Mississippian Period Mortuary Practices in the Central Illinois River Valley: A Region-Wide Survey and Analysis
by Michael Strezewski
Abstract of Doctoral Dissertation
Department of Anthropology
Defended: August 2003
This dissertation is a survey and analysis of largely unreported data on prehistoric burial practices in the central Illinois River valley, in Fulton County, Illinois. The data originate from six Mississippian period (A.D. 1050-1450) mortuary sites, comprising a total sample of approximately 500 individuals. Theoretically, I approach mortuary studies with a recognition of the multi-dimensional nature of death and burial. Thus, social organization as well as cosmological and belief-based factors play significant analytical roles. The data show that both men and women had access to positions of authority in Mississippian society, though higher-ranking men outnumber women by a factor of 4 to 1. Status was displayed via similar artifacts for both sexes, suggesting that some of these items may represent regalia for particular offices. Children less than 8 years old were interred with a number of artifacts that were only infrequently found with older individuals. This may indicate that a new social status was conferred upon children at about this age. Many adult women were interred with lithic items placed at the hand. Ethnohistoric evidence suggests that this practice may be a reflection of a belief in a perilous afterlife journey. Overall, the frequency of grave goods increases after AD 1300. This trend coincides with the influx of extra-local migrants into the central Illinois valley. Greater social stress caused by this in-migration may have led to enhanced wealth display among Mississippian groups, with a concomitant increase in the inclusion of weaponry with adult males. Finally, analysis of mortuary-related features at the Morton site suggests that mound construction was arranged after the Native American belief in the division of the universe into Upper and Lower Worlds. This acted as a means to establish links to a sacred order, legitimize tribal organization, and sustain links to the ancestors.