The Archaeology in Tennessee blog offers this brief photo essay as its contribution to the Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month festivities for 2015. The photo essay is followed by a number of related remarks.
Figure 1. Quote by Albert Einstein
Figure 2. Duck River Cache
Figure 3. Hightower Shell Gorget (Mortal Combat Theme)
Figure 4. Hightower Shell Gorget (Headsman Theme)
Figure 5. Cover of Tribes that Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region
Figure 6. Partially Shucked Ear of Maize
Figure 7. Mississippian Lithic Sword with Nipple-Like Elongation
(180-Degree Photograph Rotation Required for Comparison with Figure 6)
Figure 8. Two Hook-Shaped Artifacts in the Duck River Cache
Figure 9. Historical-era Euroamerican Knife Designed to Harvest Maize
German Physicist Albert Einstein believed that imagination is an important factor in the conduct of scientific research (Figure 1). Imagination can be used to formulate hypotheses pertinent to elucidating prehistoric human behavior. This brief photo essay and the accompanying text are used to demonstrate how imagination can be used to formulate three specific hypotheses about the nature and use of two well-known types of prehistoric lithic artifacts found on Mississippian period archaeological sites in Tennessee and other southeastern states. Both types of artifacts are present in the famous Duck River Cache.
The Duck River Cache (Figure 2) is a large collection of spectacular flaked chert artifacts (n = 46) that were accompanied at slightly greater depth by two statues (one male and one female) made of quartzite sandstone or siltstone (Seever 1897:141; Smith and Miller 2009: Appendix A). Prehistoric Native Americans had intentionally buried these artifacts on a large archaeological site dating to the Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1400) [Bass 1985]. These cached artifacts were first encountered by a local farm worker while plowing a field on his employer’s land. In the late 19th century, the precise spot where they were buried was located on the farm of Mr. Banks Link (the previously mentioned employer) [Seever 1897:141], and the site later became known in the Tennessee archaeological literature as the Link Farm site (40HS6). Site 40HS6 is located on the north bank of the Duck River near its confluence with the Tennessee River. It is in Humphreys County, Tennessee, which is on the far western edge of Middle Tennessee. Numerous Mississippian stone box burials were encountered during 19th century plowing on 40HS6 (Seever 1897:141).
Brehm (1984) has pulled together and published an excellent collection of short journal articles, papers, close-up photographs, and items of correspondence that collectively summarize the archaeology and history of the Duck River Cache. A similarly excellent synopsis of information and data on the Duck River Cache and the two stone statues is provided in Smith and Miller (2009:82-89 and Appendix A).
The longest Dover chert objects in the famous Duck River Cache are often referred to in the archaeological literature as swords (Figure 2). This is a historical Euroamerican name that was pinned on them long ago, and it has persisted in the archaeological literature for lack of a better term. They are too delicate to have been used as any sort of combat sword per se, and they have no edge wear or breakage patterns that would credibly indicate such a use. The fact of the matter is that no one knows for certain what these objects were called in ancient times or what they represented in the cultural context of the Mississippian period peoples inhabiting Middle Tennessee and other parts of the ancient Southeast.
Our best clue to their past use comes from two subtypes of Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets that depict human-like figures who are shown holding these swords high in their left hands. One shell gorget subtype (Figure 3) exhibits what has been termed the mortal combat theme wherein two mirror-image figures are confronting each other in either a combat or dance-like stance. Each individual holds a sword in their left hand and a hook-shaped object in their right hand at neck level, as if to cut off the head of its opponent. The other shell gorget subtype (Figure 4) exhibits the headsman theme wherein a single individual holds a sword in his left hand and a human trophy head in his right hand. In terms of Mississippian iconography, the anthropomorphic figures on the shell gorgets are birdmen (a.k.a. the single mythological narrative character known as Red Horn, Morning Star, or He Who Wears Human Heads as Earrings) infused with Lepidopteran (mothra) elements and motifs (Knight and Franke 2007; Reilly and Garber 2011). Trophy heads on the headsman-themed shell gorgets also exhibit mothra elements and motifs. The iconography on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets suggests that the delicate Duck River Cache swords from Middle Tennessee were sacred objects used only for special ceremonial purposes (Marceaux and Dye 2007:168-175).
In their book entitled Tribes That Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region, Thomas M. N. Lewis and Madeline Kneberg (1958) suggested that these ceremonial objects were used by dancers (Figure 5) in a prehistoric version of the Green Corn Ceremony (Busk), which was practiced by various historical-era Native American tribes living primarily east of the Mississippi River. The Creek Indian tribe of northern Georgia was one of those groups here in the American Southeast. This ceremony was conducted at the beginning of harvest time each year and was oriented toward ensuring a sufficient harvest of high-sugar dent corn (Zea mays).
