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  • Beliefs and Rituals in Archaic Eastern North America: An Interpretive Guide by Cheryl Claassen
  • Lucianne Lavin

Lucianne Lavin, Cheryl Claassen, Archaic North America, Native American religion, indigenous religion, indigenous American religion, American magic, American religion, Native American magic, Native American ritual, North American ritual

cheryl claassen. Beliefs and Rituals in Archaic Eastern North America: An Interpretive Guide. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015. Pp. xvi + 385.

Cheryl Claassen has undertaken a monumental task in this overview of indigenous spirituality and ritual during the ca. 8,000-year-long Archaic Stage of American deep history (which Claassen dates from 11,000 to 3,000 years ago). I applaud the tremendous amount of time and effort she invested to produce this compendium of multi-regional ceremonial sites and ritual behaviors represented in the archaeological record.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I, "Archaic Social Life" is a wide-ranging essay touching on a variety of topics that include pre-New World and Pan-American spiritual beliefs, early migrations, alliance formation, ritual place-making, violence and murder as ritualistic behaviors, structure of Archaic ritual, cults, offerings and mnemonic devices, visions and dreams, feasting, types of rites, ritual practitioners, and effects of ritualizing on communities, to name but a few. Claassen's interpretations are sometimes [End Page 424] speculative, with little or no citation for support, such as her explanation for the genesis of artificial mounds: "The appearance of Middle Archaic dirt mounds could well have been the result of a vision and then growth of a cult centered on earth medicine knowledge" (24).

The speculation may be rationalized, however, by her "wish to stimulate the archaeological imagination (and science)" (xiv). In sum, Claassen's suggestions for meaning are meant to inspire her ecologically and economically oriented archaeological colleagues to expand their scientific horizons and consider the impact of spirituality and worldview on human behaviors and, ultimately, on the creation of cultural features and archaeological sites.

Part II, "Annotated Sampler of Sites," provides short descriptions of ninety-one archaeological sites that contain evidence of Archaic ritual practices. Figures 1–4 are maps showing the locations of these sites. Although the book reviews Archaic communities of Eastern North America from the Mississippi drainage eastward to the Atlantic coast, it is top-heavy in sites from the Mid-Continent—particularly the southern Ohio Valley. Of the ninety-one sites discussed in Part II, only sixteen are from the Northeast, and half of these are in Canada. There is no mention of Archaic ritual in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, or New Hampshire, although publications on the topic are not infrequent. This is unfortunate, as New England contains many unusual and significant Archaic age ritual sites. Research by John Pfeiffer1 and others2 on Late and Terminal Archaic cremation burial sites in Connecticut provide striking examples.

One case in point is the Bliss site in Old Lyme, a Late Archaic cemetery excavated by Pfeiffer that contained twenty-one cremation burials of humans, radiocarbon dated between 4545 and 4775 BP. The cremations included both dry bone and green bone. Pfeiffer interpreted the latter to be the amputated finger and toe bones of mourners, based on an historic account of death rites among the Huron of southern Canada. Included grave goods were many artifacts (some ritually killed), the bones of a dog or wolf, red [End Page 425] ochre, ground mica, quartz crystals, iron pyrite nuggets, and food remains. Some of the artifact fragments from the cremations could be refit to those found at the nearby Howard residential camp, demonstrating that the people who ate and slept in the houses at Howard were the mourners/pilgrims to the Bliss cemetery. Later Terminal Archaic cremation burial sites in Connecticut revealed similar ritual behaviors.3

Part III, "Annotated Beliefs and Rites," is an alphabetical listing of topics related to Archaic ritual and spiritual beliefs briefly mentioned in Part I. For possible explanations of ritual features/artifacts, Claassen relies heavily on her documentation of historic Mexican ritual and spiritual beliefs. This may be applicable for the Southeastern and Mid-Continent sites, where evidence for southern connections has been demonstrated. For the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, however, more...


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