Stephen Lekson, Ben Nelson, Kenneth Sassaman, Ivan Šprajc

Paper #: 11-02-005

One of the great challenges of archaeology is to develop principles that relate changes in social complexity to ideological change. This paper considers how people in four regions – Mesoamerica, Northern Mexico, the U.S. Southeast, and the U.S. Southwest, shaped space in their settlements and configured cultural images of space in the environment on the earth’s surface and beyond, according to local visions of cosmology. Using specific examples, we explore the thesis that indigenous peoples of the Americas kept themselves continuously poised for environmental circumstances that changed seasonally, annually, and on longer time scales by materializing cosmological visions in built space. While conceiving the cosmos as controlled by deified celestial bodies, people shaped space, including built and natural spaces as well as the environment on the earths’s surface and beyond, in accordance with their cosmological visions. They considered themselves responsible for collaborating with the deities to assure socioecological stability and human well being. Built spaces provided powerful venues for regular reiterationg sacred propositions. The assumptions underpinning cosmological relationships sometimes changed because they were seriously contradicted by emergent social or environmental circumstances, and these changes were ultimately registered in architectural forms and other material products. Archaeological evidence of such changes is found in practices of moundbuilding, changes from pit house to pueblo archiecture, shifts from calendrical to cardinal orientation, and many other phenomena. As the examples in this paper show, the four regions offer intriguing examples with which to experiment theory-building about the relationships between cosmology and social complexity.