If you ever take a close look at the many chert artifacts in the Duck River Cache, you will quickly realize that a number of these items appear to be chert effigies of various kinds (animal bodies, raptor talons, sun disks, human heads in profile as monolithic axes and maces, and the possible bronchi of deer lungs) [Figure 2]. For a few years, off and on and quite casually, I have imaginatively entertained the notion that the so-called swords in the Duck River Cache might also be effigy objects representing something tangible in the earthly realm.
What kind of effigy object? Well, one would intuitively suspect an effigy of some common and very important element in the daily life of Mississippian period peoples. The overall shape of the artifact and the morphological attributes that contribute to that shape are key, so one would have to ask: “What important aspect of Mississippian lifeways might have had a similar morphology in ancient times?” How about stylized unshucked or partially shucked ears of ripe maize at harvest time? Maize was the most important staple crop at all Mississippian sites, and the lives of the people depended upon it. From a subsistence perspective, the health and abundance of the annual maize crop was most certainly a life and death matter, and one would expect it to be closely tied to the ideological realm and ceremonial rituals of the people at a Mississippian period site.
The overall morphology of the chert swords and an ear of ripe maize are very similar, as may be seen in Figures 6 and 7. One end of the Duck River Cache swords exhibits a tapered, nipple-like elongation, and it is always located on only one end of each sword. This elongation may represent the peduncle that occurs only on the proximal end of every ear of ripe maize. Beyond this elongation, the two edges of the swords are wide apart at the bottom, and they taper gradually to the other ends of the swords in exactly the same way an ear of maize tapers to the tuft of silk on its distal end.
Hypothesis 1: The Dover chert swords in the Duck River Cache are effigies of ripe maize ears at harvest time.
Why are the swords in the Duck River Cache of different lengths? The various lengths of the swords in the Duck River Cache could represent varying expressions of ceremonially sought after levels of maize production, with the longest sword representing a maximum possible level of harvest and the shortest sword representing the minimally acceptable level of harvest needed to sustain a particular group of people and meet their social rank obligations. If so, this would further suggest that the high-ranking members of a Mississippian chiefdom and/or its religious practitioners had to be very cautious in negotiating a harvest request with entities residing in the spiritual realm. In other words, to avoid upsetting these entities, the annual ceremonial maize production request was required to be free of both greed and sloth, and it had to accurately reflect the actual projected subsistence needs and social obligations of the group for a given year. The various lengths of the swords may have been established to allow a highly ranked individual or religious practitioner to select just the right length of sword to use in harvest ceremonies in order to appropriately and symbolically communicate with the spiritual realm the sought after harvest level that would actually meet the projected level of subsistence needs and social rank obligations. One of the key factors affecting the selection of a certain length of sword for ceremonies and the concomitant annual level of need for maize may have been not just the amount needed for local subsistence—but also the amount of maize a local, highly ranked individual owed as tribute to higher ranking individuals at other Mississippian sites and mound centers—and this too might have varied from one year to another. Specifically, this is what is meant by the above term social rank obligation.
Hypothesis 2: Variations in the lengths of the Duck River Cache swords indicate different annual levels of maize harvest sought after by appeal to the spiritual realm via the human ceremonies in which the swords were used.
The hook-shaped objects in the right hands of the two anthropomorphic birdman figures in the Hightower shell gorgets displaying the mortal combat theme look very much like the hooked objects in the Duck River Cache, particularly the two shown in the bottom center of Figure 2. Based on their morphology, archaeologists often assume that these lithic artifacts must surely be effigies of raptor talons. This may very well be true, but there is another possibility. One has to ask a key question here. If the birdman figures on the shell gorgets already have razor sharp talons on both of their feet, why do they need a huge chert talon in their right hands?
It is a fact that morphology and function are closely related, and certain human tools can be independently invented by different cultures that are separated by time and/or geographic distance, simply because the same task in both cultures requires a tool with a particular morphology that is ideally suited to efficiently performing that task. If the chert swords in the Duck River Cache are effigies of maize ears, then the hook-shaped chert objects in the Duck River Cache (Figure 8) could be effigies of Mississippian period corn knives rather than effigies of raptor talons. It is interesting to note that one common type of historical-era corn knife (Figure 9) has a very similar hook-shaped morphology that is ideally suited to harvesting ears of maize. If the objects shown in the hands of the anthropomorphic figures on the Hightower mortal-combat-themed shell gorgets are symbols relating to maize and the harvesting of maize, then the depicted combat stances may instead be ceremonial dancing related to maize harvest ceremonies—like the Green Corn Ceremony posited long ago for this type of shell gorget by Lewis and Kneberg.
