The impetus for this project springs from the results of earlier work in our study area. Consultations were initiated with the Caddo, Osage, Quapaw, and Tunica nations when the Arkansas Archeological Survey began a recently completed study of Arkansas rock art funded by grants from the Arkansas Humanities Council (1999-2000) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (2003-2006). The primary goal of that project was to examine relationships between Mississippi period rock art designs and cosmological motifs rendered on other artifact media, in an effort to determine the extent to which rock art was used to express ideas about the spirit world (Sabo and Sabo 2005). The data collected during that project, along with a series of reports and educational materials, are available on the project website.
During end-of-project presentations to our Indian consultants, we reported that connections between rock art imagery and other artifact decorations are expressed most clearly in the central Arkansas River Valley, where several motifs are shared across rock art and ceramics from Carden Bottoms phase sites. The rock art and the decorated ceramics together reflect the work of a single community, and further, they reflect rules and principles identifiable at artifact/image, site/assemblage, and community landscape scales of spatial resolution. The best example of this is reflected at the community landscape scale. We found that rock art imagery pertaining to “This World” subjects—plants, animals, and people and their objects—occurs almost exclusively at sites located south of the Arkansas River, which flows in an east-west direction through our study area. In contrast, images representing “Spirit World” subjects—culture heroes, spirit beings, and creation story tableaux—occur only at sites located north of the river.
This two-part distribution reflects a set of ideas similar to those held by historic Siouan speakers in the mid-South including Osages and Quapaws. In their communities, the cosmological division is represented by two sets of clans, referred to collectively as the Sky People and the Earth People. Sky People residences are located on the north side of an east-west path (representing the movement of the sun across the sky) whereas Earth people residences are located on the south side of the path. The relationship between these two sides is organized by a principle of complementary opposition: Sky People clans perform rituals sustaining the spiritual wellbeing of the community while Earth People clans perform rituals to maintain the community’s material wellbeing. This reciprocal relationship connects separate but equal divisions creating a whole (the community) that is greater than the sum of its constituent parts (clans). This conceptual framework is reflected historically not only in the spatial layout of Osage villages (Bailey 1995), but also in the performance of Quapaw calumet ceremonies where members of one division are responsible for the safekeeping of the pipes while members of the other division maintain the authority to use the pipes in ceremonial contexts (Sabo 1995). Accordingly, we interpret the distribution of rock art in the central Arkansas River Valley as elements of a sacred landscape reflecting the conceptual framework of a pre-contact community that embraced rules and principles similar to those underpinning the historic Siouan model (Sabo 2008).
Our Indian consultants were excited by these findings and requested fuller collaboration as we planned further studies in the central Arkansas River Valley. A key aspiration of this project therefore is to develop closer partnerships with modern Indian communities. Such partnerships can facilitate a two-way exchange of information benefiting the separate but related interests of Indians and academics. Since there is much uncertainty concerning pre-contact cultural affiliations in the central Arkansas River Valley, we invited the participation of all Indian groups indigenous to Arkansas, including Caddos, Osages, Quapaws, and Tunicas. Such collaboration rests on mutual recognition of three basic principles: