Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology, Content, Contest

Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology, Content, Contest

by Adam King

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A timely, comprehensive reevaluation of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

One of the most venerable concepts in Southeastern archaeology is that of the Southern Cult. The idea has its roots in the intensely productive decade (archaeologically) of the 1930s and is fundamentally tied to yet another venerable concept—Mississippian culture. The last


A timely, comprehensive reevaluation of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex.

One of the most venerable concepts in Southeastern archaeology is that of the Southern Cult. The idea has its roots in the intensely productive decade (archaeologically) of the 1930s and is fundamentally tied to yet another venerable concept—Mississippian culture. The last comprehensive study of the melding of these two concepts into the term Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC) is more than two decades old, yet our understanding of the objects, themes, and artistic styles associated with the SECC have changed a great deal. New primary data have come to light that bear directly on the complex, requiring a thorough reanalysis of both concepts and dating. Recent publications have ignited many debates about the dating and the nature of the SECC.

This work presents new data and new ideas on the temporal and social contexts, artistic styles, and symbolic themes included in the complex. It also demonstrates that engraved shell gorgets, along with other SECC materials, were produced before A.D. 1400.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"This book assembles a number of papers by regional specialists to correct dating errors in other publications while advancing knowledge of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex"
—Marvin T. Smith, Valdosta State University

"I strongly recommend this book to learn of the glory and richness of late prehistoric southeastern culture and the vigorous scholarship of its investigators."
Early Georgia

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Dan Josselyn Memorial Publication Ser.
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

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Southeastern Ceremonial Complex
Chronology, Content, Context

Copyright © 2007 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-5409-1

Chapter One
The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

From Cult to Complex Adam King

It is now 23 years since the Cottonlandia Conference brought together a collection of notable scholars to review current perspectives on that most venerable of concepts in the southeastern United States, the Southern Cult (Galloway, ed. 1989). The concept, which has its roots in the intensely productive decade of the 1930s, has a history that is both as long as and fundamentally tied to yet another venerable concept in southeastern archaeology: Mississippian. In 1984, as it is today, it was clear that our understanding of the objects, themes, and artistic styles associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC) has changed a great deal, and it is equally clear that this complex is much more complex than once thought.

Since the publishing of The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Artifacts and Analysis, new primary data have come to light that bear directly on the complex, and new theoretical approaches have continued to ask us to view it in new ways. Also in that time, Jeffrey P. Brain and Philip Phillips (1996) published a major work on engraved shell gorget styles, which has reignited many debates about the dating and nature of the SECC and reinvigorated studies of the complex. Given the circumstances, the contributors to this volume saw that the time was right to bring together and present these new data and perspectives on the SECC.

The purpose here is not to present a single, unified conception of the SECC but rather to present new data and new ideas on the temporal and social contexts of the objects, artistic styles, and symbolic themes included in the complex. In fact, it will become clear that there is no single, unified perspective on the meaning, function, or content of the SECC precisely because the SECC was not a single, monolithic ceremonial complex, artistic tradition, or belief system. Despite this, for simplicity's sake I will continue to refer to this complex as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex or SECC.

The purpose of this chapter is to create a context for the contributions that follow by briefly reviewing the development of our conceptions of the SECC and the research that it has engendered. I organize this review around a series of publications that I consider to be watershed contributions in the history of the SECC. The reader is referred to Brown (2001a), Brown and Kelly (2000), Galloway (1989), and Williams (1968) for other fine reviews of the development of the SECC.

From the Warrior Cult to the Southern Cult (1931 to 1968)

The first watershed publication on the SECC came in 1945 with the publication of "A Prehistoric Ceremonial Complex in the Southeastern United States" by Antonio Waring and Preston Holder (see Waring and Holder 1945). While this article is recognized by most as an important early work on the topic, it more than anything represents a systematic explication of ideas that were current in the 1930s. This is not to say that there is nothing original in the article, but it is important to recognize that it is a concrete statement that grew out of a larger debate occurring at the time (see Williams 1968). The earliest published discussion of some kind of cult or complex in the late prehistoric Southeast came from Spinden (1931), who suggested the presence of a "warrior cult" that was introduced from Mexico. Later in the 1930s while completing his dissertation at Harvard, Phillips (1940) concluded, as Williams (1968:6) notes, "quite independently," that the exotic materials known from places like Etowah, Moundville, and Spiro could be explained as part of an "eagle warrior complex" that spread rapidly by a small number of people from Mexico.

At roughly the same time, a "southeastern version" of a hypothesis to explain those same data was formulated. In 1937, Waring hosted an informal meeting in Savannah in which he and Holder, with James A. Ford and Gordon R. Willey in attendance, formalized their ideas about a Southern Cult that swept across the Southeast like the Ghost Dance would do in the West centuries later (see Williams 1968:6). Although their paper was not published until after the war, it was in large part finished and available to Ford and Willey when they published their influential synthesis on eastern archaeology (see Ford and Willey 1941). In that paper, Ford and Willey noted a "curious cult," which they called the Southern Cult and which was in large measure the concept later elaborated upon by Waring and Holder.

