ARCHAEOLOGY OF THE MOUNDVILLE CHIEFDOM. Vernon James Knight and Vincas P. Steponaitis (eds) 1998. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington DC. ISBN 1–56098–846–0 (hardback). Pp. xx + 203. Price $USD45:00
Matthew Campbell (University of Sydney, Australia)
I have to say from the outset that I was somewhat disappointed by this book. I had hoped for a comprehensive overview of this important site complex, an introduction to the site, a history of investigation and a discussion of problems and future directions, but this was not to be. Despite the production values — nice creamy acid free paper, tasteful layout and attractive binding — this is not a book aimed at the general professional reader. For one thing, there is no map showing where the site is, though we eventually learn that it is located in Alabama on the Black Warrior River (I have looked it up in my atlas for you, the Black Warrior is a tributary of the Alabama, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico about 150 km east of the Mississippi Delta. Moundville is about 200 km inland from the Gulf). Neither is there any comprehensive background of Moundville, locating it with reference to the broader “Mississippian” culture. The book, then, is aimed at those who already know the site and understand its place in the broader scheme. It comes out of a 1993 symposium of an SAA meeting, and little attempt seems to have been made to integrate the various contributions. This I find a great pity, but having got that off my chest, it remains a book well worth examining for what it is.
Moundville is, as Christopher Peebles attests in the Foreword, important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it has been preserved from looting, development or natural destruction. The site had been the focus of research for over a century, much of it meticulous and well documented. More is known about this site than any comparable site or complex in the American Southeast. To which I might add that for researchers interested in prehistoric chiefdoms Moundville is an important example, and any student reading on settlement patterns will (I should hope) have some familiarity with the site. Moreover, the de Soto expedition of 1540 came through this area towards the end of the Moundville sequence, and the Spanish contribution to social collapse and depopulation remains a hot topic — but more of that later. Suffice it to say that Moundville is an important site complex, which explains my disappointment that this book was aimed more at the specialist than the general reader (not that the authors ever make any claim otherwise).
In Chapter 1; A New History of Moundville, the editors summarise the Moundville sequence. This is the closest we come to a general introduction, assuming that the reader understands the broader Late Woodland and Mississippian cultures. Putting the summary first is, in this context, a sensible option. Knight and Steponaitis set out their interpretation of the sequence, incorporating the evidence of what is a diverse bunch of papers from the rest of the volume, to give us an outline of Moundville and its history. I particularly like the use of the word ‘history’ — as opposed to, say, prehistory or prehistoric sequence — as the authors are clearly trying to move beyond outlining a chronicle, towards presenting an explanatory narrative.
To summarise briefly, the Moundville phase was preceded by the West Jefferson phase of the Woodland culture. An intensification of both maize and craft production is in evidence from around ad 900–1050. Late in this period, the authors suspect, wealth was being manipulated by community leaders in competition with one another. This was followed by the Moundville I phase. In early phase I centralisation took place at a number of sites in the Black Warrior Valley and by late Moundville I, around ad 1200, the paramount Moundville site complex was constructed within a wooden palisade. After this period of consolidation and entrenchment of the paramountcy at Moundville the populace moved away from Moundville to a number of secondary mounded sites. The elite remained resident at Moundville. Possible reasons for this shift in settlement are a desire to increase the sanctity of the centre by moving the people out, soil depletion caused by the concentration of people in one place during phase I, a lessened threat of war, with the palisade no longer kept up, or some combination of these factors. At this time Moundville seems to have become a necropolis for the surrounding populace. This period lasted from around ad 1300–1450, or late phase II to early phase III. Late phase III and phase IV, up until around ad 1650 show that the occupation and use of Moundville rapidly declined, although secondary centres continued to thrive for some time as the centre became irrelevant. By around ad 1550, with the advent of phase IV, the social system seems to have collapsed, maize production severely declined, and eventually the area became a no-mans land between warring Choctaw and proto-Creek peoples. Of particular note in this history is a reversal of previous notions of the Moundville sequence. Whereas earlier researchers believed that Moundville had grown slowly followed by a sudden collapse in phase IV, Knight and Steponaitis present evidence of the sudden establishment of the site at its maximum extent, followed by a gradual collapse.
In Chapter 2; Population Trends at Moundville, Steponaitis outlines the internal settlement evidence for the history outlined in the previous chapter. Midden, indicating habitation, is concentrated in phase I and early phase II (mainly dated with reference to a well documented ceramic typology), while burials are concentrated in phases II and III. Steponaitis discusses other possible explanations, but the data are pretty clear and the argument concise, so that one feels it must be largely correct.
Chapter 3; Moundville as a Diagrammatic Ceremonial Centre, by Vernon Knight, examines the way the social order is reproduced in the spatial patterns of the mounds. Despite giving one section the title of “Subterfuges in the Idiom of Spatial Form” this chapter is mercifully free of references to incomprehensible French social philosophers. There is a single relevant reference to Lévi-Strauss’ practical work on social and spatial patternings, the essence of which is that three-dimensional spatial patterning may mask many important and subtle aspects of multi-dimensional social patterns. The built environment may lock social patterns into place, but may also provide an arena for resistance, or perhaps, given Moundville’s late history, political irrelevance. This is a central point to make, acknowledging the limitations of this sort of analysis.
