The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

While learning about the Mississippians, one of my favorite topics of discussion was their religion. To me, studying the religious interactions of a society and its people are some of my favorite aspects of learning about a culture, as it gives a much deeper context of who they really were and what attitudes they had about the world around them. I decided to build upon the information we learned in class and do some additional research on my own, discovering a few new things I thought I’d share.

Among the many symbols and motifs that the Mississippians believed held significance, one of the more intriguing pieces of the belief system is the idea of the sacred fire. While it was not mentioned in class as a focal point of the religion, I found that the concept behind it was very important. The basic premise behind the idea of the sacred fire is that there would be a fire lit (fire was important because it was representative of the sun) and it would have to stay lit with the exception of one time each year. There was symbolic meaning behind this- the fire being extinguished and then re-lit would represent a new beginning, or the beginning of the first corn harvest, which was a time for much celebration (also known as Thanksgiving). If the fire were to go out at any point during the time when it was designated to be lit, there were many concerns and fears in the community at the reasoning behind it and if it was human error or a sign from the gods. The extinguishing of a fire at an improper time was considered to be a threat, as the protection given to the people and the surrounding land from the fire had been lost.

Another fascinating aspect of the Mississippian belief system is the burial objects representing religious ideas and icons. Just like many other cultures, the Mississippians had very distinct beliefs about afterlife and the importance of religious objects being buried with the dead. When people died, they were buried with copper plates, various pottery items, bowls, pots, cups, clay figurines, etc., all featuring religious pictures or inscriptions. Common themes that were painted or engraved onto the items were usually representative of the above or below world (snakes, insects, birds) or the middle world (humans, animals). Most of the drawings included in the burial were those of a combination of both factors of the above and below world, as that combination was seen to join the powers of both worlds to best benefit the humans in the middle world. I found this combination symbol a very powerful idea, as I was under the impression that the main goal and desire was to avoid the below world and focus on the above world. Combining the powers of both worlds is an interesting concept to think about and makes me want to delve deeper into more of the reasoning behind this and the beliefs about these combinations.

 

The Hobbit

No not the movie. I’m talking about the species of humans found on a remote island in Indonesia. The scientific name for them is homo floresiensis. Their remains are believed to be 95,000-17,000 years old. Why does this species have the nickname of “The Hobbit”? How do they know it is a different species instead of the result of a genetic disease?

BH-033-comp-lg

In 2003, a research team found an almost complete skeleton of a female inside the Liang Bua cave on the island of Flores, Indonesia. This was one of the most significant discoveries of the 21st century. The woman had small features and an unusually small brain size. They also found teeth and bones from 12 others inside the cave all having the same characteristics as the female. This led them to conclude it was a whole other species of human. They estimate the size of the individuals to be about three and a half feet and their weight to be around 65-75 pounds. These estimates were based on the female individual found. Some other characteristic of this species include large teeth, shrugged shoulders, lack of chins, receding foreheads, large feet, and brains a third the size of ours. One of the questions surrounding this species is which species of human was their immediate ancestor. One theory for their small stature is that it was a form of evolutionary dwarfism, that they evolved this way because of the isolation of living on the island as well as the small amount of resources available to them. Support for this can be found in the pygmy elephant species also on the island, which are now extinct.

Even though homo floresiesnsis had small brains, they developed stone tools and hunted to survive. The oldest tools found on the island are 800,000 and it is a mystery how humans arrived on the island because the nearest one is nine miles away. The stone tools found in the cave resembled those found elsewhere on the island. Archaeological evidence showed that they hunted the small elephants living on the island as many of their bones are found where they resided. They also hunted large rodents, fended off predators, and may have used fire. Who said small brains don’t get you anywhere! Trying to discover the past of humans is a daunting task. There are so many questions surrounding each species and how they came to develop their characteristics. The Hobbit species is a unique and mysterious fork in the road of human evolution.

http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/homo-floresiensis

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.

File:Rogan plate 1 birdman HRoe 2012.jpg

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.

File:Huitzilopochtli telleriano.jpg

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.

The Importance of Context

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel with the Women’s Basketball team here at MSU.  Their first and second round of the NCAA tournament took us to Maryland, and even better, a trip to Washington D.C.  For those of you who have never been to DC, it is basically an archaeologist’s dream.  With all the Smithsonian Institutions around, and all free of charge, there is plenty do and explore.  However, I found one thing that was missing.  Where was the context?

The importance of context has been pounded into our brains, and will most likely continue to be pounded into our brains for the rest of the semester.  Most students will realize that this is because the context gives the artifact importance, and go along with their day.  However, I do not think the importance of context can be fully grasped until one visits an institution such as the Smithsonians.

