The Mississippian Period (A.D. 900 - 1550)

With the inception of the Mississippian Period, a new way of life began which embraced new kinds of technology and a new relationship to the environment. Cultures with Mississippian characteristics began to flourish in the Mid-South around A.D. 800 or 900, and peaked around A.D. 1200 to 1500.

The widespread adoption of maize provided a new food source which encouraged permanent (year-round) settlements and growth of populations. Intensive corn agriculture, supplemented with squash, and beans (after A.D. 1200) provided a surplus of food that could be easily stored and traded. Use of the bow and arrow, tipped with small triangular points, greatly increased hunting efficiency. Advances were also made in pottery technology. Shell-tempering provided stronger vessels and increased cooking efficiency. A variety of vessel forms began to be used and included jars, bowls, bottles, pans, and plates. Also, vessels were made that depicted animals or people (known as effigy vessels), as well as intricately engraved, incised, or painted vessels. The spread of these Mississippian culture traits was facilitated by a vast and widespread trade network.

Mississippian period settlements were located predominantly in the floodplains of large rivers. These flooplains offered rich, well-drained, easily tilled soils conducive to the cultivation of maize, squash, and beans. Nearby fish and waterfowl were readily available in these locations and provided an additional source of protein. Also, the harvesting of wild foods, such as nuts and fruits, provided a further source of protein and fat. Animals such as deer, raccoon, and turkey also remained important sources of food.

During the Mississippian period, people began settling in large towns that were the centers of government and religious life. Most Mississippian period towns were built around a central plaza and included one or more large, flat-topped mounds. These mounds were used as a base, or substructure, for temples and houses for the elite members of the community. Plazas provided a large, central, open space for ceremonial and social events. The commoners' lives were led by powerful chiefs and priests who controlled trade, made alliances with neighboring towns, or waged war. Many of the large Mississippian mound centers were fortified by earthen embankments and ditches. These features are barely visible in many places today, due to plowing and development.

The Mississippian Period is commonly divided into three subunits:
Early, Middle, and Late.

The Early Mississippian Period
Shell-temper was the new ingredient in pottery. Shell tempered pottery was a true technological innovation that liberalized shape and increased strength. Another benefit of shell tempered pottery was an increased efficiency in cooking.

Arrow points first occur at this time in the Mid-South. The technological advantage of the bow and arrow was to greatly increase hunting efficiency. The discoidal or chunky stone appears also with the inception of the Mississippian period and was used in the chunky game.

Early Mississippian period sites were comprised mainly of farmsteads, hamlets, small villages, and larger villages. The Mississippian population usually was dispersed in farmsteads and villages in order to take the best possible advantage of the environment. Farmsteads and hamlets were related to central villages, which in turn were related to a larger (paramount) village. Redistribution and storage of surplus took place at the large villages, or administrative centers. The main advantage this type of organization was greater productivity and the ability to support and control larger populations. Surplus food was used in many ways. Storage provided insurance against future crop loss. Another use was to support craft specialization in which work was done in shell, stone, pottery and wood. Surplus was also used for feasts when administrative centers were embellished and repaired. Ceremonies must have taken place often, accompanying planting, harvesting, and with burials of people who held high rank within the community.

The Middle Mississippian Period
Middle period Mississippian began around A.D. 1000-1050. The population was dispersed in farmsteads, hamlets, and small villages in most of the region. At about A.D. 1150 villages became increasingly associated with the ceremonial center, which became a "civic-ceremonial center." Villages also became stockaded with rows of houses with the ceremonial component enclosed inside. Protection of the ceremonial center and the population obviously became increasingly important although archaeological indications of warfare were scare during this time.

By A.D. 1250 a political system had come into being and was composed of sites which included the previously mentioned civic-ceremonial center with mounds, associated with palisaded villages, surrounded by dispersed farmsteads. Wattle and daub wall trench houses developed but were not widespread.

Above-ground storage probably developed during this period in order to protect surplus foods from small animals. Pottery became fairly standardized and well made. A variety of effigy and painted vessel forms were being produced but were still largely restricted to ceremonial-burial use.

The Late Mississippian Period
At major sites during the Late Mississippian period, highly distinctive artifacts were deposited in burial mounds. These artifacts were the symbolic of a religious cult in which the chiefly elite were apparently the leading participants. Among these "Southern Ceremonial Complex" objects were axes with the head and shaft carved from a single piece of stone; polished or chipped stone batons or maces; copper pendants decorated with circles or weeping eyes; shell gorgets depicting woodpeckers, rattlesnakes or spiders; pottery vessels decorated with circles, crosses, hands, skulls, rattlesnakes, flying horned serpents, and feathered serpents; copper plates and engraved shell cups portraying male figures (perhaps warriors, or shamans, or deities) wearing eagle or falcon costumes and sometimes carrying a baton in one hand and a trophy head in the other.

Warfare increased between Mississippian societies during this time. This was most likely due to an increase in competition for scarce agricultural land among growing populations. Archaeologically an increase in warfare is evident in several ways. For example, many Mississippian sites were fortified with palisades, skeletons with imbedded arrowheads have been uncovered, scalping or beheading is depicted in artwork; and there are numerous portrayals in Mississippian artwork of scalping or beheading as well as severed trophy heads.

Decoration of the hair may have been more important in this period. Tubular beads made of bone, copper, and conch-shell are found more frequently at sites. Bone fishhooks were in existence long before this Late period but at this time became fairly common.

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the Southeast in the mid 1500's, the Mid-South region had largely been abandoned. It was formerly believed that the desertion of the Mississippian centers had been the result of a population loss due to the introduction of European diseases. However, as radiocarbon dates have since made clear, the decline in population began more than a century before Europeans set foot in the region. To date, the Mississippian decline has not yet been satisfactorily explained.

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Department of Anthropology, University of Memphis. Used with permission.

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