Monday, January 12, 2015

Etowah: Trade Center of the Mississippian Culture, a guest post by Kristin Gleeson

When Kristin Gleeson first mentioned her idea to contribute an essay about Etowah, I was intrigued and expressed interest in learning more.  Here she presents an introduction to it and other large American cities that flourished across the continent before the Europeans arrived.


Etowah: Trade Center of the Mississippian Culture
Kristin Gleeson

Twelfth-century America is the setting for a large portion of my novel, Along the Far Shores, which uses the legend of Prince Madog of Wales’ voyage to America as a framework for the plot. The legend puts Madog/Madoc in Mobile Bay and up along the Mississippian Valley, in Southeastern part of North America, an area and time period virtually unknown to most people.

Mention the Aztec, Maya and Inca, whose existence overlapped in this time, and so many images come to mind: pyramid temples, gold hoards, bloody sacrifices, elaborate sculptures and ball games where the losing sides were sacrificed. There is also the well-known story of the Aztec chief, Montezuma, who was captured and eventually killed by the Spaniards in the 15th century. Few people, however, would know about the Mississippian culture, which flourished for almost 900 years, c. 600-1500 A.D., and, like the more well-known Central and South American counterparts, had great urban centers, some of them more populous than any city of Europe at the time.

It was along the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries that these cities arose. Ocmulgee, Etowah, Cahokia, Moundville and Spiro were some of the biggest cities. The region stretched from the Atlantic coast to Arkansas and Oklahoma and up as far as Wisconsin. A new strain of maize and later Mexican beans and squash supported this growing population that previously had been limited by dependence for food on game or fish that might be scarce in any given year. With a reliable food source, these communities were able to turn their attention to fashioning pottery, pipes, cups, jewelry, head ornaments of feathers and copper, wooden and stone sculptures, woven articles, cloth and copper products. The pipes, for example, used often for ceremonial purposes, were elaborately carved from materials like obsidian or bauxite into mythical figures such as Big Boy, the warrior priest dressed in a falcon costume, who also appeared on shells and copper plates. Or like the two sculpted marble figures, a man and a woman, nearly 3 feet tall found at Etowah.

Marble effigies from the Etowah Mound C, ca. 1375.  Source: Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons

All these items Etowah and other cities traded along with raw commodities like obsidian, gold, silver and conch shells. Trade grew into important networks that linked much of the Midwest and East. Such links offered many chances for sharing and improving skills, acquiring or modifying languages, religious and cultural practices.

Etowah, located in north central Georgia, was one of the largest cities of the Mississippian culture, and its remains are still evident. Surrounded by a moat and a bastioned wooden palisade, it had six earthen mounds that loomed over the city. The three largest mounds were grouped around a large plaza, the most central one rising 61 feet with a base that covered about 3 acres. Its flattened top extended to about ¾ size of a football field and commanded an impressive view of the surrounding plain. A second plaza, paved with clay was to the east and had a ramp that extended from the plaza to the summit of the first mound.

A pic of the Etowah Mound Site in Cartersville, Ga.  Source: Herb Roe via Wikimedia Commons

In later centuries a small elite, The Nobles/Honored Men, lived on top of the mounds near to the all-important temple. Their houses were colorfully painted and decorated with elaborate designs and housed richly carved items. The commoners living in the plains below the nobles dubbed “the Stinkards.” The Great Sun was the leader and his relatives, known as Suns, held the city’s administrative positions. The political dominance of this elite group usually extended beyond the city to the surrounding areas, where lesser chiefs ruled small towns. All members of the region and the city were obligated to send tribute to the Great Sun periodically. Once the Great Sun died, this strong regional network often fragmented if there wasn’t a strong person to replace him.

Etowah and the other cities remained largely autonomous, but extensive economic and kin ties created far-flung alliances and rivalries so that the competition for power and prestige gradually intensified over the centuries. Ancestral obligations became more important, as did celebrations of successful harvests, hunts and warfare.

Other rituals, like ball games, became increasingly important and had deep religious connections. It is possible these ball games may have been the origin of the popular Boskita and Chunkey played in parts of the Southeast in later times. Boskita was like an earlier form of lacrosse with up to 60 players on each side, with up to five squads. Players carried two sticks shaped somewhat like a tennis rackets strung with deer hide thongs. The field was nearly a quarter of a mile long with a goal at each end formed by two uprights and a crossbar. Chunkey, on the other hand, was played with a disk, 3 to 6 inches in diameter, made from stone. These ball games appear to have had various meanings, some of them representing man and the cosmos.

With the arrival of De Soto and other Europeans in the 1500s, disease and disorder overtook the Mississippian cities that weren’t already in decline and decimated the population. There were too few people to construct massive earthworks, host elaborate rituals and celebrations or pay tribute to an exalted leader on the scale of previous time periods. Smaller bands and communities survived and eked their living to the best of their ability while only remnants of rituals and crafts remained.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she teaches art classes, plays harp, sings in an Irish choir and runs two book clubs for the village library. She combines her love of myths with her harp playing and performed as a professional harper/storyteller at events in Britain, America and Ireland. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. Her newest novel, Along the Far Shores, was published in November by An Tig Beag ($12.99 pb, $2.99 ebook).

No comments:

Post a Comment