Hightower anthropomorphic marine shell gorgets and duck river sword-form flint bifaces: Middle mississippian ritual regalia in the southern appalachians


Illustrative combat scenes emphasizing the ritual use of symbolic weaponry by humanlike figures depicted on the medium of marine shell gorgets have long been recognized by archaeologists in the southeastern United States (Waring and Holder 1945). Recently the case has been made that these representations do not portray quotidian or "mundane" events as much as they illustrate the activities of otherworldly deities (Knight et al. 2001). Exotic' sociotechnic f int blades' along with other elements of ritual regalia' indicate not only elite connections to otherworldly supernaturals but also perhaps chiefly reenactment of mythic sagas. Symbolic objects such as exotic weaponry formalized chiefly institutions (Earle 1997:174) and their roles in mythic narratives are believed to be key to chartering personal status and military activities in chiefl y societies. For example' symbolic weaponry may be incorporated in the enactment and performance of elite sagas that serve to substantiate corporate group rights and "reinforce a message aimed at large masses" (Earle 1997:155). In this chapter we examine the archaeological contexts of anthropomorphic marine shell gorgets and chipped stone biface blades and conduct a design analysis of the engraved shell gorgets in order to model the use of symbolic weaponry as one component of Mississippian elite behavior. From studies of early contact period sacred narratives it seems clear that Mississippian myths validated and legitimized the crucial structures of social and political life for ruling elites and served as both political charter and legitimizing ideology for aristocratic behavior (Keyes 1993' 1994). Sacred foundational myths underpinned rituals and chartered key social positions' providing a blueprint for human social and moral order as the refl ection of supernatural' celestial' or primordial worlds. The mythical past generally is conceived as a primeval reality or celestial model' the pattern and foundation of present- day life' that provided in centive and justifiation for the correct performance of rituals' moral action' and sacred acts (Malinowski 1936:13). Paradigmatic myths recount mortal combat between protagonist humanlike supernatural primordial heroes and their antagonist giant or monster adversaries (Eliade 1991:37)' illustrating how special powers and awards may be bestowed upon human supplicants by supernaturals through the deadly contest of life and death combat. The actions and deeds of these deifi ed supernaturals' illustrated through symbolic figural objects and dramatized in performances of mythical narratives' are potent means for negotiating status and power relationships. In sacred mythical dramas elites can act out their roles as exclusive intermediaries between their human communities and the supernatural world. Elite representation as deities is often portrayed on symbolic objects' such as human figural marine shell gorgets' which are ideal means to endow and signify individual social position' ritual offi ce' and political power: "Ceremonial paraphernalia or status symbols are often paraded or displayed in ritual contexts' and because these objects can contain coded information they may also serve as mechanisms for narrative representations. Complex iconographic systems combine the immediacy of performance with the visual impact of often familiar objects and icons to communicate directly with a large audience. The use of these interdependent means of materialization strengthens the overall message and creates a vivid experience of the ideology" (DeMarrais et al. 1996:18). Elite impersonation' imitation' and reenactment of celestial or primordial events with the aid of symbolic objects as props memorializes the times when supernatural beings gave special powers to human ancestors. Aristocratic rulers and their line of descendants serve as custodians of these earned or awarded powers. Elite impersonators of primordial acts often symbolically leave the human world to encounter supernaturals to receive additional powers. In mythic narratives supernaturals often respond to human supplication for divine aid by granting powers and ritual objects for the performance of ceremonies. The nobility are then seen as receivers' conservers' and transmitters of supernatural powers that vitalize' protect' and perpetuate a community's social' political' and religious life. Chiefly aristocratic behavior' based on shared beliefs in their superiority and sanctity' is founded on the creation and maintenance of links with the mythic world' the original and primary source of supernatural powers. Elites alone can maintain the vital connections between the present and the primordial state or mythical time. As the incarnations of ancestors' founders' heroes' and supernaturals' chiefl y elites had a double existence both as humans and as spirit beings' often acting as