Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Robert L. Hall, The Archaeology of the Soul: North American Indian Belief and Ritual. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

Reviewed by John Bedell

I.     The Past

As a young man, Robert Hall was a brash archaeologist with science on his mind who eagerly dug into Indian graves in search of answers about the past. Over the course of his life, his approach slowly changed. He came to favor what he calls a "more humanistic" scholarship. He read deeply in Indian history and myth, participated in Indian ceremonies, took peyote. He developed a particular interest in Indians who became anthropologists, in how they recorded and interpreted the myths and rituals of their own peoples. If you are a cynical intellectual sort, I know just what you're thinking – oh, great, another promising scientific mind washes into the mudflats of "spirituality" and trades in analytical rigor for peyote, togetherness, and Indian rights. Not so Robert Hall. The Archaeology of the Soul draws on archaeology, history, and ethnography to make what I believe is an insightful and important argument about the North American societies of the distant past.

Hopewell FigurineThe Archaeology of the Soul takes a long time to get to what I take to be the main point. I wondered, as I was reading, if listening to old Indian men tell stories and participating in four-day rituals  had altered Hall's sense of time. Or perhaps Hall has tried in this book to recreate something of his own mental development. As he tells it, he read first ethnographic accounts of Indian rituals as an undergratuate, but it took him decades to understand how those records could be used to interpret the distant past. Hall's goal seems to be to explain why the ancient American "mound builders" – Adena, Hopewell, Mississippian – devoted such an extraordinary amount of time and effort to funerals. Yet the first 3/4 of the book makes only occasional contact with archaeology. These chapters are concerned with the myths and rituals of the Indians of the upper Mississippi valley and the northern plains, and I found much of this a hard slog. The dozens of versions of similar myths ran together in my mind, and I could never keep straight which ritual was performed by the Ojibwas, or the Potowatamis, or the Miamis, or any of the fifty other tribes that figure here. In the end it turns out that this makes little difference. Part of Hall's thesis is that our diverse Indian myths reflect continent-wide ideas and preoccupations, and that the underlying logic is best understood by setting a dozen related stories side by side. Hall produces cases in which a detail from the rituals of one tribe can only be explained by reference to the myths of another. Hall thinks that the basic ideas are very old, and he sees no problem with using myths first recorded in the 1680s or even the 1920s to understand 3,000-year-old artifacts:

I think it unlikely that there was anything in Hopewell that cannot be explained by the workings of processes known from eyewitness knowledge of historic North American Indian customs, the geological doctrine of 'uniformitarianism' applied to culture history, if you will. (156)

Hall's starting point is the rituals associated with the Calumet, or ceremonial pipe. These rituals combined adoption ceremonies with mourning for the dead. Our first descriptions come from French explorers who were adopted in this way, and in the early days they commented with surprise on the weeping that preceded their welcome into the tribe. Before they could welcome new members, the Indians explained, they had to mourn those who had been lost. When their knowledge of local customs was better they used these rituals for their own purposes. In 1681 La Salle made a formal visit to the Miami tribe, who had recently lost many men in a raid by the Iroquois. He gave them many gifts, including a piece of blue cloth which he said would cover the dead bodies of their men, and a piece of red cloth which he said would hide their spilled blood. Our French source tells us,

In this wise M. de La Salle made use of all these first gifts to gain the good will of the Miamis, for nothing touches their hearts sooner than respect shown to their dead, just as nothing arouses them to vengeance more surely than outrage done to the dead. Then he continued in the following terms:

"We have thus, my brothers, performed our duty to the dead, who must be satisfied, who now ask nothing except to be left in peace, and who desire us to dry our tears, and to think of caring for their children left here in their places. But I mean to do more – I will bring them to life again. You daily mourn the loss Ouabicolcata, the greatest of your chiefs. Think him not dead. I have his mind and soul in my own body; I am going to revive his name and be another Ouabicolcata; I shall take the same care of his family that he took in his life; and that no one may mistake, I declare that my name is not Okimao [his former Miami name]. My name is Ouabicolcata; he is not dead; he lives still, and his family shall want for nothing, since his soul in entered into the body of a Frenchman, who can provide his kinsmen abundantly with all things needful." (11)

