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Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Written by Thomas E. Emerson

Publication Year: 1997

This dramatic and controversial new interpretation of Cahokian leadership strategies examines the authority a ruling elite exercised over the surrounding countryside through a complex of social, political, and religious symbolism.

This study uses the theoretical concepts of agency, power, and ideology to explore the development of cultural complexity within the hierarchically organized Cahokia Middle Mississippian society of the American Bottom from the 11th to the 13th centuries. By scrutinizing the available archaeological settlement and symbolic evidence, Emerson demonstrates that many sites previously identified as farmsteads were actually nodal centers with specialized political, religious, and economic functions integrated into a centralized administrative organization. These centers consolidated the symbolism of such 'artifacts of power' as figurines, ritual vessels, and sacred plants into a rural cult that marked the expropriation of the cosmos as part of the increasing power of the Cahokian rulers.

During the height of Cahokian centralized power, it is argued, the elites had convinced their subjects that they ruled both the physical and the
spiritual worlds. Emerson concludes that Cahokian complexity differs significantly in degree and form from previously studied Eastern Woodlands chiefdoms and opens new discussion about the role of rural support for the Cahokian ceremonial center.


Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication Page

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pp. iii-v


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p. vii

Figures and Tables

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pp. ix-xi

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p. xiii

A lengthy research project such as this creates debts to many that can never be fully repaid or recognized since over the years the project was carried out with the unending assistance and support of family and friends; constructed upon the data, interpretations, and inspirations of multitudinous colleagues; partially subsidized by public agencies and assisted by cooperation from their...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-7

Robert Hall (1975a: 25) once equated the efforts of archaeologists to understand Cahokia with the blind men and the elephant, each archaeologist gazing intently into his or her own small part of the beast, seeking to comprehend this extinct megalopolis. Cahokia has been labeled both a state and a chiefdom, perceived as an economic giant and as economically inconsequential, as a regional military power...

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2. The Conceptual Parameters

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pp. 9-41

Any study of ideology, religion, political power, dominance, or other expressions of Cahokian hegemony must first be based on a thorough understanding of the theoretical parameters involved. In order to create a model for hegemonic-driven social change it is necessary to establish the concept of cultural stability and transformation based on the principle of the individual...

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3. The Cultural-Historical Contexts

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pp. 43-60

The prehistoric Mississippian cultures of the eastern United States represent the epitome of social, political, and religious development of the area's aboriginal inhabitants. While there is near universal acceptance of Mississippian as the premier cultural "climax," vigorous debates continue on "what is Mississippian?" James B. Griffin (1985) has extensively documented the...

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4. Mississippian Rural Settlement

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pp. 61-79

Settlement ... is almost a uniquely powerful data category, a virtual material isomorph of infrastructure and political economy which records and preserves the most significant features of energy production and flow. Since Darwinian adaptation is by definition operationalized in terms of population numbers and distributions, the paradigmatic mandate is direct and overwhelming. ...

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5. Cahokian Rural Nodes: The Archaeological Evidence

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pp. 81-149

I am primarily interested in the definition and explication of rural settlement units that suggest the presence of a politically and/or ideologically based hierarchical system. Such settlements should, consequently, contain indicators of special status, such as having community-centered functions, occupancy by elite, unique architecture, "sacred landscapes," high frequencies...

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6. Interpreting Cahokian Rural Settlements

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pp. 151-192

A series of factors must be examined to arrive at a full understanding of rural settlement patterns and systems in the American Bottom around Cahokia during the Middle Mississippian period. These factors include the local physiography, the subsistence economy, and the social and political milieu. No single set of these variables can provide complete insights into the complex...

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7. The Cahokian Symbolic World

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pp. 193-223

As Gramsci has shown, persuasion is as critical a factor as force in the construction of hegemonic control. This persuasion may take the form of a dominant ideology that shapes and naturalizes a society's vision of the cultural and natural worlds surrounding it. In the hands of the elite, this ideological vision seeks to ensure the reproduction of the social and political...

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8. Cahokian Rural Cults

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pp. 225-248

I presume that the ritual behavior and symbolic system of the Cahokian people are implicit in the assemblages of rural Middle Mississippian sites around Cahokia. Those assemblages reflected strong evidence for the dominance of fertility symbolism in the rural temples and mortuary sites. In addition, it was possible to identify a number of specialized sites that I interpret...

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9. Conclusions

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pp. 249-267

The American Bottom floodplain possessed a diversity of opportunities for Middle Mississippian horticulturalists. It was an environment that could provide rich yields of cultivars and natural foods, or it could produce devastating floods that would destroy a community's entire food supply. It was a land of sloughs, oxbow lakes, wet prairies, forests, long ridges interspersed with...

References Cited

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pp. 269-306

Index [Includes Back Cover]

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pp. 307-317

E-ISBN-13: 9780817383657
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817308889

Publication Year: 1997

OCLC Number: 44956190
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American Bottom (Ill.) -- Antiquities.
  • Social archaeology -- Illinois -- American Bottom.
  • Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park (Ill.).
  • Indians of North America -- Illinois -- American Bottom -- Antiquities.
  • Mississippian culture -- Illinois -- American Bottom.
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