The Mississippian Period is one of several broad categories (including Paleoindian, Archaic, and Woodland) that archaeologists use to subdivide the American Indian past of the Southeast and Midwest. Between AD 900 and about AD 1600, Mississippian people farmed maize extensively; lived in societies known as chiefdoms led by hereditary rulers; conducted long-distance trade in copper, marine shell, and other valuables; resided in towns, villages, and farmsteads; built monumental architecture in the form of earthen, flat-topped mounds; conducted warfare, often fortifying their towns with stockades; and shared religious and iconographic traditions. When the first Europeans (the Hernando de Soto expedition) arrived in Arkansas in 1541, the people they encountered were Mississippians.
The Rise of Agriculture
Perhaps fueled by a climate shift from cooler, drier conditions to warmer, wetter ones, major changes in subsistence began taking place in the Southeast and in Arkansas around AD 900. The Southeastern Indians, who grew native North American domesticates on a small scale during the Woodland Era, began intensive farming of maize (corn). Along with corn, Mississippian farmers grew squash and, later in the Mississippian Period, beans.
In Arkansas, most Mississippian farming settlements were located along the rivers in the Mississippi River Valley. These locations took advantage of the excellent, high fertility soils of the natural levees. An added benefit was the availability of fish from the rivers. Fishing proved highly important to Mississippians because heavy dependence on corn alone can result in nutritional deficiencies. Fish, meat, or other plant foods, such as beans, are necessary to compensate for corn’s lack of lysine, an essential amino acid, and niacin. The importance of fish to the Mississippian diet can be seen in the many images of fish on Mississippian pottery in eastern Arkansas.
Large stone hoe blades also attest to the significance of farming in Mississippian life. These hoes are frequently made of Mill Creek chert from southern Illinois and reached Arkansas through long-distance trade along the network of rivers. Continued working of the soil with these hoes has resulted in a distinctive band of polish along the edge of the blades.
While agriculture provided food for large numbers of people and allowed for population increase, dependence on such staples as corn presented problems, too. Studies of populations before and after the advent of agriculture in the Mississippi Valley reveal decreases in health after agriculture is adopted. These health declines result partly from nutritional deficiencies and periodic food shortages. In addition, the heavy labor of farming would have caused injuries and degenerative conditions such as arthritis, both of which can be seen in Mississippian burial populations. And finally, the crowding that goes along with farming could have made people more susceptible to infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis. Dependence on agriculture also makes people vulnerable to the changes in weather. Drought, in particular, can create challenges for agriculturalists. Archaeological evidence shows that despite these difficulties, Mississippians in Arkansas farmed maize extensively.
Before the Mississippian Period in Arkansas, most settlements were small-scale and occupied seasonally. With the advent of agriculture and increased population, a variety of year-round settlements—such as towns, villages, hamlets, and farmsteads—began to appear on the landscape.
Mississippian towns display striking similarities throughout the Southeast. Common elements include square or rectangular houses about thirty-five square meters in size, houses aligned in orderly patterns, centrally placed plazas, stockades or embankments surrounding the town, and sometimes flat-topped earthen mounds upon which the house of the hereditary leader, or sometimes a temple, stood.
In eastern Arkansas, archaeologists identify one kind of Mississippian town known as the “St. Francis-type” town, found mostly in the St. Francis River basin. A typical St. Francis-type town is rectangular in plan, has houses arranged around a plaza, is elevated due to the buildup of living debris, and is surrounded by a ditch. The archaeological remains suggest that, during their heyday, St. Francis-type towns were bustling population centers encircled by protective stockades and moats that served the double purpose of defense and fish pond. Parkin Archeological State Park in Cross County is a St. Francis-type town.
One architectural element of some, but not all, Mississippian towns in Arkansas is the flat-topped earthen mound. Dozens of mounds dating to the Mississippian Period exist in Arkansas today. Most are in the Mississippi Valley, but some can be found as far away as the Ozarks. Flat-topped mounds served as platforms for large structures. The structure that stood atop Mound A at the Upper Nodena Site in Mississippi County, for example, measured almost seventy-five square meters, about twice as large as the typical Mississippian house. Many mound-top structures served as the residences of hereditary chiefs. The chronicles of the de Soto expedition state that Arkansas Mississippian chiefs made their homes on top of mounds. Other structures atop mounds may have served as religious temples. Platform mounds throughout Arkansas are similar in shape, usually truncated pyramids, but vary in height, ranging from less than one meter to thirteen meters tall.
