“Red goddesses” in greater Cahokia

Posted on July 26, 2010


The most unusual archaeological job I ever had was back in graduate school, and it remains the only archaeology job I did wearing three-inch heels.

As a student at the University of Illinois, I was drafted along with a friend to stand near the pedestal on which the newly discovered Birger figurine was displayed at a reception, politely keeping people from touching it.

There was good reason to worry that people might take advantage of the special occasion to get up close and personal with the smooth red surfaces of the figurine. Even fragmented, the Birger figurine was compelling. It shows a woman kneeling in front of a serpent, whose back she cultivates with a stone hoe, while a vine bearing gourds, rising from the serpent’s body, grows along her back. Her calm gaze, dignity, and power belie the small size of the figure.

The Birger figurine was not alone; found in the same area of the Cahokia site (the BBB Motor Site) was a second image of a woman, the Keller figurine. It shows a kneeling woman with both hands on a covered rectangular basket or box. A maize plant rises at her side, and the material she is kneeling on has also been described as ears of corn.

In their analysis of the raw material used (flint clay from a single quarry near St Louis, Missouri), archaeologists at the University of Illinois’ Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials call these statues “red goddess figurines”. They are widely understood in terms of Southeastern woodlands traditions of earth mothers or corn mothers.

So, when I saw recent headlines about a newly discovered figurine at the site of a new bridge over the Mississippian, at the western edge of what the archaeologist interviewed, Joe Galloy, aptly calls the “urban sprawl” of Cahokia, I was eager to see this newest in the series. But, like disappointed readers who commented on the original version of the article on the Belleville News Democrat website, I searched in vain for an image of the newest find in the series.

Reported to be six inches tall, burned and fragmented, the new figurine shows a kneeling woman with long hair. The widely reproduced article notes that

She appears to be holding a conch shell, which were often imported from early people who lived along the Gulf of Mexico.

As summarized in the Wikipedia entry on these figures

Most flint clay figurines found outside Cahokia represent male figures from the Chiefly Warrior Cult, as opposed to items found near Cahokia which mostly represent female figures from the Earth/fertility cult.

As a female figurine from near Cahokia, this new find conforms to the previous pattern of distribution, while requiring new analysis of the previously unknown association of women and conch shells.

The fundamental question all these figures raise, of course, concerns the relationship between the prominent imagery of women at Cahokia, and the place of women in Cahokia society.

Thomas Emerson, in his book Cahokia and the Archaeology of Power, writes that

while women often were influential in Southeastern groups, this social importance was poorly reflected in most elite Mississippian iconography…The place of women in elite art was also reflected in their general absence in Southeastern myths…There is, however, one very important exception to this generality: the dominance of the female figure in the important Corn Mother myths.

Tim Pauketat, writing in  Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, argues that “polarization and politicization” of gender difference may have been part of the social processes involved in the creation of a city of unprecedented size at Cahokia. Part of his proposal involves a greater emphasis on hoe agriculture of maize, women’s work that would have performatively associated female gender with the earth and its fertility.

Perhaps the most radical suggestion about the Birger and Keller figurines and others like them was made by Patricia Galloway, who suggested the locations where these were recovered were places of women’s menstrual seclusion, rather than generalized temples.

All three authors share a vision of Cahokia women’s status rooted in historical accounts of Southeastern social life, ritual, and mythology. The question is, does this provide a way to think about an association of a woman with a conch shell?

Conch shells were used for a variety of artifacts in Cahokia and Southeastern societies, the most striking of which are gorgets— ornaments worn around the neck.

Excavations at Mound 34 in Cahokia recovered marine shells, including one glossed as a conch, in a dedicatory cache. Other sources, citing another article in the Belleville News Democrat in February of this year, described an object found here as an

engraved drinking cup made from a conch shell found at the top of the about 10 foot high Mound 34. The shell, which probably came from the Gulf of Mexico, contains a very distinctive symbol, kind of an arrow-like logo with a circle in the arrowhead.

John Reed Swanton’s massive compilation Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians does not mention conch specifically. But there are a series of myths he records in which young women went in search of a supernatural Bead-spitter, to obtain beads from him. The different versions repeat themes, including dancing at night by a supernatural Owl wearing entrails, from whom the girls obtain beads, and marriage between one of the girls and a supernatural host.

Perhaps the most interesting of these stories is the tale of Bead-spitter and Thrown-away, which in the end links the story of two girls seeking beads to a pair of hero twins who seem to have solar or at least celestial associations. We can summarize it as follows:

The two girls run into Rabbit, and are invited to stay the night with him on the way to Bead-spitter. Rabbit sleeps with one of the girls. In the morning, he brings them beads, which he spits, but he has actually stolen these beads from buzzard. What is interesting here is that Rabbit seems to be presenting the beads to the girl he slept with, who strings them, as a present following their sexual encounter.

The girls throw away the beads they received from Rabbit when they hear the mother buzzard complaining to Rabbit about his theft. They continue on their journey, and spend the next night with Ground Squirrel. Ground Squirrel tells them how to recognize their destination, Turkey-Killer’s, by the piles of feathers they will encounter. There, they meet Turkey-Killer, the real bead-spitter. Again, they are asked to spend the night.

Asked if they had experienced any wrongs during their trip, they both said no. Set a task of bringing water back to the house in a kind of basket, the one who Rabbit had slept with could not, either because of that wrong or her lie about it. Yet at Turkey-Killer’s house, she is the one who he sets to sift water, which turned into beads. While both girls were given beads, the other girl was taken as a wife by Turkey-Killer.

Turkey-Killer’s pregnant wife is then killed in a gruesome fashion by a “wicked old woman”, but her husband rescued her infant son from her body. He also preserved the afterbirth, which turned into a magical twin to his son. The magical twin bullies his brother into disobeying their father and ferrying the same old woman who killed their mother across the river, carrying her on their back, at which she promptly stuck to them. Their father had to rescue them by pouring boiling water on her, melting the connection to the boys.

The two boys continue to disobey their father, who eventually sends them to exchange lead for tobacco at the house of a deadly person named Long-finger-nails. Their father continues trying to kill them, so eventually they separate, one going east, the other west, telling each other that when they see red sky in the other direction, they will know that it is the other brother.

What we need in order to make sense of things like the “red goddess” figurines are stories more like this one, much richer than our archaeological tendency to reduce meaning to something like “fertility” that seems comfortably universal.

While gender ideologies may have become increasingly polarized during the growth of Cahokia, setting in place firm associations of women with earth and men with sky, the actual status of women would have rested on more than simply a symbolic association with generalized fertility. As the tales Swanton recorded attest, women were thought of as active social agents, whose travels, marriages, births, and acquisition of items of wealth and regalia were important social forces.

A point that has always been implicit in the representation of female archetypes in red stone, so prominent within the city of Cahokia and its immediate suburbs.