Central States Archaeological Societies
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A Look into Prehistoric Mississippian “Picture Writing”

by Jack Green

Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal

Oxford, Mississippi

This is an excerpt from "A Look into Prehistoric Mississippian “Picture Writing”".

Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2020

A Look into Prehistoric Mississippian “Picture Writing”
Figure 1. Right:The Commerce Quarry petroglyph. Photo by the US Army Corps of Engineers [Dubcovsky 2014]. Left: Glyph that is speculated to represent the prehistoric city of Cahokia. Photo [Fuller (b) 2013]).

When French explorer La Page Du Pratz lived with the Natchez tribe in southern Mississippi he witnessed the last surviving remnants of the Mississippian culture. He lived with the tribe throughout the 1720s and recorded their traditional way of life, which stretched far back into prehistory. Among his recordings of the Natchez, he left a curious passage that has revealed another intriguing facet of the Mississippians customs and culture which, most likely, would have been lost to the ravages of time if not for this account.

“The Natchez make a declaration of war by leaving a hieroglyphic picture against a tree in the enemy’s country, and in front of the picture they place, saltierwise, two red arrows. At the upper part of the picture at the right is the hieroglyphic sign which designates the nation that declares war; next, a naked man, easy to recognize, who has a cassetête in his hand. Following is an arrow, drawn so as in its flight to pierce a woman, who flees with her hair spread out and flowing in the air. Immediately in front of this woman is a sign belonging to the nation against which war is declared; all this is on the same line. That which is below is not so clear or so much relied upon in the interpretation. This line begins with the sign of a moon (i. e., month) which will follow in a short time. The days that come afterward are indicated by straight strokes and the moon by a face without rays. There is also a man who has in front of him many arrows which seem directed to hit a woman who is in flight. All that announces that when the moon will be so many days old they will come in great numbers to attack the designated nation.” (Powell 1893)

He writes that the Natchez people carved a “hieroglyphic sign which designates the nation that declares war” on the bark of a tree near the enemy’s territory. This passage brings to light an important practice that could possibly tie into the iconography of previous Mississippian sites such as Cahokia. This paper will attempt to connect these two ideas and form the basis as to delve deeper into the iconography and cosmology of the Mississippian people.

The Commerce Quarry Petroglyph site is located on the Mississippi River about 150 miles south of Cahokia. The site sits on the banks of a stretch of the Mississippi River known as Thebes Gap, which is well known for being quite hard to maneuver nau-tically (Dubcovsky 2014). The actual petroglyph (Fig. 1 left) has been theorized to represent a map by Terry F. Norris and Timothy R. Pauketat (Norris et al., 2008). Depicted on the large flat boulder is a meandering line possibly representing the Mississippi River, with its twists and turns, and many other smaller details such as small circles pecked into the stone also theorized to have represented certain mound sites which dotted the sides of the river of which the map depicted. Most intriguingly is a representation of a large predatory bird, most likely a falcon (Fig. 1 right), which has been hypothesized to have been a “glyph” that represented Cahokia’s looming presence in the American Bottom at the time.

A third piece of evidence relating to picture writing used by Native Americans comes from yet another historic source. In 1884 Chief Red Cloud of the Dakota Indians directed that a “pictorial census” should be taken of his tribe’s people. In the census over 200 members of the Dakota tribe wrote their names the only way they knew how, in the form of pictures. This is extremely important as it is....

Read the complete column in the Central States Archaeological Societies 2020 July Journal which can be purchased on-line after March 2021