Mississippian-Era Jewelry: A Piece in the Puzzle of Pre-Columbian American Culture

Throughout history, jewelry and other decorative items have been unquestionably important symbols of culture, whether it be to showcase wealth, social status, or religious affiliation. For years, archaeologists have discovered jewelry dating back to the pre-Columbian era of North America, noting a few prominent materials: stone, shell, bone, and clay. Cahokia, as well as other Native American societies, commonly manufactured mass amounts of beads from such materials, giving archaeologists a glimpse into everyday productivity within pre-Columbian civilizations in North America. 

The city of Cahokia’s peak influence occurred roughly around 1100 AD, and it is characterized as the largest city Pre-columbian city in North America. Not only is it deemed so influential because of its sheer size, but largely due to its vast cultural outreach as well (Thomas and Perkins 2016). Upon the discovery and excavation of the Cahokian mounds, archaeologists discovered a number of burials, some of which were surrounded by thousands of shell beads (Figure 1). One bead material, in particular, lightning whelk shells, are thought to have symbolized many significant ideas in Cahokian culture. Due to their unique spiral shape, lightning whelk shells are thought to have symbolized the cycles of life and death, as well as served as a symbol of wealth, seeing as they were harder to obtain (Kozuch 2021). In addition to the symbolic importance of the shells, even their general quantitative discovery proved important to archeologists because it meant there was some form of a mass manufacturing system in Cahokia. While this argument is, for the most part, widely accepted, whether or not the beads were the result of specialized full-time labor or part-time domestic activities is still up for debate (Kozuch 2021). 

Figure 1: Marine shell beads discovered in the mounds of Cahokia. Retrieved from Illinois State Museum.

While Cahokian beaded jewelry mainly consisted of marine shell materials, others utilized stone and bone materials due to their more inland geography. Originally found in what is now Illinois, archaeologists discovered Mississippian-era stone beads, made from grinding and drilling rock with stone tools until the bead reaches its desired shape (Illinois State Museum 2000). Similarly to the manufacturing process of stone, necklaces made from hollowed bird bones were discovered at the Spiro Mounds located in Eastern Oklahoma. The specific necklace depicted below was a total of 34 inches in length and is estimated to be from between 900 A.D. and 1450 A.D. (Sanderson 2021). While many aspects of American culture have changed following the Mississippian Era, it is clear that the decorative and adorning qualities of jewelry have remained entirely relevant throughout society today.

Figure 2: Necklace made from hollowed bird bone discovered at the Spiro Mounds in Eastern Oklahoma. Retrieved from Museum of Native American History.


Kozuch, Laura. 2021. “Cahokia’s Mound 72 Shell Artifacts.” Southeastern Archaeology 40 (no.1): 33–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/0734578x.2021.1873057. Accessed 21 November 2022.

“Mississippian Economy Clothing.” Illinois State Museum, 2000. https://www.museum.state.il.us/muslink/nat_amer/pre/htmls/m_clothing.html. 

Sanderson, Jazlyn. 28 January 2021. “Spiro Mounds Bone Bead Necklace.” Museum of Native American History. https://www.monah.org/artifact-blog/2020/10/31/spiro-mounds-bone-bead-necklace. Accessed 21 November 2022.

Thomas, Jonathan, and Tyler Perkins. 19 April 2016. “Shell Bead Production at Cahokia.” the Digital Archaeological Record  https://core.tdar.org/document/404597/shell-bead-production-at-cahokia. Accessed 21 November 2022.

Additional Resources: 

  1. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/277638682_Shell_Symbolism_in_Pre-Columbian_North_America 
  2. https://www.academia.edu/24646883/Bead_Production_and_Cultural_Complexity_at_Cahokia 
  3. https://www.academia.edu/84217720/Crafting_shell_beads_at_East_St_Louis_and_Greater_Cahokia 

Cahokia’s Effigy Pipes: Class and Spirituality in Conversation

Among the rich archaeological findings in the extended Cahokia region, sculpted effigy pipes stand out for their relative rarity and convoluted cultural significance. The pipes, distinguished from other North American effigies in both material and technical precision, depict various animals and humanoid figures in kneeling positions, frequently accompanied by gourd rattles and other religious paraphernalia endemic to the area (Thomas E. Emerson, 1983). Notably, many of the earliest figure pipes were not constructed as pipes at all but as free standing sculptures later modified. The revision and repurposing of these sculptures most likely coincided with a changing Cahokian theology and growing population in need of a more demonstrable spirituality (John T. Pafford, 2016).

Frog With Gourd Rattle Effigy Pipe (MeisterDruke–280892)

While individual Cahokia-style effigy pipes are typically quite idiosyncratic, many of the recorded specimens meet a distinctive criterion: possessing both depiction of shamanic paraphernalia (typically a gourd rattle) and more figurative representation of spirituality; in a broader cultural sense, this prerequisite is one that binds praxis to its spiritual underpinning (Thomas E. Emerson, 2003). Some effigies take the form of transfigured individuals, rendering a fairly literal spiritual transformation into frogs or snakes or deer, while others are more subtle: shaman figures with pensive faces and pipes, potentially meant to depict an onlooker’s perspective on such internal transformation.    