In their influential article, Waring and Holder proposed several key points that were to define the understanding of the SECC for many years to come, and to some extent that influence is still felt today. Using a trait list approach they argued that there was a high degree of similarity in the motifs and artifact forms used over a wide area, suggesting to them the existence of some kind of cult or cult complex. That complex was formulated in a single or a small number of communities in the Mississippi Valley late in prehistory. Elements of the complex were introduced from Middle America and they spread rapidly from center to center, where they were altered somewhat to fit local ceremonial practices and economies. In Waring and Holder's conception, the cult appeared suddenly and disappeared almost as quickly.

The ideas put forth in this article spurred a series of debates centering on the nature, origins, and dating of the SECC. As we will see, some of these debates carry on to this day. Concerning the nature of the SECC, as the term Southern Cult implies, these early notions (see Ford and Willey 1941; Phillips 1940; Spinden 1931; Waring and Holder 1945) conceived of the SECC as the material remains of a fast- spreading cult or complex of cults. For example, Ford and Willey (1941) argued that the SECC was a religious revival similar to the Ghost Dance and also may have been a reaction to the rapid population declines caused by the coming of Europeans. Griffin (1944) countered, seconded by Waring (1968a), that rather than a culture in decline, it appeared that the groups associated with the SECC were still at their peak. For Phillips (1940) the spread came as waves of Middle American influence impacted population centers. Waring and Holder (1945) argued that the spread originated from one or a small number of local centers and likely occurred along with the migration of "Middle Mississippian" populations.

Waring (1968a) later developed a more nuanced explanation after demonstrating clear connections between SECC symbolism and ritual themes and symbolism historically documented among the Creeks and other Muskogean speakers. He argued that the SECC crystallized after the Middle Mississippian expansion and emerged within a network of Middle Mississippian-influenced communities. The cult built on existing ceremonial similarities and was born out of a desire to reunify increasingly distant Middle Mississippian cultural groups. As Waring (1968a:66-67) described it, "the Cult may have been an effort to refurbish and to restandardize the old ceremonial on one hand, and an attempt to give some political unity to scattered groups on the other. In other words, the Cult may have been a real religious revival with a strong proselytizing element at work, and in this respect, is comparable to the historic Ghost Dance."

The whole notion that the SECC represented a true cult was called into question in a roundtable discussion held at the 1947 Society for American Archaeology meeting and led by Griffin (see Waring 1948). In that discussion, Phillips expressed dissatisfaction with the use of the term and questioned whether they understood the true meaning of the SECC material. Holder indicated that he and Waring had used cult as a convenient term and did not believe that the SECC represented an actual cult. In that same session, Griffin argued that the SECC was not a single manifestation but was instead a series of complexes, earlier in some places such as Spiro and in others clearly influenced by Huastecan cultures. Somewhat later, Waring (1968a, probably written in the mid-1940s; see Williams 1968:7) echoed Holder's uncertainty about the cult concept.

Following in the footsteps of Willoughby (1932), Waring (1968a) demonstrated the clear connections between SECC content and ritual themes and symbolism historically documented among the Creeks and other Muskogean speakers. Like Waring, Howard (1968) also examined Muskogean historical sources for connections to the SECC, but he took the pursuit further and included ethnographic investigations as well. While Howard saw the messianic or revitalization movement model as the most economical way to explain the development of the SECC, he rejected the idea of a cult given the connotations of secrecy and exclusivity implied by the concept.

Intended or not, these studies fostered the notion that the SECC was intimately connected to the development of historically precedent Mississippian cultures. This same realization no doubt led Griffin (1952a, 1966) to consider the SECC the ceremonial culture of the Mississippian period rather than some type of cult or revitalization movement. In what strikes me as a very underappreciated article, Krieger (1945:490), much earlier than anyone else, argued against the messianic movement model and instead suggested the SECC reflected the "beliefs in ritualisms, in supernatural creatures and their magic powers, division of the universe into quarters or 'winds' [and] perhaps also matters of social status, rank, heraldry, and other aspects of the mental life of the times."

Discussions about the origins of the materials associated with the SECC predated the actual formulation of the Southern Cult concept, as a wide variety of authors noted early on the resemblance to Mesoamerican art and symbolism (see Bennett 1944; Holmes 1883, 1903; Mason 1937; Moore 1907; Nuttall 1932; Spinden 1913; Willoughby 1932; Thomas 1894). While many of the early cult authors accepted the Mexican connection (see, for example, Ford and Willey 1941; Griffin 1944; Phillips 1940; Waring and Holder 1945), Krieger (1945) was the first to proffer an argument against that perspective. In a single sentence, Krieger (1945:512) succinctly communicated a sentiment that many have echoed since concerning Mesoamerican influences on southeastern societies: "In all of this, there is little purpose in underrating the ability of Southeastern Indians to produce an elaborate and complex religious movement of their own, with only moderate help from the south or any other direction." Krieger's perspective ultimately won the day (see, for example, Griffin 1952a, 1966; Howard 1968), but, as I will discuss, this issue has not yet been retired.

