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America before Columbus: a Mississippian view of the cosmos

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the National Museum of the American Indian looking at a gorge at this is a neck ornament it's only a few inches high but it's very finely carved made out of shale so the material probably came from the Gulf of Mexico but the object was found in the middle of Tennessee in a large town site called Castilian Springs that was active about 1,200 to 1,300 right in the middle of what we call the Mississippian period and it was found in a burial mound it was excavated in 1891 by an amateur named William Meier we know from his notes that the burial mound had over 100 burials in it but this burial was one of the earliest read at the base of the mound and it was unusually elaborate there was not only this courgette but there are others one placed on his or her throat the others gathered and a little bundle between it his or her feet he or she had shell beads and pearl beads and other ornaments as well so it's a very important individual that very likely was important to the founding of the site so let's define them as a sybian period it's a number of different ways of organizing society that maximized the ability to grow corn beans and squash but particularly corn and bottom land areas so that's why the big towns are often located on rivers and then an ideologies a of thinking about the world which includes in mythology stories culture heroes and how this ties to the political authority so during the Mississippian period we see the growth of towns often characterized by mounds by fortifications and by plazas in front of the mounds when the characteristic aspects of Mississippi and architecture is what we call the platform mound which is a big earthen structure the flat top and what you don't see today was that there was a wooden structure on top often a residence for an important person or a temple the original Mississippian town was the city of Cahokia this was the biggest city in North America with upwards of 30,000 people small towns and larger towns spread out from Cahokia taking the ideology taking the corn growing technology taking the art style and spreading it out across a lot of eastern North America the interesting thing is that evidently it's multi-ethnic so it's not simply a single people or culture expanding but the ideas and the object associate of those ideas expanding across the country and being adopted by local traditions Cahokia dispersed about 1350 or so but the present-day Osage Ponca Quapaw kenza are very likely the descendants of Cahokia people so when we think about what the Europeans saw when they came here we can sometimes fall into thinking about it as a wilderness but in fact there were major cities here like Cahokia we're accustomed to thinking of North America as a wilderness but I remind people often of DeSoto's journey across the southeast where he encountered one big Mississippian town after another until he got to the Mississippi Valley and their their fortified towns up and down the Mississippi so let's talk about this courgette and it's beautiful carving we see a figure who appears to be running or in motion his right knee is bent his left leg is bent behind him and his right arm holds a head and the left arm holds a weapon a mace there are many of these gorges they're exchanged between the different towns among leaders and to own one was a testimony to your status as a leader there are elements of some Osage stories that kind of fit the design that we see here look carefully you'll see the figure has this odd fork shape around his eyes that is a reference to a marking on a bird a peregrine falcon we know from other courgettes like this where there are figures that have more bird attributes they may have wings they may have talons so this figure has a human form but he also has a bird form and so we believe that this figure that we see in Mississippi and iconography is linked to a culture hero named Morningstar well we call a morning star and morning star of course is the planet Venus the morning it rises in the sky just before the Sun and as the Sun sets it descends right after the Sun so the story that corresponds to this and we think fits pretty well is that the morning star a falcon and his twin brother traveled to the underworld to retrieve the remains of their deceased father who had been captured and so he's holding the remains of his father as he rises into the sky and this is a story that has to do with birth and death and regeneration regeneration which is tied to agriculture of course because you plant your seeds and you hope things grow from them and so this cycle of regeneration the cycle of life and death has tied the human world it's tied to the agricultural world and it's symbolized in mythology and images you see like this the circular shape of this quartet emphasized by the circles and sized around the edges I think makes that point too about cycles of life and death and regeneration I think so images of this Birdman Morningstar figure I found and cave art rock art locations all throughout this area of the Midwest and another media as well sometimes in copper the figure is head up but we can see on the right two small circles and so we know that the figure that we see on the gorget would have looked up at the wearer pulling the head of the deceased father if that's in fact who he is up into the sky world in Mississippian ideas of the supernatural we have a world above and a world below with the earthly in the center a customary way of thinking about this in the native world is that the earth is a disk and it faces the sky during the day but as it turns it faces the night sky the underworld that rises up above our terrestrial world he's heavily adorned he wears a necklace made of beads he's got beads around his legs this elaborate loincloth and a really fabulous headdress - and ear spools never very likely made of local mica he's holding that wonderful mace made of stone in one hand the headdress has this odd configuration which may also relate to this Morningstar story where bows and arrows play a prominent part but there is a Mississippian style of bow they put tufts of feathers on either end but you're represented as like little balls so that is another symbol that's associated with this story and with a Birdman figure we're so fortunate to have this courgette to remind us of these complex cultures that lived in North America before contact before European colonization and the rich legacy of art making these kinds of objects circulated among different people of leadership and authority they are incredibly complex in their iconography to convey these complicated ideas so it's a rich visual legacy which you probably haven't paid as much attention to as we should [Music]