April 13th GAAS meeting: Smoking ritual in the Mississippian Southeast

Submitted by Dennis Blanton, Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Editor’s note: Dennis Blanton, Curator of the Native American collection-Fernbank Museum of Natural History, will be guest lecturer at the April 13th GAAS meeting discussing his research regarding Native American prehistoric pipes and their significance.

Also, there will be a gathering for a pre-meeting dinner at Los Loros on Clairmont Rd. just south of N. Decatur Road at 5:30 PM. The talk will begin at 7:30 PM on April 13th at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History (Clifton Road, just north of Ponce de Leon).

It is not uncommon to find smoking pipes on Mississippian (AD 1000-1600) sites in the Southeast but remarkably little consideration has been given to their meaning. My research first explores the nature of smoking ritual among Mississippian societies and how it changed over time. Then, I contemplate what the ritual patterns have to say more broadly about Mississippian cultures and how they changed. The findings demonstrate that smoking became an indispensable religious practice but that it was manipulated to accommodate shifting social conditions.

Biographical Info

I was born and lived out my earliest years in South Carolina before my family relocated to Georgia. After graduating Bacon County High School in Alma, Georgia I attended South Georgia College (1976-78) prior to moving on to complete an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Georgia (1980, Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa). My graduate studies include completion of an M.A. in anthropology at Brown University (1983) and near-completion of a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Virginia (ABD).

I have had a lifelong interest in archaeology and first participated in an organized field research project when I was fourteen years old. During my career I have worked in eleven different states and Puerto Rico, but most of my time has been spent in eastern North America, including extended periods in Virginia, Illinois, and New England. My Virginia experience included 15 years as director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William & Mary, and a year creating and directing a new public archaeology program at historic Shirley Plantation.

I returned to Georgia in July 2005 as Curator of Native American Archaeology at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. My duties there involve caring for the very large St. Catherines Island Collection, recently transferred to Fernbank from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. This collection consists of about one million objects and features remarkable evidence of the Spanish colonial mission of Santa Catalina de Guale.

My work also entails new research that over the last five years has been focused on a search for evidence of early Spanish-Indian interaction across southern Georgia. Our findings are highlighted by discovery along the lower Ocmulgee River of rare 16th-century Spanish artifacts that are the likely calling cards of Hernando de Soto. A complementary study in southwestern Georgia is also underway.

I have been fortunate over the years to receive wide recognition for some of my research. As one example, the discovery of how severe drought affected the Jamestown colony in Virginia appeared on the front page of The New York Times, in Science magazine, on National Public Radio, and on the television program Scientific American Frontiers. I have co-edited a book entitled, Indian and European Contact in Context: The Middle Atlantic Region (2004, University Press of Florida), and most recently another publication entitled, Archaeological Encounters with Georgia’s Spanish Period, 1526-1700: New Findings and Perspectives (2010, Society for Georgia Archaeology).

Our recent findings regarding the 1540 trek of Hernando de Soto through southern Georgia have also received wide attention and in 2010 I received a National Geographic Society grant from their Research and Exploration Committee.