Saturday, March 16, 2013

French Artifacts of Mississippian Life

In my particular corner of archaeology, we read the accounts written by the French during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to better understand what life was like in colonial communities, and also to get a glimpse of native traditions and beliefs that were not written down by those who practiced them. Both the French and native traditions of the period were a mixture of the ancient and the then-modern.

There are some observations by the French, made in the southern Mississippi River Valley during the early eighteenth century, which provide particularly elusive glimpses of something that was more ancient than modern at the time. These accounts record the last echoes of Mississippian cultural practices that dated back to the eleventh century, and which were largely abandoned and forgotten in native communities by the time of the arrival of Europeans in North America. In a way, what the French saw at a village in modern-day southwestern Mississippi was a view back into time - even then.

Temple mound at the Grand Village of the Natchez.
Some of my favorite passages relate to a temple that sat atop a flat-topped mound at the Grand Village of the Natchez. Inside was a sacred fire that burned day and night, as well as a number of baskets inside of which were kept the bones of the previous leaders of the community, who were known as the “Suns”. The descriptions of the temple, made just before the ancient practices that constructed them came to an end, provide views that we can never really approach when we dig into the ground.

“There is no window, no chimney, in this temple, and it is only by the light of the fire that you can see a little, and then the door, which is very low and narrow, must be open… The old man who is the keeper keeps the fire up and takes care not to let it go out. It is in the center of the temple, in front of a sort of mausoleum…This would be rather graceful were it not all blackened with smoke and covered with soot. There is a large mat, which serves as a curtain to cover a large table… on which stands a large basket that is unlawful to open…”

“I saw a number of little earthen pots, platters, and cups, and little cane baskets, all well made. This is to serve up the food to the spirits of the deceased chiefs...”

“The interior of this temple is divided into two unequal parts by a little wall which cuts it from the rising to the setting sun. The part into which one enters may be 20 feet wide and the other may be 10, but in this second part it is extremely gloomy… There is nothing remarkable in the inside of the temple except a table or altar about 4 feet high and 6 long by 2 broad. On this table is a coffer made of cane splints very well worked, in which are the bones of the last great Sun. The eternal fire is in the first part of this temple. In the other and more secluded part nothing can be distinguished except two planks worked by hand on which are many minute carvings which one is unable to make out, owing to the insufficient light.”

Mississippian figurine (wood) from the Spiro Mounds.
There are also a few drawings of what the French saw at Natchez. The image below is particularly haunting. It illustrates the funeral of the “Tattooed Serpent”, who was the brother of the spiritual and political leader of the Natchez nation. Note how the route of the funeral procession is depicted with a simple looped line. What kind of artifact from the ground could provide such a view? Meanwhile, eight villagers are ritually strangled as the body passes by, on its way to the temple on top of the mound. It is difficult to overstate the value of these accounts and drawings today.

The funeral of the Tattooed Serpent.
The site of the Grand Village is still there today. The mounds on which the temples stood are covered in well-mown grass, and the place is now a quiet park. Follow the Natchez Trace, one of the oldest roads in the country, to where it meets the Mississippi River.  Stand on the low mounds and remember the fire that burned day and night.

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