A Cahokian, a Viking, and a Yogi walk into a bar….

When I scheduled this class a year ago I thought that it would be a fun class to learn about famous archaeological sites like the Pyramids at Giza, Stonehenge, etc.  And while we did learn about these well known sites, what really intrigued me about this class was learning about the society and culture behind these sites.  One topic that really intrigued me was the Mississippians.  Before we learned about this great society I knew a little bit about the Mississippians, but only insomuch as they were the ones who had built the great earthworks that snake throughout the Midwest.  I had no idea of the complexity and breadth of their society and culture.  The fact that the Mississippians were in contact with other peoples ranging from southern Canada to northern Mexico is incredible.  The vast and complex trading network that spanned this area is even more unbelievable, because even today transporting goods over distances that far is no easy feat.  To think that a people hundreds of years ago had mastered this skill is amazing.

In addition to this extensive trading network was the complex religious belief system that, while not monolithic, threaded throughout the Mississippians’ region of influence and tied together these far afield settlements.  It is interesting to note the similarities between Mississippian beliefs of the cosmos and those of neighboring and even distant American societies.  However, the idea of the Axis Mundi is not unique to the New World and several examples of similar ideologies occur throughout religions the world over.  Two such examples are the Nordic Yggdrasil and the Hindu Brahman.  The idea that religions as far separated as America is from India can share similar, if not identical, beliefs is mind-blowing.  This begs the question, how did this come to be?  The Jungian psychologist would answer that these beliefs are somehow intrinsic to the human psyche and that their development in such far afield locales only points to the existence of a human collective unconscious.  The modern anthropologist might argue that the societal and political structures of these societies resemble each other and that the development of these beliefs is a natural human response to these impetuses.  A diffusionist might posit a long standing direct correlation between these cultures that points to the direct exchange of these beliefs.  A sensationalist might see these similarities and point to the existence of a origin society such as Atlantis or the presence of extraterrestrial intervention.  I believe that there is not yet enough information to confirm a concrete answer and that more study must be done to answer this question (although some of these suggestions can be safely assumed incorrect).  In conclusion, learning about the Mississippians has greatly opened my eyes to the connections between cultures that I had not thought about before.

The Mysterious Linear A

In 1886, the keeper of the Ashmolean Museum and prominent Hellenic archaeologist Arthur Evans was given an ancient seal stone from Crete engraved with an unknown writing system.  Intrigued, Evans continued to investigate in Greece and Crete and found much more evidence that connected this writing system with the Aegean empire of the ancient Minoans.  Through the excavation of Minoan ruins on Crete (and Mycenaean ruins on the Greek mainland) Evans discovered two unique, but very similar, writing systems.  He called them Linear A and Linear B because it utilized a linear structure in the construction of its characters unlike much of the other writing of the day which was pictographic.  He also determined that Linear A was a predecessor of Linear B and that Linear A was mostly used in religious and administrative writings, while pictographic writing was used for everyday use.  Despite gaining all this knowledge, Evans and many other archaeologists, linguists, and historians were at a loss as to how to decipher Linear A and B.

The first major breakthrough in deciphering these writing systems came in the early 1950s when American archaeologist Alice Kober constructed a method of determining the grammatical relationship between various symbols in Linear B.  The result of her work was connecting certain symbols to others grammatically within Linear B, and determining that the symbols of Linear B had to represent syllables, not letters.  Not long after this discovery, Michael Ventris made a breakthrough that would crack Linear B wide open.  By comparing the texts from mainland Greece to those from Crete, Ventris noticed that certain words appeared on the Cretan texts and not on the Greek ones.  Ventris guessed that these words represented city and place names in Crete and by deciphering these names he was able to unlock much of the language.  As a result, Ventris determined that the underlying language of Linear B was Greek.

However, Linear A presents a different beast altogether.  Although these two writing systems look very similar, most scholars agree that the underlying language must be completely different for the two systems.  This is because when Linear A was deciphered using symbols from Linear B, the result was a garbled mess that did not make any sense.  Even when similar syllabic values of Linear B are applied to Linear A the underlying language of Linear A appears unrelated to any other presently known language.  While deciphering Linear A has proven out of reach, many scholars have hypothesized its origins.  Some believe it to be Greek in origin, but as we have seen, the linguistic structure is unique from other contemporary languages.  Others believe that Linear A is a descendant of an Anatolian language, but there is little resemblance between Minoan and contemporary Anatolian writing, there is very little evidence for migration of Hitto-Luwian peoples (the people of Anatolia) to Crete, and a distinct lack of connection exists between the two peoples.  Another theory is that Linear A is a descendant of Phoenician; however, while a few terms may be Semitic in origin, Linear A presents many written vowels – a direct contrast to Semitic script.  Indo-Iranian is another candidate, however, the work done by Hubert La Marle to prove this connection ignored established evidence and used different script systems at will.  The most widely accepted theory to date is that Linear A is somehow related to the Tyrrhenian family of languages which is pre-Indo-European and comprises of Etruscan, Rhaetic and Lemnian.  However, even the most robust arguments for any of these theories is lacking and the mystery of Linear A remains.