metaphorical equivalents of original supernatural beings who grant powers to humans. Irving Goldman's description of the relationship between inheritance' supernatural power' and the right to represent an ancestral or supernatural being may bear striking resemblance to Mississippian mythic chartering principles: The powers from the line derive from the ancestral founders' each of whom is apparently considered as reincarnated in the life of the contemporary bearer of his name. Thus each new generation reconstitutes on earth that primordial state when the founders were just moving out of their nonhuman and nonearthly realms. This primordial state' like that of birth' invokes the great powers of emergence' of transformation' and of initiation. To be connected through lineage with the Beginnings is to be in touch with the generative powers of birth' more fundamentally with the original sources of human creation. Thus the inheritance of names of a lineage is no mere social transmission of membership' it is rather a ritual process . . . that serves to maintain and periodically to strengthen the links between present generations and their earlier formative state. Since each notable person is always in some respect an embodiment of a mythological founder' the entire genealogical network of a community is always a living representation of the beings who existed' or who preexisted in mythological times [Goldman 1975:25-27]. The iconographic portrayal on symbolic objects of humanlike supernatural fi gures who brandish long' chipped fl int bifaces and display combat trophies may depict components or segments of Mississippian mythic narratives. The interment of flaked stone symbols with the elite dead suggests that Mississippian chiefs or priests used these ritual tools to reenact the deeds and actions of supernaturals who bestow sacred powers to those qualifi ed to receive them. The headsman and mortal combat themes of Middle Mississippian Hightower anthropomorphic- style marine shell gorgets' for example' may depict portions of such narrative myths. These fi gural representations and commemorations of ritual combat and trophy taking have provoked commentary and discussion over the past 120 years (Brain and Phillips 1996:44-50; Holmes 1883' 1884:301; King 2003:126; Kneberg 1959:9- 13; Kneberg and Lewis 1952:42-46; Lewis and Whiteford 1995b:163-164; Mac- Curdy 1913:411-414' Figure 77; Marceaux 2003; Muller 1966b:175-178' 1986a:67- 70' 1989:20' 1997a' 1999; Phillips and Brown 1978:184-185' 1984; Strong 1989; Thomas 1894:379-388; Thruston 1897:337-340; Waring 1968a:40-47; Waring and Holder 1945; Willoughby 1932:57; Wilson 1896:884)' but only recently have scholars noted that the action depicted on the marine shell gorgets references scenes of an otherworldly or archetypal reality' specifi cally the celestial realm' rather than ritual' quotidian activities (Knight et al. 2001:129). The combat weapons portrayed on the shell gorgets' however' appear in the archaeological record as condensed wealth and tokens of value' possessed by people of high rank used for display as a sign of wealth' dignity' and social position. Malinowski describes the use of hypertrophic weapons among New Guinea societies: "In the case of stone implements' these become so well- fi nished' so large' so thin and streaked and well- polished' that they are too good to be used technically' too big even to be carried as everyday ornaments' though they might still be placed in specially beautiful handles and carried by a man of rank during a ceremony" (Malinowski 1934:193). Hypertrophic ornaments and weapons displayed as tokens of wealth and status were often considered heirlooms and were attached to specifi c lineages. Upon death the "departed spirit then carries the spiritual essence of the tokens into the other world and offers them to the keeper of the spirits' road" (Malinowski 1934:196). Ritual sociotechnic combat weapons are widespread in Middle Mississippian times as part of a prestige goods exchange system' used for displaying social status' conferring political power' and providing military authority to those who owned and manipulated them (Brown 1996:469-488; Van Horne 1993:75). Elite personages were buried with these hypertrophic weapons and their use in the afterlife may have been signifi cant. The goods had symbolic value in life and in death. The spatial placement of prestige goods in relation with the body as part of the mortuary program may have had symbolic value. Two types of ritual combat weapons are engraved on Hightower anthropomorphic- style marine shell gorgets: Duck River sword- form fl int bifaces and raptor talon effi gy fl int bifaces. Both biface types are documented in Middle Mississippian contexts throughout much of the Mississippian world. Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved.

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Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology' Content' Contest

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