Students can journey into local history at Mississippian art exhibit

Artifacts from one of North America’s oldest and largest cultures are on display in nearby St. Louis.

Amy Clark, curator at the St. Louis Art Museum, gave a presentation and lecture on Mississippian art Jan. 21 at Peck Hall. (Photo courtesy of Cory Willmott)

Amy Clark, curator at the St. Louis Art Museum, gave a presentation  Jan. 21 in Peck Hall titled “Artifacts as Artworks: The Mississippian Installation at the Saint Louis Art Museum,” to showcase some of the rare art on display, borrowed from other museums and private collections. For years, researchers and archeologists have tried to uncover some of the mystery surrounding the Mississippians, whose civilization predates European occupation of the New World.

“We’re able to tap into their oral history,” said Cory Willmott, SIUE anthropology professor. “We are able to learn much more than ever before. It’s a great exhibition to go see. But I want to emphasize the importance of the presentation because of the additional depth that you can’t learn from the exhibit.”

The collection is part of the St. Louis’ art museum’s Mississippian Art display now showcased at the gallery. Among the featured artifacts that Clark discussed were flint stone figurines. Willmott said Clark’s presentation helped students understand the significance of these objects and perhaps shed light on their purpose. One of the objects, known as the “Exchange Avenue Figurine,” depicted a female figure holding a large shell. The figurine is the smallest flint stone figurine found to date, while the shell was used as a cup for a religious drink that was also a hallucinogen, Willmott said.

“This is very significant because that tells us women played a role in Mississippian ceremonial life,” she said.

Other artifacts included different vessels; some incised motifs and others were sculpted in the shape of heads. In addition to shells, much of Mississippian artwork was created using materials such as copper, stone, wood and clay. Many designs in Mississippian art included serpents, human heads, winged figures and swastikas.

Willmott said the  art exhibit holds special significance for St. Louis area residents and SIUE students, as the largest civilization in Mississippian culture sits a few miles from SIUE’s campus, the Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in nearby Collinsville . Cahokia was a major cultural center in the Middle Mississippian region, which includes southern Illinois and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. The Mississippian culture extended from the Midwest to parts of the east coast and the southeast states.

“We know that Cahokia was the center of was that it was just an incredibly vast civilization,” Willmott said. “The city extended from the (Mississippi) river all the way to the Cahokia mounds. It was bigger than most European cities at the time it existed. The artwork shows what a complex and rich culture they had and their ceremonial life and their artworks were extraordinarily beautiful. They had deep meaning.”

As part of Clark’s visit to campus, she toured the University Museum and met with interim director Erin Vigneau-Dimick. Willmott said Clark marveled at the diversity of SIUE’s collection of Native American art, noting that much of the collection has not yet been studied or exhibited. The presentation was sponsored by the SIUE Native American studies program, led by professor Julie Holt. According to Willmott, exhibitions such as the Mississippian display helps create awareness for the Mississippian culture, as well as early Native American culture.

“It’s important to show the importance of the prehistorical native culture that was here,” Wilmott said. “But we’re also trying to show that Native Americans have not disappeared.”


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