Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Southeastern Religion

Poverty Point as Structure, Event, Process-
The author of this paper is focusing largely on the idea that different forms of analysis can lead to different interpretations of the same site. For this purpose, he focuses on the site of Poverty Point. To that end, he suggests that the seeming uniqueness of Poverty Point is in fact a facade.
"In it's uniqueness, Poverty Point appears quirky, even parochial." Although the author leads with this point, he is quick to point out that the measurement systems used for building the mounds at Poverty Point were developed at least 2000 years previously, and that the developers seem to have deliberately incorporated the designs of previous peoples.
The author suggests that the building of earthworks at Poverty Point was a ritual that represented the genesis of the people and the founding of Poverty Point itself. He goes on to hypothesize that large earthworks such as those at Poverty Point serve as "historical atlases", symbolic of places, events, and points of genesis. This gives them a spiritual or religious purpose, as well as serving to be a large, physical reminder of those spiritual or religious beliefs.
The author then spends some time discussing the physical aspects of the Poverty Point mounds, including the massive amount of earth that had to be moved to form them, and their similarities/dissimilarities to other earthworks throughout the Americas. The similarities and dissimilarities are important, because the author argues that while the mounds at Poverty Point are unique, they draw on previous earthworks in order to invoke a "social memory" that could be used for ritual, particularly in the case of a genesis story.
As a slight side note, the author spends some time discussing the possible importance of the number "six" at Poverty Point. Apparently, the mounds somehow are one sixth of any angle in an equilateral triangle, which becomes one sixth the array of a complete circle. The author then spends a great deal of time discussing the geographical location of Poverty Point in relation to other mounds.
The point is made that if Poverty Point was a part of ritual practice, it is possible that traveling to it was an integral part of entering "adulthood". The author claims that the ritual becoming may have been more important than any biological factor.
The author ends the paper by suggesting that we ought to more deeply consider the cosmological importance of Poverty Point, and that we may receive more answers about the purpose of the mounds both socially, geographically, and ritually as a result.

Sassaman, Kenneth
2005 Poverty Point as Structure, Event, Process. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 12:335-364

South Appalachian Mississippian and Protohistoric Mortuary Practices in Southwestern North Carolina-

This paper deals with burial practices in the South Appalachians. Although it is primarily about mortuary practices, those are often related to or evidence of religious or ritual activity.
Mississippian societies are thought to have been less centralized, but they do share many common themes and practices. Mounds were often built, and grave goods are found at many sites (although not all).
The study done by the authors covers burials of both genders, as well as a variety of age groups. The authors feel that the age groups are significant to the grave goods found with them, and that certain statuses were available to people of certain ages and genders.
As with all grave goods, there is a question to be asked. Are the goods found within the graves of this study there for the purpose of denoting rank and status, or are they there for ritual or ceremonial purposes? Is it a mix of the two? The authors posit several scenarios, including that perhaps the dead were meant to take the objects with them to the afterlife or that the objects were markers of wealth.
Because many of the grave goods found at this particular site were made from shells that originated from far away, the authors conclude that they were markers of status or wealth (at least in part). They claim that grave goods are "cultural deposits", a way of echoing both the physical landscape and the cultural one.
Towards the end of their study, the authors conclude that the placement of grave goods within the graves themselves was often significant-- the physical location of the item in the grave has meaning. It was a tad frustrating that they claimed this but were then unable to back it up by saying what those placements meant.
It would be interesting to have further studies conducted on those lines.

Rodning, Christopher B and David Moore
2010 South Appalachian Mississippian and Protohistoric Mortuary Practices in Southwestern North Carolina. Southeastern Archaeology 29:80-100


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I found the Sassaman’s conclusions interesting (and your tone amusing). One of my articles is on two mounds at Poverty Point: Mound B and E (Kidder et al. 2004). Although Sassaman suggests that the creation of Poverty Point was ritualistic and involved a lot of symbolism such as the earthworks being symbolic of culturally significant places and events, Kidder et al. concluded that the purposes of the mounds are unclear. My article focuses on the building processes of the mounds as well as discusses the data from coring the mounds whereas yours is concerned with applying cultural significance. It is curious that even though both articles focus on the architecture at Poverty Point, they come up with very different conclusions on why they were built. Kidder et al. seems hesitant to impose a hypothesis on the purpose of the mounds but Sassaman is very willing to put forth an intriguing, and perhaps far-fetched, hypothesis.

    Kidder, Tristram R., Anthony Ortmann, Thurman Allen
    2004 Testing of Mounds B and E at Poverty Point. Southeastern Archaeology 23: 98-113.