Most Mississippian Period populations in Arkansas lived in a type of society called a chiefdom. Chiefdoms are kin-based societies in which people are ranked according to the family they belong to. Some families have higher status than others. In chiefdoms, the ruler typically comes from a high-status family and has privileges beyond those of ordinary people. Chiefs share some similarities with kings but are not as powerful (they do not collect taxes, for example, or have standing armies). Archaeologists interpret Arkansas Mississippian societies as chiefdoms from descriptions by the de Soto chroniclers in the 1500s and from the archaeological remains of earlier Mississippian societies. A platform mound, for example, provides a prominent, elevated location for the chief’s house that is separated from ordinary houses. A platform mound, which requires more labor than that of one family to build, is a sign that a hereditary chief lived in that locale or very nearby.
Mississippian Religion and Art
Although religion is difficult to understand in the absence of verbal or written accounts, some aspects of Mississippian religion can be gleaned from European descriptions and from art and iconography. Ancestor veneration, for example, clearly played an important role in Mississippian religion. Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that statues of kneeling human figures found in Mississippian temples are those of ancestor figures. In northeast Arkansas, a de Soto chronicler describes an attack in 1541 by the Casqui on the temple of neighboring Pacaha; the Casqui destroyed relics of Pacaha ancestors that were entombed in the temple. Pottery vessels and at least one stone statue in the form of kneeling human figures have been found throughout eastern Arkansas. These figures may represent ancestors, although other interpretations are possible.
Throughout the Southeast, a complex of similar iconographic themes (including birds, snakes, spiders, and mythical beings called bird men) may represent a widespread Mississippian belief system. Archaeologists call this the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC). SECC themes are frequently executed on materials that had high value in the Mississippian world—copper and marine shell, for example. Arkansas has limited numbers of SECC artifacts compared to some other areas in the Mississippian world, suggesting a limited participation in the widespread religious and artistic network. However, a few copper and marine shell items with SECC-style images exist. A carved marine shell gorget from the St. Francis river valley depicts two humans who may be mythical beings or perhaps players in a ritual ball game. A few fragmentary copper plates with bird motifs have been found along Little River, and a copper plate with a spider motif comes from the Parkin Site in Cross County. In addition, rock art along the Arkansas River Valley occasionally depicts what appear to be SECC motifs, such as the cross-in-circle and winged serpent.
In addition to SECC art, an important regional art genre exists in Arkansas. This genre is that of effigy pottery from eastern Arkansas. Many museums around the world contain examples of Arkansas effigy pottery. Dozens of ceramic vessels containing images of animals, birds, fish, frogs, plants, and humans have been found throughout eastern Arkansas. Most effigies depict natural rather than otherworldly beings. Along with these naturalistic representations is a class of vessels called “head pots.” Head pots are vessels created in the form of a human head, often by a highly skilled artist. Archaeologists are uncertain whether the head pots represent ancestor figures, trophy heads taken in war, or something else. Mississippian head pots can be viewed at the Hampson Archeological Museum and State Park and Parkin Archeological State Park.
The End of the Mississippian Period
The Mississippian culture was in full flower in Arkansas when the de Soto expedition traveled through eastern Arkansas in 1541. By the time the next Europeans arrived to write down their observations (Marquette and Joliet in 1673), the flourishing Mississippian towns were gone. A variety of explanations has been offered to account for this disappearance, including European diseases and severe, long-lasting drought in the 1500s. Both undoubtedly played roles.
For additional information:
Clayton, Lawrence A., Vernon J. Knight, and Edward C. Moore, eds. The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543. 2 vols. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993.
House, John H. Gifts of the Great River: Arkansas Effigy Pottery from the Edwin Curtiss Collection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Peabody Museum Press, 2003.
Milner, George. The Moundbuilders: Ancient People of Eastern North America. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.
Morrow, Julie, Robert A. Taylor, Jami Lockhart, and Shaun McGaha. “Old Town Ridge (3CG41): A Palisaded Middle Mississippi Period Village in the Land of Milk and Honey.” Arkansas Archeologist 51 (2011): 1–24.
Morse, Dan F., and Phyllis A. Morse. Archaeology of the Central Mississippi Valley. San Diego: Academic Press, 1983.
Schambach, Frank, and Leslie Newell. Crossroads of the Past: 12,000 Years of Indian Life in Arkansas. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archeological Survey, 1990.
Wilson, Gregory D., ed. Mississippian Beginnings. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017.
Arkansas Archeological Survey