This study uses the theoretical concepts of agency, power, and ideology to explore the development of cultural complexity within the hierarchically organized Cahokia Middle Mississippian society of the American Bottom from the 11th to the 13th centuries. By scrutinizing the available archaeological settlement and symbolic evidence, Emerson demonstrates that many sites previously identified as farmsteads were actually nodal centers with specialized political, religious, and economic functions integrated into a centralized administrative organization. These centers consolidated the symbolism of such 'artifacts of power' as figurines, ritual vessels, and sacred plants into a rural cult that marked the expropriation of the cosmos as part of the increasing power of the Cahokian rulers.
During the height of Cahokian centralized power, it is argued, the elites had convinced their subjects that they ruled both the physical and the spiritual worlds. Emerson concludes that Cahokian complexity differs significantly in degree and form from previously studied Eastern Woodlands chiefdoms and opens new discussion about the role of rural support for the Cahokian ceremonial center.