Monuments in a landscape

Today I had the good fortune to attend a lecture by visiting scholar Stephan Rostain, who gave an excellent lecture about raised fields and earthen mounds made by prehistoric agriculturalists in French Guiana (oddly enough, the only remaining European colony in South America).  Rostain’s lecture emphasized how Indians along the littoral zone built and engineered fields to manage excess surficial water from flooding. I can’t remember the name of the site, but linear earthen mounds used for agricultural plots were oriented in specific directions along the landscape to best facilitate drainage and crops production. In addition to moving earth to build fields, earth was also used to build residential and monumental mounds. **This  got me thinking – agriculturalists mark the landscape with man-made structures and monuments – archaeologists know this fairly well.  For example, the Neolithic Revolution brought with it the development of large scale and complex cities in the Levant. In the Southeastern US,  the rapid rise and fall of Cahokia is directly related to the rapid adoption and instability associated with staple goods agriculture.  But what about monuments among non-agriculturalists? Richard Bradley asserts that during the Mesolithic, natural places unmarked by man were sacred in and of themselves, but only after the Neolithic Revolution and the adoption agriculture do we see the construction of long mounds, barrows, and cairnes.  These monuments transform a naturally sacred landscape into a man-made and perhaps sacred landscape – why is this related to agriculture, and are monuments exclusive to agriculture?   In this case, Bradley argues that the modification of the landscape is tied to marking space and land, honoring gods,  and marking the passage of time, all concepts far more important to agriculturalists that foragers.  As I learned this past semester, gods in African agricultural societies are generally all powerful – among foragers and pastoralists, gods are often trickster deities, making trouble but not omnipotent. It only makes sense to me that gods for agriculturalists are all powerful, their whole lives depend on the success of a harvest, but for foragers,  food was stored in the mud, trees, and lively animals abundant on the landscape – an all powerful god who could help a harvest is unnecessary.

So,  what about all of those lovely monuments in the Lower Mississippi Valley built by sedentary hunter gatherers?  Watson Brake, Poverty Point, these sites were for purposes unknown,  but where else are there such large earthen monuments made by non-agricultural peoples?  Don’t know,  thoughts…..

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1 Comment

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One response to “Monuments in a landscape

  1. Why only earthen monuments? Why not monuments made of shell? I feel there is a stubborn resistance to viewing shell as construction material prehistorically, since shell can signify a subsistence activity. Archaeologists have left the blinders on for too long. What are we to make of the rather extensive and labor intensive shell constructions across the lower southeast? The people that made these were gatherer-fisher-hunters, non-agricultural, yet were marking their landscape. I do not believe agriculture is necessarily responsible for the making sacred spaces on the landscape. I think the next several decades of work in the Brazilian Amazon are going to be very eye-opening for scholars of prehistory.

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