As I wandered and explored the exhibits, I often found myself aimlessly gazing at the objects available.  Hey look, that’s a coat used in the Revolutionary War.  Cool… Wow, that is a skeleton of an early human.  Pretty neat. As these thoughts came and faded from my mind, I realized something in common with them all.  There was no context.  These were just artifacts, or more commonly replicas, in a museum.  The meaning, the importance, the relationship with all other artifacts was not present.  All of the wonderful information that comes from context was compacted into a single feeling of that’s kinda cool.

But that singular, compact feeling left me sad.  The archaeologist inside of me was looking for all the little details, the relationships, and the context of the artifacts.  I was searching for a deeper meaning, that not even the Smithsonians alone could offer me.

As we all move on with our careers, whether they be in archaeology or not, I hope that this true meaning of context hits you.  Without context, these artifacts are simply antiquities, a collection for the rich and powerful to keep.  That is not what archaeology is about.  I hope that the non-archaeologists among you remember this, and search for the context from all sources possible.  And I urge the archaeologists among us to remember the importance of context.  Without it, all science of archaeology is lost, and the once great pieces of the past turn into a collection on some shelf, lost with time.

‘Ireland’s Stonehenge’

“Stonehenge”  “Stonehenge”  “Stonehenge”

Just like the pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge has become a global, archaeological icon that represents power and endurance. By word of mouth or through visual images, the majority of individuals know Stonehenge as the famous prehistoric, rock momument that is located in the countryside of Southwest England. However, not many people are aware that Stonehenge is actuallly one part of hundreds of earthworks that dot the English landscape. From Stonehenge itself to Woodhenge, from earthworks and burrows to the Stonehenge Cursus, the English coutryside relates to us the workings of our ancient Neolithic ancestors.

Across St. George’s Channel, in the rolling hills of the Irish countryside, lies another prehistoric site much like that of Stonehenge and its vast earthworks. The Hill of Tara was the home of Ireland’s pre-Christian kings. There are no stone buildings or monuments left, but the landscape is covered with great earthworkds, which even I had trouble navigating. Like the Mississippian mounds, one large iron age Hill Fort may have housed a create wooden fortress on its peak. This hill is known as ‘Raith na Riogh’ in Gaelic and ‘The Fort of the Kings’ in English. In addition, just like the Mississippian mounds and the burial mounds around Stonehenge, The Hill of Tara also includes numerous burrows where the ancient Irish laid their dead. One of the more well known ‘passage tombs’ is the megalithic ‘Mound of the Hostages’, and this particular mound dates back to 2,500 BC. The ancient kings of Ireland liked to take important individuals from all over Europe and beyond ‘hostage’; therefore, the tomb receives this name from the ancient custom. Today, like many of the passage tombs found throughout the County Meath, the inside passage of the Mound of the Hostages is covered in green mold. Of course this is caused by thousands of years of direct exposure to the air since the mounds were either never sealed or later opened. For this reason, I was not allowed admittance to many of these burial mounds; however, I learned that one of the stones within the ‘Mound of the Hostages’, the orthostats, contains neolithic rock art.

This is a picture of the Mound of the Hostages

I visited Ireland about two years ago, and I do not think I truely appreciated my experience at The Hill of Tara until last week when Professor Watrall spoke to the class about our neolithic ancestors and the burial tombs created by the Mississippians and the ones found around Stonehenge. I think it is fascinating that two cultures, which had never encountered one another took part in similar customs. Yes, the technique varied, for the Irish surrounded their mounds with carved slabs of ornate rock, and the Mississippians did not exercise the use of rock to this degree. At the same time, we must look at the resources at hand. The ancient Irish had tons of rock at their disposal where the Mississippians may not have been as lucky. Nevertheless, I have a new appreciation for Tara, Newgrange, Dowth, and all of the other ancient monuments that dot the Irish landscape.

This is a picture of the main earthwork (The Fort of the Kings) of the Hill of Tara

Look familiar to other earthworks found around Stonehenge?

For more information regarding the Hill of Tara check out http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/tara/

 

The Legend of the Stonehenge

Being one of the most famous sited in the world, I was very fascinated in the Stonehenge. scientists and historians are still unable to come to a solid theory of when, why, who and how the rock structures were built, however there have been many theories. Today scientists analyze these rocks using radiocarbon dating and other techniques. People reject the earlier stories of the Stonehenge.

The name Stonehenge is believed to be of Saxon Origin. Stonehenge is located on fairly flat land known as Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge is different fron many other of the stone circles in Western Britain because many of the stones are trimmed into rectilinear forms. Another interesting thing about Stonehenge is the sheer size of the stones. Some of these stones are among the largest ancient structures still standing in the British Isles. The circle of the stones lying on the outer circle of Stonehenge is calles “The Outer Sarsen Circle.” This circle is composed of 30 square upright stones make of Sarsen–a type of sandstone. Each stone is approximately 13 1/2 feet above the ground, and is about 7 feet wide and 3 3/4 feet thick. The Outer Bluestone Circle lies in the Sasen Circle and contains 60 Bluestone rocks, composed of igneous rock called Bluestone. Bluestone has a bluish coloring. The inner Sarsen Trilithons are arranged in a horseshoe shape and are composed of 5 independent Trilithons. The Inner Bluestone Circle is another horseshoe shaped and has 19 Bluestones. The Alter Stone is a big rectangular piece of gray sandstone. The Alter Stone is now snapped in two. The name “Alter Stone” refers to the theory that the Druids used the Stonehenge and a temple, and the large stone in the middle was the Alter.

