National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Megan C. Kassabaum

Affiliation: University of Pennsylvania

Megan C. Kassabaum is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America at the University of Pennsylvania.  She holds her degrees from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (Ph.D.) and Beloit College, and her research interests are the archaeology of the American Southeast, prehistoric archaeology of the Woodland Period, the Native South, monument construction and communal ritual, temporal perspectives in archaeology, food and feasting, ceramic technology, and public and museum archaeology. Current publication projects include On Elevated Ground: The History of Platform Mound Construction in Eastern North America (University of Florida Press, under contract),and“Re-conceptualizing the Feast: Interpreting Communal Consumption in the Archaeological Record,” American Antiquity (under review).


Stretching over 2,500 miles from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River has been called “the Nile of North America.” Like its counterpart in Egypt, the Mississippi Valley is among the richest archaeological regions on the continent. Home to thousands of earthen mounds, it contains both the oldest and the most elaborate monumental architecture in North America. Based on fifteen seasons of fieldwork conducted on mound sites across the Eastern United States, this lecture explores the 5,000-years history of moundbuilding from the earliest sites built by mobile hunter-gatherers to Cahokia, the first city in North America built about 1000 years ago.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

  • Megan C. Kassabaum. 2015. “‘Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley’: The Mounds of Native North America,” Expedition, 57(2): 6–16. (
  • Pauketat, Timothy R. and Susan M. Alt (eds.). Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World. School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
  • Milner, George L. (2005). The Moundbuilders: Ancient Peoples of Eastern North America. Thames and Hudson, New York.

The construction of earthen mounds has a long history in the American South, beginning as early as 5000 BC.  Around AD 700, an important shift in moundbuilding practice takes place. This shift to the construction of platform mounds is often assumed to be associated with parallel shifts in economic, social, and political changes within moundbuilding communities. Recent excavations at two mound centers constructed during this time and an exhaustive review of early platform mounds in the Eastern United States has suggested that the relationship between these various shifts is more complicated than often assumed and that it was negotiated through communal ritual practices including feasting, bear ceremonialism, and monument construction.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

  • Vincas Steponaitis, Megan C. Kassabaum, and John W. O’Hear. 2015. “Coles Creek Antecedents” in Medieval Mississippians: The Cahokian World, edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Susan M. Alt, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, pp. 12–19.
  • Megan C. Kassabaum and Erin Stevens Nelson. 2016. “Standing Posts and Special Substances: Ritual Deposition at Feltus, Jefferson County, Mississippi,” Southeastern Archaeology 35(2): 134–154.
  • Megan C. Kassabaum. 2012. “Bear Ceremonialism at Feltus,” blog post on SEAC Underground. (

Archaeologists generally agree that certain beliefs about the cosmos are broadly shared among indigenous peoples of the Americas. Though the details vary wildly, the world is generally seen as consisting of three layers—the Above World, the Middle World, and the Beneath World. While we live our everyday lives in the Middle World, while the Above and Beneath Worlds are inhabited by a variety of supernatural beings. One of the most intriguing characters to inhabit the Beneath World is the underwater panther, a composite creature with both feline and serpentine characteristics that is associated with the dangerous yet beneficial powers of rivers, waterfalls, whirlpools and caves. This talk examines both archaeological depictions and ethnographic stories about the underwater panther as a window into Native North American belief systems.

Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic (for lay reader):

  • Townsend, Richard F., and Robert V. Sharp (eds.) 2004. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South. Art Institute of Chicago in association with Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.
  • Saunders, Nicholas J. 1998. Icons of Power: Feline Symbolism in the Americas. Routledge, London, England.

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