Cahokias Countryside: Household Archaeology, Settlement Patterns, and Social Power. Mark Mehrer. Northern Illinois University Press, Dekalb, Illinois, 1995. xvii + 213 pp., works cited and index. $28.95 (paperback). ISBN 0-87580-565-5.
Reviewed by James W. Cogswell, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65202 USA
Mehrers book on the relations of archaeological evidence to social structure in the American Bottom deserves a place in archaeologists libraries and would be useful as an upper-level college text for courses on the prehistory of the region. This book helps to bridge the gap between site-specific reports resulting from American Bottom archaeological projects and the more synthetic and speculative interpretations based on this archaeological record.
Concerning technical matters, the text is well written, easy to read, and notably bereft of typographical errors. Tables and figures are appropriate and are closely matched to the relevant text. The references cited are adequate and current for the 1995 publication date. The relatively low price makes this book available to a wide audience.
The title is somewhat misleading, because while Mehrer discusses debris-discard patterns in features, house forms, and related house/feature patterning, he delves very little into what these patternings might mean in the realm of "social power." Instead, his analysis focuses on whether the diachronic archaeological information from the Cahokian suburbs parallels that from central Cahokia. Mehrer does not hang his study on a particular anthropological framework. For example, his statement (p. 166) that "the study of households can proceed [without] a determination being made about whether they are parts of a state, a chiefdom, or some other specific form of government" should be appreciated by readers who are tired of treatises that try to force archaeological evidence into a preconceived sociopolitical structure.
The structure of the book follows a logical, if not predictable, pattern. Chapter 1 provides a brief outline of the American Bottom setting and culture history. There are no surprises in this chapter, and supplemental readings are required to complete his outline. Chapter 2 presents the authors operational definitions and the theory used to structure his analysis. Chapter 3 focuses on the sites selected for his analysis and analytical-unit descriptions. Chapter 4 is devoted to analysis of debris, feature, feature location, house type, and house/feature patternings, using frequency distributions over time and discriminant analysis as the primary analytical techniques. Limitations of the archaeological record that affect this analysis are also frankly discussed. Discussions of debris and feature analysis provide little in the way of substantive results (see my comments below). To my reading, Mehrers main findings in this chapter are that household architecture and related feature patternings changed through time. Mississippian-period structures show little relation to Late Woodland structures. During the Mississippian period, structural diversity increased to peak in the Stirling phase and declined in later phases. Chapter 5, titled "Interpretation," is essentially that: After first summarizing the analytical data, Mehrer summarizes interpretations of previous researchers before presenting his interpretation of his analysis, interspersed with ethnographic examples. Very little use of the theory presented in Chapter 2 is used to explain Mehrers observations. Chapter 6, "Conclusions," is only five pages long and expands the scenario presented in Chapter 5 in more general terms.
I fault the book on several points. First is the lack of an explicit, stated goal early in the book for Mehrers endeavor. The reader is finally rewarded on p. 161 (out of 167 pages of text) where the author provides the punchline: "Long-standing interpretations regarding the process of population nucleation in the American Bottom...were not confirmed." Why not set us up for this conclusion so we would know why we are reading this book, and why not give us more background on those long-standing interpretations? Second, I find many occasions where the author presents assumptions as accepted fact. For example, in the first paragraph of Chapter 3 (p. 31) Mehrer states that "The development of complex society not only created ceremonial centers in the American Bottom but also transformed the way rural communities were organized and the way family life was conducted." This statement may be true, but I have yet to see an objective demonstration of its veracity, and Mehrers analyses in this book do not help to confirm it. Third, I found the relative lack of explicit statements about his findings extremely frustrating. Mehrers use of "may have", "possibly", "probably", and so on render many of his conclusions suggestive but essentially meaningless. Finally, I am concerned with the subtle way that the scientific process occasionally is abrogated in the book. Another example illustrates this: The second paragraph in Chapter 3 states, "The arrangement of buildings and pits...are expected to be related to the processes of cultural change experienced throughout the region" (my emphasis). The application of objective science in archaeology requires elimination of such expectations in our theoretical orientation as well as in our reports.
It should be clear by now that Mehrer and I react to the archaeological record under different paradigms. The bottom line is that Mehrer has produced an analysis of American Bottom household archaeology that will be useful for students, teachers, and scholars regardless of their paradigm.