Hall follows this theme through several more chapters. In many Indian mourning rituals, a man took the place of the deceased, assuming both his name and his social role. Sometimes, as La Salle's maneuver shows, this was a political act, since by sliding into the persona of an influential chief he surely intended to appropriate the man's influence for himself. To adopt a man from another tribe as the reincarnation of a chief was, in some tribes, a traditional way of making alliances. It could also be done entirely within a tribe. When one of the 49 chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy died, his replacement was proclaimed in the course of the funeral, at one point rising from the dead man's funeral bier, in his clothes, and from that point on he would be known by the old chief's name. At other times the main point seems to have been revenge, and the duty of avenging the dead man fell on the one who assumed his name and was adopted into his family. Father Barthelmy Vimont, a Jesuit missionary who worked in Quebec in the 17th century, described these rituals like this:
It has often been said that the dead were brought back to life by making the living bear their names. This is done for several reasons -- to revive the memory of a brave man, and to incite him who shall bear his name to imitate his courage; to take revenge upon the enemies, for he who takes the name of a man killed in battle binds himself to avenge his death; to assist the family of the dead man, because he who brings him back to life, and who represents him, assumes all the duties of the deceased, feeding his children as if he were their own father -- in fact, they call him father, and he calls them his children . . . .
Hall extends this analysis through many different versions of many different rituals, including the Sun Dance of the plains and the sacrificial ball games of the Aztecs.

The basic components of this ritual set – adoptive kinship, for a living man to assume the name and place of one recently dead, the use of fictive kinship ties to make political alliances, the rites involving the calumet (the "peace pipe" as it is known in colloquial English), a dance that is a kind of mock warfare – are found throughout North America east of the Rockies. With this in mind, Hall examines the elaborate tombs and astonishing accumulations of grave gifts left by the Adena (ca. 1000 to 300 BC), Hopewell (ca. 300 BC to AD 100) and Mississippian (AD 900 to 1600) peoples. The larger tombs of all these cultures contained a museum's worth of artifacts each, many of them the work of master craftsmen, some of them made from materials that had to be traded across thousands of miles. The fabulous objects found in the tombs are never found at village sites, not even in the houses of chiefs. They were only used, it seems, in rituals. Some peoples had two completely different types of pottery, a plain sort used at home and elaborately decorated vessels that are, again, only found in tombs. Hall's model is that these people devoted so much energy to funerals because their politics was based on adoptive kinship, and their adoption rituals, like those of so many modern Indians, were combined with funerals. At the death of a great man among any of these mound builders, Hall believes, the crisis of succession was handled through his funeral. His allies would come to reaffirm brotherhood with his successor, perhaps exchanging lavish gifts. His vassals would come to be adopted as the younger brothers, nieces, or children of the new chief. The new chief would show his weath and power by staging these rituals around the most lavish possible funeral for his successor. Hall thus explains phenomena that seem far removed from Indian life as we know it historically in terms of the rituals and beliefs of historic Indians.

Effigy PipeThis makes a lot of sense.

Hall has much more to say than this simple formula. For example, he explains the piles of marsh mud found in some tombs by the legend of the Earth Diver, a figure of many Indian mythologies who created the earth from mud retrieved from the bottom of the sea. He has a particularly neat explanation for the human face earrings, or "maskettes", that have been found at several Mississippian burial sites. (The figure in the sculpture at right is wearing such earrings.) The one place these earrings have conspicuously not been found is the greatest of all Mississippian sites, Cahokia. "He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings" was a culture hero to various Midwestern Indian tribes in historic times, and he was usually the son of the Morning Star. We have iconographic evidence that the ruler of Cahokia claimed to be the reincarnation of the Morning Star. So what better way for him to accept other chiefs as his vassals than by adopting them as his sons and proclaiming them to be reincarnations of Morning Star's son, "He-who-wears-human-heads-as-earrings"?
I felt on finishing The Archaeology of the Soul that I understood things I had never understood before, and what higher praise can one give to an academic book than that?

II.     The Present

In my experience, modern Indians have two main complaints about archaeologists. First, archaeologists loot Indian graves and treat the bones of Indian ancestors as so many laboratory samples. Second, they are obsessed with minutiae about the past like what people ate – a tribal chief once gave me a magnificent harangue about "subsistence practices," in which he wondered what kind of people these archaeologists were who thought they could explain Indian life from a few flakes of bone and stone. Both of these criticisms have something to them, but they contradict each other. The only good way archaeologists have found to study the spiritual lives of ancient peoples is by digging into their sacred sites, and for North American Indians that generally means tombs. Robert Hall tries to sort through this dilemma in this book. As a friend of traditional Indians and a participant in many Indian rituals, he understands how seriously Indian religion takes the proper treatment of the dead. As an archaeologist interested in spiritual life, he knows that the only way to learn about the spiritual lives of those long dead is by using objects that came out of tombs.
deer mask
He makes an explicit argument against a notion one occasionally hears, that digging up Indian tombs encourages the excavators to view Indians as savages, or at least as something completely other from themselves. In his case, he says, and for many others, it was digging into Indian graves that sparked his interest in Indians. In Illinois where he grew up there were no living Indians, so he had no chance to get to know them or their culture in that way. He met them first through archaeology, and far from coming to think of Indians as savages, he found them fascinating, and has spent his life getting to know more about them in every we he can.

