Understanding the Mississippian past by uniting archaeology and history

Submitted by Sammy Smith (sammy@thesga.org)

For ease of discussion, archaeologists customarily divide the past into chunks that they name. While this makes communication easier, it obscures the continuous nature of some aspects of our human past.

Consider the Mississippian period. Archaeologists conventionally date this period to AD 900-1540, and identify it with Southeastern North America. In addition, Mississippian peoples lived in ways that were similar across the Mississippian world, although there was also variation both through time and across space.

As Charles Hudson has written in Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997: page 24):

Archaeologists are only just now beginning to grasp the overall shape of the long-term development and short-term dynamics of Mississippian societies. It is now clear enough that the developmental path of an particular Mississippian society was not onward and upward forever. The Mississippian archaeological record is full of beginnings and endings, sites built and abandoned, times of feast and times of famine, and in much of this adversity one suspects that Mississippian peoples’ greatest adversaries were themselves. Mississippian societies were neither utopias nor peaceable kingdoms.

However exciting it is to look at Mississippian-period pottery and other artifacts, many of also wonder what it must have been like to live in those far-off times.

Hudson 1997 Knights and Warriors cover

If you read Dr. Hudson’s book, you will be transported back to the river-threaded forests Georgia in the 1700s, and travel through the Mississippian Southeast with Hernando de Soto and his men, a group most interested in obtaining wealth—wealth they could take back to their homeland on the Iberian peninsula. With it they could show their importance by sponsoring festivals, for example, and other public displays; wealth, they believed, was not to be hoarded, but to be exhibited.

The native peoples they encountered, however, lived in smaller communities and social worlds that were tightly knit because everyone knew each other, their family histories, and who they liked and disliked. As Dr. Hudson notes on page 1–2:

The native chiefdoms the Spaniards encountered in the Southeast also fielded fighting men, with a centuries-old military tradition of their own. The chiefdoms to which they belonged were dominated by chiefs who claimed descent from the gods of their universe, and most particularly from the Sun. These chiefs had power over people who made their living by hunting, fishing, and gathering wild food, but what they relied upon even more was farming.

Of course, we know that de Soto’s expedition and those that followed by other European explorers set in motion events that changed the histories of both the New and Old Worlds. Despite the stories recorded by these explorers and others of their day, it is archaeology that gives us the information to more fully understand these long-ago times.

The people of Georgia that de Soto’s group encountered made pottery archaeologists call Lamar. Dr. Hudson notes (page 152):

The Lamar culture was first identified by archaeologists on the basis of its distinctive pottery. This was first produced in about AD 1350, at a time when notable changes were occurring in many Mississippian cultures.

He continues on the next page:

Archaeologists are generally of the opinion that the advent of the Lamar pottery style was a reflex of deeper economic or ecological dynamics. What these dynamics could have been has been difficult to discern…. But several things are becoming clearer.

Dr. Hudson goes on to describe how successful the Mississippian-period peoples were at settling near and using the best soils for their fields. They built houses with small doors that could be kept very warm inside, and chiefly households kept tribute in storehouse structures on posts that raised them above the ground and provided fine shady places for conversation and relaxation.

In his book, Dr. Hudson lists the exact species of creatures, and especially plants, that the Lamar peoples used. How does he know this? It was not recorded by the Europeans; instead, it is data that archaeologists recovered by careful excavation, and by processing soil to recover pollen, seeds, animal bones, and other zooarchaeological and floral evidence.

Note that Dr. Hudson has woven together information from Spanish chroniclers and archaeological data to tell a braided history in his book Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun. Think how much thinner his story would be if he had access only to written documents from archives in Spain. However, using archaeological information, Dr. Hudson makes the lives of the Warriors of the Sun, the people of Southeastern North America, come alive, too.

The SGA has used the concept of how archaeology can amplify our understanding of a past that’s typically reconstructed almost completely from historical documents in choosing the theme of Archaeology Month 2011, Gone But Not Forgotten: Rediscovering the Civil War through Archaeology.