July 7, 2003 CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Thanks in part to new spectroscopic technology, researchers have solved a great mystery concerning some of North America's oldest pieces of sculpture.
With the use of PIMA -- a non-invasive Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer -- an interdisciplinary team of scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has identified the source and meaning of "spectacular late prehistoric" figurines found in several locales in the South and the Southeast -- in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
According to lead researcher Thomas Emerson, an archaeologist and the director of ITARP (Illinois Transportation Archaeological Research Program), the figurines were made of Missouri flint clay from quarries near St. Louis. Artisans at Cahokia, the earliest and largest North American mound society, which was centered in southern Illinois, in all likelihood produced the iconic figurines in the 12th century during an "artistic explosion," but the objects were moved at various times and to various places, where they eventually were found.
There now is evidence that after they were moved, some of the flint clay icons were recarved and retrofitted as smoking pipes, indicating a radical change in their significance. "There is a vast difference between bowing to an ancestral being and smoking one," Emerson said.
The figures appear to have been disbursed only after Cahokia began to decline in the middle or late 13th century, suggesting that the transfers were associated with "the collapse of the old order." Determining when Cahokia-made figures arrived at their new locations "is an important link in the interpretive chain," the researchers wrote in the spring/summer issue of American Antiquity.
In their research, Emerson and his team analyzed 13 museum specimens originally found in the South and Southeast to identify the mineral composition of the raw material. Figures included a resting and a conquering warrior, various squatting and kneeling men, frogs and frog pipes and a "chunky" game player. Cahokian-style figurines are characterized by a highly developed realistic portrayal of human or near-human figures; they are dressed in specific costumes and shown carrying out specific deeds. Occasionally, however, they seem to portray mythical acts or beings.
The transported figures probably were used for long periods of time in their new locations. Their importance "doesn't lie in economic power but rather in symbolic and ideological power."
The association of these highly symbolic figures with Cahokia allowed the researchers to propose that many of the themes -- for example, fertility and warfare -- that later appear in Eastern Woodlands native cosmology, such as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex," were first codified in Cahokia in the 12th century."
Other researchers were Randall Hughes, Illinois State Geological Survey; Mary R. Hynes, ITARP; and Sarah U. Wisseman, Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials.
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