A Comparative Look at the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex


A month ago, when we were talking about the myth of the moundbuilders the subject of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex came up.  While I had never heard of the SECC before, I am always interested in religious and spiritual systems and this one sounded particularly interesting.  When Dr. Watrall began explaining some of the beliefs, motifs and practices of the SECC I couldn’t help but notice that the SECC shared many points with pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.  When I started brainstorming on what to write for this blog post, my mind immediately jumped to the similarities shared by the SECC and pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies.

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Before I compare SECC beliefs with those of the Mesoamericans, I think a brief overview of SECC culture is in order.  The SECC was less an organized religious entity or complex and more of an exchange network where several communities throughout the American Southeast and Midwest traded materials.  From this extended contact and interaction, many of these communities formed similar spiritual and religious beliefs.  Some of the more widely spread beliefs and motifs include the belief in the axis mundi (a way to view the universe as a tree with three parts: the beneath world of chaos and evil, the middle world where humans live, and the above world where spiritual beings like the Thunderers lived), the birdman (a part falcon, part man deity who symbolizes the warrior), and the Corn Mother (also known as the “old woman who never dies”).

One of the most important figures in the SECC was the Birdman, an avatar of warriors and an object of fertility.  The birdman was often shown as a man cloaked in falcon imagery, sometimes even with the wings of a falcon.  In Aztec (and other Mesoamerican) religion there appears a very similar deity in the form of Huitzilopochtli, whose sphere of influence includes war, the sun, and sacrifice.  Much like the birdman of SECC beliefs, Huitzilopochtli is often represented with birdlike imagery, and his name literally translates to “left-handed hummingbird”.  There are many other similarities between Mesoamerican and SECC belief, such as the shared belief in the axis mundi; the story of Red Horn which is strikingly similar to the story of the twins in the Mayan Popul Vuh; the belief in the Corn Mother as a female corn deity; and the annual Green Corn ceremony, which was a ritual celebration of the coming of new corn that both the SECC and the people of Mesoamerica shared.

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It is tempting to look at these vast similarities in belief systems and conclude that the cultures of the SECC had to have had extensive contact and influence on the cultures of Mesoamerica, and vice versa.  This topic is hotly debated by scholars with no real conclusion one way or the other; however, there is no concrete evidence of contact between these two systems of belief.  In fact, there is compelling evidence that the SECC developed completely independent of Mesoamerican societies.

What then can this similarity in belief systems tell us?  I believe that the development of two separate belief systems that so closely mirror one another (as the SECC and Mesoamerican belief systems do) means that their environments must have been very similar.  If we investigate the social, physical and political environments surrounding these two belief systems, we can see that this is indeed true.  For both cultures which followed these belief systems corn was the main source of nutrition which was cyclical and dependable.  Also, both of these cultures lived in areas where water was plentiful and agriculture flourished.  The ability of these cultures to rely on dependent and plentiful agricultural food sources allowed them to develop complex social and political structures dependent on a caste system.  The development of a caste system carried into religious belief where a well-defined pantheon evolved out of similar environmental stimuli, such as the importance of corn and the presence of birds of prey (which could lead to the belief that birds are warlike and so the creation of a war deity so steeped in aviary imagery).

The fact that similar environmental stimuli could produce such similar belief systems is quite amazing considering the very limited (to no) interaction that these cultures shared.  These observations serve as further evidence for how similarly human society will react to similar impetuses.

Pyramids, Pyramids and more Pyramids

The pyramids at Giza may be the world’s best known pyramids; however they aren’t the only ones.  Pyramids of various forms and sizes can be found all around the world.  From the lush plains of the Fertile Crescent to the sweltering jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, pyramidal structures rise high above the surrounding landscape.

The three pyramids on the Giza Plateau are the most iconic pyramids of them all, and are possibly the most iconic ancient structures in the world.  There are very few ancient structures (Stonehenge and Chitzen Itza for example) that can compete with the fame and wonder that surround the pyramids of Giza.  When Alexander the Great led his army through Egypt to solidify his conquest in 332 BCE the pyramids of Giza were already 2,000 years old.  Today, much of their fame comes from the fascination with ancient Egypt sparked by the expeditions of dozens of self-proclaimed “archaeologists” who looted Egypt of historic treasures through the 19th and early 20th centuries.  However, the three pyramids on the Giza Plateau only give examples of one specific type of pyramid.