Hypothesis 3: The hook-shaped artifacts in the Duck River Cache are ceremonial effigies of Mississippian knives used to harvest maize.
Yes, I know these three hypotheses look somewhat dubious and left field at best—and are very much open to question. I too can come up with a number of really good reasons why these hypotheses could be far off base. For example, why does the birdman figure on the headsman-themed Hightower shell gorgets have a sword representing an ear of corn in his left hand and a severed head in his right hand? Ears of maize are not well-suited to the task of severing human heads! In addition, one could ask why the craftsmen in the Hightower shell gorget shop(s) did not just incise an obviously beautiful and detailed ear of maize onto the gorgets rather than something that looks like a sword weapon. It should also be pointed out that the three above hypotheses are predicated on a major, unstated, and untested presupposition—probably a fatal one. They may be keyed to the Green Corn Ceremony as known from the ethnographic record, but they presuppose that the activities shown on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets depict only fertility and harvest ceremonies conducted on the surface of the earth by mortal human beings.
The reader needs to understand that my main point here is not so much proper interpretation of the Duck River Cache swords and hook-shaped artifacts per se, but rather to simply demonstrate that hypotheses in American archaeology can be obtained from any source—even an imaginative one—if it seems to plausibly fit the known information and data sets to one degree or another. However, the really important thing here is that all hypotheses in American archaeology, regardless of their sources, are subject to testing when the means to do so become available. Then the hypotheses, no matter how good looking, how dubious looking, or how much infused with pitfalls, either sink or swim under the close scrutiny of objective, appropriate, and effective testing.
One other and perhaps more plausible interpretation of the swords and hooked artifacts in the Duck River Cache and on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets has been presented in recent years. Based on recent advancements in the study of Mississippian iconography, Marceaux and Dye (2007:165-184) have expressed the opinion that the activities shown on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets occur in the celestial realm, rather than on the surface of the Earth, and they reflect the activities of ancient, well-known mythological characters in Mississippian oral narratives. In this particular case, the celestial characters on the shell gorgets are most likely engaged in some form of mortal combat in the celestial realm and perhaps a dance of celebration after taking a trophy head in that combat. As such, the Duck River Cache swords and hook-shaped artifacts shown on the Hightower shell gorgets are special types of combat weapons native only to the celestial realm and functional for combat without breakage only in that realm. The delicate chert swords and hook-shaped artifacts found in archaeological context on Mississippian period sites are man-made ceremonial versions of these celestial weapons. These man-made chert swords and hook-shaped artifacts, along with other ritual paraphernalia, were used as part of earthly ceremonies in which high-ranking Mississippian individuals recapitulated the celestial combat in their ancient mythological narratives. Regularly putting on this ceremonial display for all of the people living on a Mississippian site directly and symbolically tied these high-ranking individuals (and the rank groups they represented) to these famous narrative characters and the great power of the celestial realm in which they lived and operated. This ceremonial tying together of the earthly to the celestial helped to further legitimate and cement the on-site social ranks and the authority highly ranked individuals and groups held over the general population of a Mississippian mound site and/or chiefdom.
Thank you for reading this post to the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. We sincerely hope this special post for Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month will spike your imagination and create more public interest in the archaeology of Tennessee.
Bass, Quentin R., II 1985. Sociopolitical and Economic Aspects of the Mississippian Occupation in the Lower Tennessee River Valley. Manuscript on File, Middle Cumberland Mississippian Survey Project, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
Brehm, H.C. 1984. Duck River Cache: Tennessee’s Greatest Archaeological Find. Mini-Histories, Nashville, Tennessee.
Knight, Vernon James and Judith A. Franke 2007. Identification of a Moth/Butterfly Supernatural in Mississippian Art. In Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography (Chapter 6). Edited by F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber, University of Texas Press, Austin Texas.
Lewis, Thomas M.N. and Madeline Kneberg 1958. Tribes That Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Marceaux, Shawn and David H. Dye 2007. Hightower Anthropometric Marine Shell Gorgets and Duck River Sword-Form Flint Bifaces: Middle Mississippian Ritual Regalia in the Southern Appalachians. In Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology, Content, Context. Edited by Adam King. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Reilly, F. Kent III and James F. Garber 2011. Dancing in the Other World: The Human Figural Art of the Hightower Style Revisited. In Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World (Chapter 13). Edited by George E. Lankford, F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber. University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.
Seever, William J. 1897. A Cache of Idols and Chipped Flint Instruments in Tennessee. The Antiquarian 1(6): 141-145.
Smith, Kevin E. and James V. Miller 2009. Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.