The Southern Death Cult, the Maya and Georgia

Josh Clark

There's a secret war that's been ongoing for sometime among archaeologists concerning the proper way to interpret relics left behind by older cultures, the meanings and intentions of which have been lost to the gulf of time. On the one hand are those who would call a cigar a cigar, or in this case, a cave painting that looks like an owl is probably an owl. On the other side are those who are pretty sure we'll never be able to say with certainty that the painting actually is of an owl, though it certainly looks like one. Even more distressing, if we can't even say confidently that what was drawn a thousand years ago on the wall of a cave in Tennessee is, in fact, an owl, we can say with even less certainty what that owl symbolizes. And don't even get them started on what appear to be pure symbols or mystical creatures; there's no way to ever satisfactorily interpret those. Lighten up, says the other side.

While I can see the science behind the Waitie Katies' view, the pushy side's view also makes sense: How can a field like archaeology ever push forward if it's not willing to take a few interpretive -- but highly educated -- guesses at what made up the less tangible ligaments of an ancient culture?

An exceptional example of this push and pull is found in the debate over what the heck was the Southern Death Cult. Around about the year 1200 representations of some obviously new ways of thinking appear in the historical record of the Mississippian culture, ways that indicate the formerly calm and collected culture was suddenly gripped by a sweeping obsession with religion and the afterlife, the Southern Death Cult, known more buttoned-down as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. This record largely consists of cave paintings made during the period in the Southeastern U.S. and preserved by luck of climate. The Mississippians already had a tradition of honoring dead leaders and building mounds, but out of these comparatively staid customs sprung new figures like the Birdman and the Serpent. Suddenly in the archaeological record symbols taken as gods appear on pottery, on trinkets and jewelry, everywhere you would suspect them to adorn in a highly religious culture.

Even more enthralling is that to some, these new gods looked a lot like the very same ones worshipped by the Maya. The great Mayan cities of mesoamerica had entered decline -- collapse, really -- around 800-1000 AD. Suddenly, a cultural tradition dating back to 300 BC, of powerful city-states with amazing architecture and public works, the society that discovered zero in the West and created one of the more complex alphabets -- all of it was gone, likely due to war brought on by famine brought on by prolonged drought. But where did the 90 percent of the possibly millions of Maya estimated to have lived at the time of the decline? This has long been a good question and one that some have answered by pointing to the rise of the Southern Death Cult in Mississippian culture.

Yet even the pushiest of the pushy camp knew better than to say as much publicly and professionally. Still, over time, symbols and art techniques that seemed to strongly suggest the Maya entered and forever changed the Mississippians continued to emerge from digs conducted in the Southeastern U.S. Then recently a real brawl broke out over a site in north Georgia, a site that a survey conducted by a South African archaeological firm had concluded was a classic example of Mayan public architecture. The firm and the locals who hired it say the design is Mayan, the other side says pshaw. An article about the site argues that there are plenty of other evidence that the Maya made their home in Georgia following the collapse of their culture in their homeland. For example, two different villages in the area were formerly called Itsate, the name that the Maya called themselves. That only the Maya and whoever preceded the Creeks at the site in Georgia are known to build five-sided pyramids; the list goes on.

Wait, wait, hold it, wait. The conservative sects of archaeology's heads are exploding right now. We can't even say for sure and owl's an owl and now the Maya moved to Georgia based on the names of a couple of villages? The other side, not exactly silenced by derision but close to it, mutter that there's a whole complex built of stone in Georgia that says so. What more do you want?