In Central America there are many examples of step pyramids (pyramids that are built as several large rectangular bases stacked on top of one another). Many such examples come from the most powerful classical civilizations of Central America, the Aztecs and the Maya.  Both Aztec and Maya cultures had a vast and complex pantheon of gods.  It was in reverence to these gods that pyramids in Aztec and Maya cities were constructed.  This reason starkly contradicts the reasons that Egyptian pyramids were built.  Egyptian pyramids were constructed as burial markers for great and powerful (not to mention vastly egotistical) Pharaohs and were meant to represent the mound of earth from which the world was made in Egyptian creation mythology.  That Egyptians buried great kings under structures symbolizing the birth of the world parallels their views of death as the ferry to life in the underworld.  The reason that the Aztec and Maya constructed pyramids was quite different.  The Aztec and Maya constructed their pyramids as temples to specific gods.  One example is the Pyramid of the Sun in the ancient Aztec city of Teotihuacan which was built to worship the Aztec deity of the sun and even included an altar on the flat top of the pyramid.

In Mesopotamia, some of the oldest pyramidal structures were built.  The ancient ziggurats of the Mesopotamian Valley were built in the early 3rd millennium BCE for much of the same purpose that the Aztec and Maya pyramids were built.  However, ziggurats were not places of public worship or ceremonies like the Mayan and Aztec pyramids, but were the homes of the patron deities of the city.  One example is the Great Ziggurat of Ur near Nasiriyah, Iraq which was dedicated to the moon god Nanna which was the patron deity of Ur.

These are only a few example of the types of pyramids all over the world.  And while the reasons why pyramidal structures were built vary from civilization to civilization, their presence invariably points to cultures with highly developed religious beliefs as well as economic power and engineering ingenuity.

The stele commonly known as the Rosetta Stone

The stele commonly known as the Rosetta Stone

More than two hundred years ago near the town of Rashid in the lush Nile Delta, one Pierre-François Bouchard, a soldier in the French expeditionary force in Egypt, uncovered a slab of black stone that would change archaeology forever.

The stone that Bouchard had found was a broken ancient Egyptian stele (an upright stone monument with inscriptions, thank you ancienthistory.about.com) on which was inscribed the same message in three different languages: ancient Greek, Demotic, and hieroglyphs.  Each of these languages had a specific use within Egyptian culture at the time; Greek was used as an administrative script, Demotic was the everyday script, and hieroglyphs were used for religious and ceremonial business.  The rediscovery of this stele had enormous implications because it could be used to unravel the mystery of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone (as the stele came to be known), the Egyptian hieroglyphic script had been only independent of other script.  But, with hieroglyphs sharing the same medium as Greek script (and presumably the same message) an opportunity to decipher the ancient language had arrived.

For years after the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone the hieroglyphic crucible withstood the best efforts of classicists, archaeologists and linguistics throughout Europe.  Progress was made on the ancient Greek script, which, although ancient Greek was widely known in academic circles, proved tough to decipher because of the variances between Classical Greek and the Greek script used in the Rosetta Stone.  There were even breakthroughs in the Demotic text by Johan Dabid Akerblad (a Swedish diplomat and scholar) and Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (a French Orientalist) even though Demotic text had been rediscovered not long before the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone.  Despite these advances, the hieroglyphic script remained as cryptic as ever, with very few breakthroughs in the text.

Enter Jean-François Champollion, an assistant-professor of History at Grenoble University in France.  Champollion had a striking affinity for language; by 9 he could read Homer and Vergil in their classical tongues, by 16 he presented a paper on the ancient use of the Coptic language to the Grenoble Academy and by 20 he could speak Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Amharic, Sanskirt, Avestan, Pahlavi, Arabic, Syriac, Chaldean, Persian and Ge’ez in addition to French.  Champollion was first introduced to the text on the Rosetta Stone in 1814 through correspondence with Thomas Young (the foreign secretary of the Royal Society of London who was working on solving the mystery of the hieroglyphic script).  By 1822, Champollion had complied a key to the Egyptian grammatical system and published the first correct translation of the hieroglyphic text.

Champollion’s discovery cracked open the secrets of the hieroglyphs and allowed archaeologists the globe over to decipher the mysterious symbols that were etched into the stone of hundreds of ancient Egyptian architectural sites.  Champollion’s discovery also served as a catalyst for interest in the past and in the field of Egyptology in particular.  The cracking of the hieroglyphic code stimulated archaeological interest in Egypt in a way that would not be seen again until the uncovering of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon 100 years later.

I would like to acknowledge wikipedia.org which piqued my interest in the Rosetta Stone, as well as  the information that I found from ancienthistory.about.com which informed much of the background information of this blog.