Background: The Emergence of an Art Style and Associated Cultural Traditions
A distinctive art style that archeologists call “Classic Braden” developed between A.D. 800 and 1000 among American Indians living in the Cahokia area of the Mississippi Valley near modern St. Louis. Classic Braden artifacts were distributed across much of the Southeast, giving rise during subsequent centuries to the development of regional artistic traditions referred to as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, or SECC (Brown 2007b; Brown and Kelly 2000; see also Brown 1976; Knight 2006). A distinguishing feature of this complex is the portrayal of motifs on exquisitely decorated specimens of copper, shell, stone, and pottery that depict “spirit world” themes (Knight, Brown, and Lankford 2001; King 2007; Reilly and Garber 2007).
One regional manifestation of this complex is associated with the Spiro Mounds site, the paramount center of Mississippian ceremonial activity in the central Arkansas River Valley (Brown 1996; Phillips and Brown 1978). The Classic Braden style at Spiro gave rise during the fourteenth century to the Craig style of artistic representation, reflecting a fusion of Cahokian and local motifs and themes. This derivative style then spread to adjacent communities (Brown 1984; Rolingson 2004). In the mid-fifteenth century, the Spiro community abandoned its ceremonial center following construction and closure of the so-called “Great Mortuary.” The social and ceremonial center of gravity shifted downriver to communities living at sites representing what archeologists today refer to as the Carden Bottoms phase (Clancy 1985; Hoffman 1986, 1990). One interesting characteristic of the Carden Bottoms phase is that its ceramic assemblage reflects not only a local pottery-making tradition but also the pottery-making traditions of the central Mississippi Valley to the east and the Ouachita Mountains/Gulf Coastal Plain region to the south. These elaborately decorated vessels, emblematic of the communities who produced them, suggest that the central Arkansas River Valley was an important cultural crossroads in the centuries leading up to contact with European explorers. What does this confluence of artistic traditions in the central Arkansas River Valley reflect in the way of indigenous social contact and interaction?
Our perspective is that the emblematic qualities of local art traditions are manifested not only in manufactured objects but, more importantly, in the rules and principles artisans employ to produce their works. The rules and principles that characterize local art traditions often derive from other aspects of culture, including cosmological beliefs, ritual practices, and social organization. The conceptual frameworks people use to create stylistically distinctive objects thus also shape their identities and frame their social interactions (Bourdieu 1990; Giddens 1979, 1984; Sewell 2005; see also Gell 1998; Svašek 2007).