Human Smoking Effigy Pipe (Wikipedia Commons, 2010)

However, the vast majority of effigy pipes from Cahokia do not fit this exclusive precondition. They portray warriors and Chunkey players and individuals with no tangible connection to one another apart from their culture of origin (Emerson, 2003). The most apparent similarity throughout the catalog Cahokia’s effigy pipes is that they all depict high–ranking citizens, and with regard to the rarity and singularity of each effigy pipe, it is not unreasonable to suppose that they were sculpted with a specific, well respected echelon of clientele in mind (Emerson, 1983). But archaeobotanical analyses and form dictate that the cultural significance of the pipes could not have been so deeply rooted in monetary value (Pafford, 2016). 

The Cahokia effigy pipes were constructed with flat bases; they were not fit to be passed around and held as other pipes were. It is likely that they would have been placed on a flat surface, either the ground or a low table, where the individual would then kneel over the pipe and inhale in yawning gulps through the wide opening, producing an intense light-headed effect (Emerson, 2003). This performative and indulgent mode of consumption in tandem with the insufficient archaeobotanical record of regular tobacco usage in Cahokia as well as the recurrent shamanic motifs in many of the pipes suggest a distinctly spiritual significance for Cahokia’s effigy pipes.

Further Reading:




Emerson, Thomas E. “MATERIALIZING CAHOKIA SHAMANS.” Southeastern Archaeology 22, no. 2 (2003): 135–54. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40713282.

Emerson, Thomas E. “THE BOSTROM FIGURE PIPE AND THE CAHOKIAN EFFIGY STYLE IN THE AMERICAN BOTTOM.” Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 8, no. 2 (1983): 257–67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20707911.
ArrowHeads.com. “Cahokian Effigy Pipes.” Accessed November 13, 2022. https://forums.arrowheads.com/forum/information-center-gc33/lithic-artifacts-technology-materials-gc71/carved-stone-pipes-gc78/195583-cahokian-effigy-pipes.


Aztalan: The Northern Cahokian Outpost

In Pre-Columbian times, a mighty city known as Cahokia served as a center of culture, trade, and agriculture for many indigenous societies in the Midwest. With a population in the tens of thousands, Cahokia controlled central Illinois’s Mississippi River floodplain. 

Cahokian society was not restricted to this region, however. Settlers from Cahokia journeyed north as the city expanded, bringing with them Cahokia’s culture, agriculture, and architecture. One of these groups settled alongside Wisconsin’s Crawfish River around 900 CE and became a major influence on the native populations (known as the Woodland peoples) residing in the area. 

The most prominent indication that this settlement–known as Aztalan–was of Cahokian influence is the city’s layout. The town–which was home to somewhere between 500 and 600 people–was structured around four mounds, not unlike the ones in Cahokia. Three of these platforms were man-made, with the final being a natural knoll. These mounds formed a rectangle surrounding the main part of the city and its plaza. Despite agricultural damage over time, there is evidence that one of these platforms supported a temple, that a mortuary house was built atop another, and that the third man-made mound was beneath the home of a city leader. The final earthen structure likely served as a burial ground. 

Map of Aztalan (Figure by Jake F. Pfaffenroth. January 2018)

The city of Aztalan itself was divided into three sections: a residential area, the central plaza, and a higher ground for elites. Running through the entire city were wooden walls, but the greatest of these were the fortified palisades surrounding the Aztalan on all sides. These fences consisted of wooden posts, which were reinforced with small branches and debris, and covered in a layer of clay. The existence of these fortifications implies that the settlers may not have always had peaceful times in the Wisconsin area, possibly clashing with the aforementioned Woodland peoples. 

Aztalan Mound and Palisade (Photo by Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources 2022)

A typical diet in Aztlan was influenced by the Crawfish River, which provided fish, mussels, and turtles. From the surrounding forest, residents were able to hunt deer, birds, and other creatures, and forage for edible plants. Using Cahokian agricultural practices, they were also able to cultivate corn, squash, and beans. 

Aztalan survived for nearly 200 years, and while the circumstances surrounding its abandonment are unknown, anthropologists working in the region are attempting to shed light on the city’s end, specifically toying with the ideas of drought and warfare. 

Today, what was once Aztalan is now a state park of the same name. With efforts to protect specifically the city’s mounds beginning as early as the 1920s, Aztalan State Park opened to the public in 1952, and was subsequently designated a National Landmark in 1964. Covering approximately 172 acres, the park encompasses the remains of the ancient town and its mounds as well as the surrounding area. Furthermore, excavations and restorations have taken place in the park. While two of the mounds have been extensively worked on, 80% of the area still remains to be excavated, so more discoveries are still to come. 



References Cited

Dotson, Keith.    2019    “Ancient America: Aztalan Mound Site in Wisconsin.” Shadows and Light (blog),        https://icatchshadows.com/ancient-america-aztalan-mound-site-in-wisconsin/, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources     2022    “History: Aztalan State Park” Electronic document,         https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/parks/aztalan/history, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Historical Society     2022    “Exploring the History of Atzalan: A Middle Mississippian Settlement.” Historical Essay,         https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS4051, accessed November 13, 2022

Wisconsin Historical Society    2022    “Mississippi Culture and Atzalan: The Genesis of Modern Wisconsin.” Historical Essay,         https://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Records/Article/CS386, accessed November 13, 2022


Further Readings:

The Milwaukee Public Museum: Middle Mississippians

World History Encyclopedia: Cahokia