Ritual, medicine, and the war trophy iconographic theme in the Mississippian Southeast


David H. Dye


The symbolic representation of distinctive human trophies plays a prominent role in Mississippian art. As a class of SECC icons they include skulls, fleshed heads, hands, and forearms, sometimes associated with weapon forms such as sociotechnic war clubs, typically found on ceramics. Trophy motifs are most commonly depicted on ceramic vessels from the Central Mississippi Valley and at Moundville. Much of this artistic activity on ceramic media is restricted to the Late Braden style of the fourteenth and perhaps early fifteenth century, but originates with earlier iconic portrayals of trophy-taking behavior found engraved on marine shell cups and copper repoussé plates of the thirteenth century. Clear archaeological evidence of trophy-taking behavior can be documented some 5,500 to 6,000 years ago in the Mid-South (Mensforth 2001, 2004; Smith 1997). Actual war trophies, including skulls and forearms, appear in mortuary and village midden contexts. In addition, actual human trophies and their symbolic counterparts become increasingly associated with elite behavior and the chiefly cult institution in Mississippian times, serving to further cement elite political ideology with warfare. The symbolic representation of war trophies became widespread as Mississippian elites associated success in warfare with a materialized ideology that places emphasis on mythic narratives of the triumph of life over death. Eyewitness accounts of trophy-taking behavior are well documented after European contact (Axtell and Sturtevant 1980; Bridges, Jacobi, and Powell 2000: 36; Owsley and Berryman 1975). Southeastern ethnographic/ethnohistoric documentation emphasizes the role of war trophies in revenge, public display, success in warfare, supplication to supernaturals, and perhaps replication of cosmic events, as well as war honors and badges of merit. They were often the necessary requirements for initiation and advancement in warrior societies. Finally, war trophies could be used in mortuary rituals associated with the journey to the afterworld. War trophy representational art on ceramics appears to have been distinct from iconic three-dimensional arts, functioning as transformational devices for the preparation of sacred medicines. If this hypothesis is true, then it should provide some degree of predictive results. Such testing might include chemical residues of sacred medicines, the correlation of these ceramics with "warrior" burials, and signs that the icons should be read as "severed," including crenellated or serrated heads or hands suggesting stylization of dismemberment representation. While the former two "tests" have yet to be carried out, the latter finds support in the iconography of Braden and Craig imagery from Spiro (Fig. 7.1). For example, severed heads are marked iconographically by serrated human necks (Phillips and Brown 1984:X), and scalloped lines drawn from the nose to the lower ear region perhaps mimic the agnathous human head (Brown and Dye 2007; Brown and Kelly 2000; Phillips and Brown 1978: 72). © 2007 by the University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.

Publication Title

Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography

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