In terms of dating, it was well understood that the SECC occurred in archaeological contexts late in the prehistoric sequences of the Southeast and Midwest. Before the advent of radiocarbon dating, more precise estimates were not easily derived. One of the earliest specific statements about the dating of the SECC came with Griffin's (1944) hypothesis that it was introduced into the Southeast by native Mexicans brought into the region between 1559 and 1561 by the Luna expedition. This suggestion was countered by Waring (1945), who was able to show, using the stratigraphic position of cult materials and by cross dating aboriginal ceramic complexes with European materials, that most of the Southern Cult material predated de Soto (see also Krieger 1945).

As more was learned about the contexts from which SECC material was recovered, it became clear that there was a longer history to the complex than first thought. At the 1954 meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference held at Moundville, Waring (1968b) suggested that the SECC could be divided into Formative, Developed, and Attenuated phases. With the wider application of the radiocarbon dating technique, it became apparent to many that the bulk of the SECC goods were found in contexts assignable to the period between a.d. 1200 and 1400 (Griffin 1952b; Howard 1968).

Reconsidering the Southern Cult (1971 to 1986)

The influence of the New Archaeology was felt on SECC studies in the late 1960s when SECC goods began to figure prominently in mortuary treatment studies such as the classic Approaches to the Social Dimensions of Mortuary Practices, edited by James A. Brown (Brown, ed. 1971). While that volume did not focus on the SECC per se, articles on the three big "cult" centers of Moundville (Peebles 1971), Etowah (Larson 1971), and Spiro (Brown 1971) clearly showed that SECC materials functioned in part as markers of elevated status and political leadership. These were written around the same time that Brown's (1966, 1971) work with the burials at Spiro was published and were followed by Hatch's (1974, 1976a, 1976b) classic studies of Dallas mortuary practices and Peebles and Kus's (1977) statistical treatment of social ranking at Moundville. All of these publications served to shift the emphasis of SECC studies away from the "cult" as a monolithic entity to be defined and toward understanding how SECC goods functioned in larger social systems.

Out of this context grew a second watershed article in SECC studies, Brown's (1976a) "The Southern Cult Reconsidered." In it Brown (1976a:120) laid out the limitations of the trait list approach begun by Waring and Holder, which he argued placed too much emphasis on classification and ignored "functional interrelationships and cultural context of its elements." Following up on many of the debates from decades earlier, Brown argued that the SECC was not the result of extraordinary historical circumstances as Ford and Willey (1941) had suggested and it was not the product of a single historically known group (cf. Waring 1968a). Rather than a cult, Brown saw the SECC as the product of an interregional interaction sphere that included many different style systems. The artifacts and motifs included in the SECC had as much to do with the hierarchical ranking structure inherent in chiefdoms as they did with religious beliefs.

Brown suggested that most of the motifs and artifacts included in the SECC could be related to three organizational networks of social power operating in Mississippian hierarchical society. The first of these he referred to as "cult paraphernalia," which encompassed symbols, badges, and other art motifs including sociotechnic artifacts like ceremonial maces, celts, and chert blades. The second so-called organizational network of power focused on the "Conceptual Core" of the SECC, which focused on the association of the falcon with warfare and possibly the specific role of the war captain at Spiro. Symbolically, it included representations of the falcon, the falcon impersonator of the famous Rogan plates from Etowah, and the associated trappings of these individuals. The third network of power centered on the mortuary temple and included the stone figurines and skeletal art motifs, human masks, and head pots.

This landmark publication injected three important concerns into SECC studies that are still with us today. The first is an interest in understanding the social context of SECC goods and the interrelationships among different elements of the SECC. The second is the idea that the SECC essentially was a regional interaction network intimately associated with elites and ranking. The final concern, no doubt resulting from Brown's own involvement in SECC style studies (Phillips and Brown 1978), was the recognition that the SECC was made up of a series of different styles, each with its own geography and history. Each of these ideas has shaped and continues to shape SECC studies today.

Not long after the publication of Brown's "The Southern Cult Reconsidered," the first of the two remarkable volumes by Phillips and Brown (1978) on the shell engravings from Spiro was published. The second followed a few years later (Phillips and Brown 1984). While these volumes did not represent the first formal treatment of artistic style in the Southeast (see Muller 1966a, 1966b), together they presented by far the most thorough exploration of style in the region. Using a methodology comfortable to art historians, the authors made a great deal of sense of the large and diverse corpus of engraved shell recovered from Spiro in Oklahoma. They identified two distinct schools, Braden and Craig, each with a series of subcategories or phases that could be arranged chronologically. The authors grappled with the problems presented by the presence of more than one school at Spiro and the connections between these two schools; ultimately they did not come to a resolution that satisfied them. They did demonstrate that the Braden style had more connections to styles of the East than Craig and also noted that it was "more deeply rooted in Southeastern prehistory than Craig" (Phillips and Brown 1984:6:xvi). As we will see, Brown and colleagues have since been able to make more sense of this puzzle.


Excerpted from Southeastern Ceremonial Complex Copyright © 2007 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Adam King is an archaeologist with the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.

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