By Gayle Keck |

The twenty-first century is awash in symbols, from religious images to branding; from road signs to emojis. Now, imagine that we had no written language to add context or meaning to those symbols. An archaeologist 1,000 years in the future could easily conclude that “no parking” icons mark roadside shrines, the Nike “swoosh” endows supernatural powers, and that facial emojis represent our pantheon of gods.

A sixteenth century shell gorget featuring a rattlesnake with human-like teeth and a stylized rattle that suggest it has transformed from human to snake. Snakes are considered to be occupants of the Beneath World of the cosmos, and they are often associated with warfare. | Credit: Research Laboratories of Archaeology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
A marine shell gorget with a cross-and-circle motif. This motif has been found across the Southeast and is believed to represent the sacred four-log fire to connect and communicate with the Above World. | Credit Shawn Lambert
This half-human, half-owl bottle reflects Native American beliefs in beings that are part human and part owl. In their cosmology witches could transforms themselves into owls to practice witchcraft. This bottle would have been venerated as a living being to be honored and supplicated for its powers over death and life. | Credit: Courtesy of the Penn Museum, object no. 11571. Photograph by David H. Dye.


A replica of a Spiro engraved beaker made by the Caddo people. The vessel is adorned with four intricate double spiral panels, divided by a series of engraved lines and circles. The true meaning of this imagery is unknown but thought to correspond with Caddo’s perceptions of and connection to other life worlds and non-human beings. | Credit: Shawn Lambert

That analogy illustrates the dilemma archaeologists face when trying to interpret Mississippian iconography. The Mississippians were a culture rich in symbols, but lacking a script that might give us clues to understand those symbols. A new book, New Methods and Theories for Analyzing Mississippian Imagery, offers some fascinating interpretations, using techniques that include assembling large datasets, historical accounts, and knowledge obtained from descendent communities.

Many of the book’s insights build on findings from the annual Mississippian Iconographic Workshop—where archaeologists, anthropologists, Native Americans, art historians, ethno-historians, and folklorists gather to analyze Mississippian symbols—but with some fresh perspectives. “This book represents a new generation of archaeologists and iconographers reconceptualizing how to look at imagery,” said co-editor Shawn Lambert, of Mississippi State University. Fellow editor Bretton T. Giles, of Kansas State University, explained, “Different ways of thinking about material symbols and how they can be intertwined with social memory and mnemonics can be important to understanding human history and how different societies remember.”


This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.  

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