Sacred Geography of Prehistoric natives of the Woodland Culture – part 3, the Mississippian

Mississippian: From the Golden Age to the Fields

The disappearance of the Adena-Hopewell remains a mystery as does the abandonment their extraordinary artifacts.  Some reasons for the disappearance of Adena-Hopewell Culture include cultural assimilation, prolonged drought, climactic cooling or epidemic disease.  Change in technology occurred around 400 AD. The atlatl was replaced by the bow and arrow, which could have caused a shift in the balance of power.  Increased reliance on agriculture ended the golden age of the Hopewell as the populations became too large for the existing social systems.  A few major Mississippian urban centers include: Cahokia (Illinois), Moundville (Alabama), Angel Mounds (Indiana), Aztalan (Wisconsin) and Emerald (Mississippi).

Religion and Ritual.  Purpose and ceremony did not change much but the development of agriculture led to a different way of perceiving their environment but with expanded trade introduced new goods and ideas with that new gods and new types of worship.  Ancestral reverence continued as did importance of astrology and seasons. Whereas religion and ritual was communal in the Adena it had fully transitioned by the Mississippian period where social, political and religious power fell upon the chiefdom of each social center. Ceremonies and rituals took place on top of large mounds led by a few individuals, the commoners viewed from below.

Earthworks.  The magnificent earthworks of the golden era were no longer needed for a civilization that had evolved beyond their use.  The use of conical burials continued as a way to incorporate their dead in their rituals. Gone are the elaborate embankments, enclosures, sacred circles and elaborate geometric ceremonial centers. A new type of mound is introduced of a larger and higher scale; the platform pyramid or truncated mound. These square or rectangular mounds held homes for the elite and temples for worship. Often these domestic mounds had a large conical mound close by for the burial of their dead.

Part 1, The Adena  Part 2, The Hopewell

References: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry


Sacred Geography of Prehistoric natives of the Woodland Culture – part 2, The Hopewell

Hopewell: The Golden Age

Hopewell cultural practices brought about a new level of class distinction and social order as evidenced by various degrees of exotic and elaborate grave goods.  Hopewell cultural practices also included a mortuary cult overseen by a strong socio-religious ruling class.  The elaborate and centralized religion allowed control of worship and established a more effective social organization.  With the population under control of the religious ruling class, the construction of large earthworks and intensive agriculture was made possible.  The Ohio Hopewell is considered the golden age because of the high artistry and the great peace and prosperity the people enjoyed.

Religion and Ritual.  Hopewell burial customs frequently included the preparation of the dead in a charnel house where they would dismember and cremate the deceased.  The bones were then placed together in the grave called bundle burials. Grave goods such as mica indicate a belief in an afterlife.  Mirrors have long been associated with magic and some Native American groups believe them to be a gateway to another world.  The image is reversed and many Native Americans describe the other world as the reverse of ordinary life – day on earth, night on the other side.  The presence of mica suggests that the Hopewell believed the mirror-like quality would transport the individual to another, opposite world.

Earthworks:  Hopewell ceremonial sites included several small burials at a site opposed to one large mound as in the early Adena Culture.  Hopewell Culture earthworks also included large circular enclosures and geometric embankments.  Geometric embankments often surround mound sites such as Mounds City and major ceremonial centers such as Newark.  Hopewell ceremonial centers were also constructed on river terraces with nearby hamlets whereas many Adena ceremonial centers lacked nearby settlements.

Part 1, The Adena          ~          Part 3, The Mississippian

References: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry

Sacred Geography of Prehistoric natives of the Woodland Culture, part 1 – The Adena

 Archaeologists divide indigenous eastern North America into four periods: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, and Historic Native Americans, or post-European contact.  This series will only address Woodland culture. These terms are used to designate a general way of life.

 The Woodland Period occurred in three stages beginning about 1,000 BC and lasting until the European contact; these are the Adena, Hopewell and Mississippian.  Grave goods and ceremonialism of the Woodland Culture suggest a unifying belief system in an afterlife.

Adena:  The Classical Era

The Adena Culture was believed to be matrilineal and dominated by ruler priests.  The Adena were primarily a hunter-gatherer society supplemented by horticulture and lived in family sized seasonal campgrounds.

Religion and Ritual.  The Adena were concerned with maintaining or restoring order in their environment.  Death diminished and threatened stability of the community and interrupted the social order.  The dead played an important role in maintaining this order. The careful alignment of the body within the earth to a sunrise direction perhaps indicated a belief in an afterlife or reincarnation.  The ancestral bones represented the connection between the human and spiritual worlds and the placement of bones in the earth established a sacred territory. The conical earthworks that resulted from burials were symbols of a separate space.  The type of burial and associated ritual an individual would receive was based on their social status.  By the late Adena period, only the influential leaders of the community were honored with flesh burials.  The majority of the population was cremated.  Adena burials were used repeatedly for generations, demonstrating attachment to a particular place. Adena religion and ritual also centered on astronomical events with the worship of the sun, moon and stars.

Earthworks.  The burial cult began in early Adena Tradition, a survival of the Archaic Tradition.  Early mound building techniques produced large conical burial mounds that often were as much as 20 feet tall.  Mound building was a community endeavor, as the group would work together to build the mound by carrying basket loads of dirt.

The middle to late Adena Culture practiced enclosure earthwork construction.  Enclosure earthworks are usually found in groups of two to eight.  Archaeologists suggest such earthworks reveal that early Native American’s perception of nature was cyclical demonstrated in the circular shape of the earthworks.  Enclosure mounds can be circular, square, rectangular, oval, or the rare figure eight.

The development of early to late Adena Tradition is marked by the appearance of a distinctive earthwork – the sacred circle.  Sacred circles have the same features as smaller circular enclosures but are much larger with a circumference up to one-quarter mile in circumference and accompanied by smaller mounds to form ceremonial centers.  Sacred circles built by the Hopewell Culture can be as large as a mile in circumference, such as the Great Circle at Newark, Ohio.

Part 2, The Hopewell          ~          Part 3, The Mississippian

Reference: Geopiety and Landscape Perceptions at Mounds State Park, Anderson, Indiana by Barbara A Perry

Sacred Geography: Introduction

For many millennia people have found an emotional relationship with the earth. Land is set aside for special purposes such as national and state parks, historical battlefields and historical monuments, beaches, forests…you get the picture. But there is nothing more sacred than places religious in nature or connected to death. While churches and cemeteries are the most obvious sacred connection to the earth places connected to death hold our geographic hearts. Families don’t want to leave the town where a loved one is buried. Monuments at Pearl Harbor and the World Trade Center were erected in remembrance of tragedy. Many people including myself find solace in these sacred geographies.

The prehistoric people of the Midwest found a spiritual connection to the land and demonstrated it with sacred geometry. Earthen mounds or earthworks created in geometric figures such as circles, squares and octagons. Other earthworks include earthen walls, animal representations, flat top pyramids and conical (burial) mounds. Not only were the mounds themselves sacred but also their placement.

The mound in this photograph is a circle mound located at Mounds State Park in Indiana. Its construction includes three dips that align with other mounds in the complex as well as the winter solstice, equinoxes and stars. Experts believe that this geopiety, emotional and spiritual ties to the earth, drove early cultures to create such wonder places of worship that we enjoy today.