During the Medieval era, Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a book. This book was called ” The History of The Kings of Britain. The story began in Britain. New British King Vortigern has seized the throne. He met with the Saxon King Hengist because Saxons were a threat. At this meeting the Saxons murdered 460 British Lords. Vortigern was captured and released, then fled to Wales and built a tower on Mount Snowdon.Then Aurelius Ambrosius, the rightful Brisitsh King, burns Vortigern in his tower. Now there is a battle between Aurelius and The Saxons. British win. Aurelius decides to set up a memorial to the Mt. Amesbury Massacre. Aurelius is then told of a great stone structure located in Ireland. This was the structure of the Stonehenge. These stones were taken and set up at the massacre site in the exact same formation. Aurelius was supposedly buried there when he died, as well as Uther Pendragon who succeeded him.

Monte Verde

As I browsed the list of possible sites for the great discoveries project I came across Monte Verde, which I recognized as a site discussed in the textbook. Monte Verde is potentially the oldest known settlement on either of the american continents, dating back to 12,200 BC. It is located in northern Chile and was excavated by Tom Dillehay. It was initially discovered in 1975, and is estimated to be about 1000 years older than the next oldest site. I find it interesting that one of the oldest known settlements in the Americas is in the southern hemisphere. The textbook says that people came to the Americas from asia over the Bering strait land bridge. It would seem if this was the case that the first settlements would be in Alaska or the northwest regions of Canada and the U.S. Perhaps discoveries have not yet been made here due to the hostile environment. The fact that these first Americans appear in the Southern hemisphere is perplexing in this context. These people would have migrated south along the west coast of the continent because apparently this region was not entirely buried under glaciers. So it makes sense that there is a settlement in Chile, but many other sites have been found in central america and mexico and the southwest U.S. are not as old as Monte Verde. One possible explanation is that the people who came from asia were a seafaring culture, similar to the native cultures living in this part of the world today. Their extensive marine knowledge could have enabled them to travel primarily by sea down the west coast rather than on land, which would have been easier. There is also proof that sea levels have risen by as much as 200 feet from the time when the migration occurred, potentially submerging other sites under water that would mark the progression of the migration down the west coast.

The Clovis people are the first designated culture to settle the Americas, with sites dating back to 11,200 BC. They are found in North and Central America and are named after the town in New Mexico in which the first site was discovered. These are the most likely candidates connected with the site at Monte Verde, even though the sites are as much as 1000 years apart. 

There is apparently one site in Alaska that may link American settlement as far back as 11,800 BC. It is not conclusive however due to the minimal amount of material at the site. 

 

Stonehenge

Before this class, I was always very interested in Stonehenge but hardly knew anything about it. I was always curious about who built it, why they built it, and how they built it. After the lecture today, I was left with a much better understanding of all of that. I was also amazed to learn many things that I never knew before. Some things that were interesting to me were that the actual Stonehenge is just one part of the whole area. It is just one small part to such a larger site. There are many other things all around it like burial mounds, pits, holes, and Woodhenge. It’s fascinating to think who lived there thousands of years ago and what kind of incredible events took place all around that area. I never knew there were so many other parts to Stonehenge than just the standing stones.

I was also intrigued to learn about the possible ways it was built. It’s hard to imagine how people were able to build such an incredible structure without the machinery we have today. A large amount of people were needed to create it. Also many resources were needed, and most of them were not anywhere close. It’s quite interesting to think how people were able to transport huge stones weighing many tons from a place miles away. Another fascinating fact was how Stonehenge was the result of a few thousands of years, and not just something that could be put together in a couple of days. It was also interesting to learn about the other possibilities of how Stonehenge could have been built instead. It was very thought-provoking to hear about some myths about how people thought it was built instead. Even though some don’t seem completely logical, it opened my mind to think about the other alternatives.

Another curiosity of mine is thinking what Stonehenge was actually built for. It could have been a place for festivities to occur, a place of pilgrimage for religious folk, or something used for astronomy. The purpose behind it could have been any of these or something else entirely. Stonehenge will be something that will continue to interest me for years to come. Stonehenge has huge historical importance and holds many answers to the past. It also has many mysteries about it and some questions that can probably never be answered. The mystery behind Stonehenge makes it even more fascinating.