There is in the center of The Archaeology of the Soul a strikingly incongrous chapter on the Spoon River Anthology. Hall uses Edgar Lee Master's trick of making his poetry speak for the dead to explain his own practice of archaeology. Through excavating ancient graves, he says, we can give voice to people long forgotten. Here Hall writes about a cemetery he helped excavate early in his career, of the Oneota people (Mississippians of the upper Mississippi valley, ca. 1300 to 1450 AD).

The Oneota cemetery (Norton Farms 36) delivers a message that almost screams to us from the graves. . . . This record speaks not only of tender love but also of warfare. Of almost three hundred individuals buried in the cemetery the skeletons of fifty show evidence of violent death over a period of years. The message is that of intermittent raids upon the village until it was abandoned following a final devastating attack that culminated years of stressful insecurity.

Sixteen individuals showed evidence of scalping, as indicated by cutmarks incised in locations on the bone around the crowns of the skulls. Twenty-six additional individuals were buried without heads at all, and of these twenty-six, eleven exhibit cutmarks somewhere on the first four cervical vertebrae, showing that the heads had actually been severed from the spine. These figures would attest to trophies of war being taken from the bodies of forty-two victims without regard to age or sex. Of the scalped individuals, ten were adult females, three were adult males, one was an adolescent male and two were children. . . .

We can never know their names, but like those immortalized by Edgar Lee Masters and Nelly Sachs, death has not erased their memories completelly. Burial 200: female, age thirty-five to forty, hand fractured, possibly while trying to ward off the blow of a stone ax, skull crushed with a stone ax, scalped, bones subsequently gnawed by animals, recovered, and buried. Burial 230: infant age twenty-four to thirty-two months, died from a blow to the head, subsequently scalped. Burial 62: male age thirty to thirty-fve, four stone ax blows to the head, two arrows in the chest, two arrows through the back and embedded in the sternum, scalped. Burial 91: Female age thirty to forty, healed fracture of the left forearm from an earlier injury, stone ax wound on the shoulder, cuts on the neck vertebrae, head missing, skeleton gnawed by animals before burial. . . . (142

The sad tale of this doomed people touches us, thanks to the efforts of archaeologists. Later on, Hall describes an infant burial from the same cemetery:

Few stories allow us to penetrate the very soul of those Oneota villagers as well as that of Burial 197. This was a three-to-nine-month-old infant buried as though held within the grasp of a pair of adult human hands – the hands alone. This was not a child buried with an adult. There was just a pair of skeletal human hands with the infant nestled between them. Other things were found in the same grave – a shell bead bracelet, a strand of beads, and a set of hawk legs – but nothing that would explain the hands. We can infer, however, that the hands had some special symbolic value.

 Gene Weltfish has said of the Pawnee that when “a chiefly infant was born to two high-ranking parents, he was wrapped in a wildcat skin symbolizing the heavens with its panoply of stars and planets.” Knowing these things – knowing that a chiefly child might be cradled at birth in a wildcat skin, knowing that the starry night sky had a metaphor in the spotted fur of a wildcat, and knowing that the dome of the night sky could have a metaphor in the cup formed by a pair of human hands, as we know it did for the Zuni – how can we not suspect that the infant of burial 197 was itself a ‘chiefly infant’, found as it was, cradled within a pair of human hands? (151

Hall has given what I think is the only possible response to the accusation that archaeologists unfeelingly desecrate tombs. The point is not, or ought not to be, just the thrill of discovery and the wonder of finding beautiful, ancient thing in the ground. The point is to make the dead live again. The point is to tell their stories, as far as we can understand them, so they will not be forgotten. 

I speak for the dead, says the archaeologist. I am like the people who reincarnated the dead in so many Indian rituals, across so many centuries. I cannot take their names, since I do not know them, but I will make the dead live again through my study of their lives and my recreation of their world.

March 13, 2010

From the 
Commonplace Book

There before the buffalo skull
lies the grave-like trench with the rainbow snare;
there before the buffalo skull 
grows the fabled Garden of the Evening Star.
There within the earth life stirs
as in a woman bearing a child;
There within the earth life throbs
with the rhythmic beat of a living heart;
There within the earth life thrives
as death begets life and life follows death
in the sacred Garden of the Evening Star.

--Pawnee Song


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



The Lunar Men

White Mughals


Justinian and the Fall of Rome

The Indus Civilization

Syphilis at Jamestown?

The Archaeology of the Soul

The Mississippians

Archaeology Books

The Sea Peoples

The Lucifer Principle

Piracy and Life


Misremembering the Civil War

The Midnight Ride

Easter Island

Why the Fires

The Forty-nine Steps

Standards of Learning

The Taliban and the Statues

The Ruin of Kasch

The Cellar Hole

Keatley Creek and the Meaning of Time