reading for class by Roger Echohawk, his assertion being that if a technology is present for any considerable length of time in the archaeological record it is fair to assume some human discourse about that technology is also apparent throughout Guilford's work. In my opinion this is an area of study in its infancy when compared to similar research done in other geographic regions.

    Guilford, Andrew
    2000 Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions. University Press of Colorado

    Echohawk, Roger C.
    1997 Forging a New Ancient History for Native America. In Native Americans and Archaeologists: Stepping Stones to Common Ground, edited by Nina Swindler, Kurt Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and A. Downer, pp. 88-102. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press