The spatial pattern of Moundville is very regular. Larger residential mounds alternate regularly with smaller burial mounds around the periphery of a central plaza. South to north the mounds are progressively larger and contain more and higher status burials. Thus at the height of its use as a residential complex during phase I – assuming contemporaneity of mound use, by no means proven – a regular pattern of a noble residence accompanied by a mortuary temple is evident, a pattern often found in Mississippian cultures. Mound use became less common from phase II onwards, with mortuary temples falling entirely out of use. Knight argues that this regular pattern of layout and pairing of mounds reproduces the ranked ordering of corporate segments in Moundville society. He supports this argument with an ethnographic analogy from the spatial patterning of Chikasaw camps when the Chikasaw, otherwise dispersed, meet in council. He argues for a strong cultural connection, despite the 700 years separating Moundville I from the early twentieth century Chikasaw, who were also a Mississippian people. The original informant for the information collected in 1904 was relating traditional ceremony and myth, and the camp layout described, though no longer practiced, seems to have been a traditional though idealised memory. Unfortunately the analogy is overworked in that Knight goes out of his way to justify its use when the relationship between Moundville and Chikasaw peoples is not at all clear. This is unnecessary because the analogy adds little to our understanding of the Moundville spatial layout. The attempt to interpret intangibles on the basis of tangible evidence alone will always be open to criticism. Knight’s argument is simple and convincing, and he demonstrates the kind of social structure that could have given rise to the visible spatial structure, but I feel he hath protested too much in his justification of the ethnographic analogy, which makes him seem unsure of the validity of his claims. I doubt that such claims may be either validated or invalidated except insofar as they advance a coherent overall model of Moundville history, which these do.
The remaining chapters are more in the nature of reports than the first three, not surprising given their origin at a conference session. Chapter 4; Domestic life on the Northwest Riverbank at Moundville, by Margaret Scarry, reports on recent extensive mitigation excavation prior to erosion prevention work. Previous research has focussed on structures associated with rank and power, rather than those associated with the day to day domestic life of the majority of Moundville’s residents. Most of the evidence uncovered could be dated, on the basis of both radiocarbon dating and ceramic types, to phase I. Two phases of domestic architecture were uncovered, simple rectangular structures ranging in size form 13 to 35 square metres. A change in settlement is documented in late phase I with structures built behind the palisade, as opposed to the more dispersed settlement in early phase I. There was some evidence of craft production involving mica, and imported material commonly used in paraphernalia associated with the southeast ceremonial complex (and here again some background would be welcome to the uninitiated).
Chapter 5; Of Time and the River: Perspectives on Health during the Moundville Chiefdom, by Mary Powell, and Chapter 6; Human Subsistence at Moundville: The Stable-Isotope Data, by Margaret Schoeninger and Mark Schurr, are rather technical in nature, as their titles suggest. Here scientific analyses of skeletal material document an increasing reliance on maize, until the collapse of the Moundville polity when health seriously declines and wild foods become important. Treponematosis (yaws and syphilis, though apparently not venereal syphilis) and tuberculosis were apparent throughout all phases, but became less common in later phases as a more dispersed settlement pattern led to a decreased likelihood of transmission and minimisation of dietary stress. In phases II and III the population was too low and dispersed for the effective epidemic transmission of Spanish introduced influenza and smallpox, and it is suggested that the collapse of the Moundville polity was not due to disease, but more probably to internal factors such as a decline in soil productivity.
As a casual outside observer, I have long been under the impression that a wave of introduced disease decimated Native American populations prior to effective European contact, and that the Mississippi chiefdoms exemplified this, so that by the time of de Soto’s famous expedition to the region he encountered only the sad remnants of a once thriving people. Unfortunately Schoeninger and Schurr’s argument to the contrary is seriously underdeveloped. This is a pity, because its implications would seem to be important. Knight and Steponaitis (Chapter 1) also side-step the issue of Spanish impacts on Moundville. This rather reinforces the impression of Moundville as an ‘island’ in isolation both historically and geographically. Its antecedents and final end are (in this volume) not well described.
Only briefly, in the introduction to Chapter 7; Outlying Sites within the Moundville Chiefdom, by Paul Welch, is Moundville’s overall place in Mississippian culture described. This chapter presents a summary of the archaeology of sites outside the main Moundville site, but attributable to the Moundville polity, that is to say, where the people lived in their dispersed settlement pattern during phases II and III. It is only in the last 10 or 20 years that these sites have been closely examined. The geographic limits of the Moundville polity seem to have been the floodplain of the Black Warrior River from 25 km north to 15–35 km (it is not currently clear) south of the main site.
Welch describes two types of site. Firstly hamlets and farmsteads, of which the total number and details of distribution are not clear. A few such sites have been excavated, yielding structures, pit features and burials. Secondly there are the secondary mound sites containing single mounds. By dating these secondary sites Welch is able to document changing settlement patterns, with a proliferation of secondary mound sites through time as the population became more dispersed and, perhaps, power shifted from the centre to the status lineages of the periphery. In late phase III the population seems to have become nucleated around the secondary mounds. Chapter 8; The Oliver Site and Economic Organisation, by Lauren Michals, examines one of these outlying sites in some detail, reporting on salvage excavation of a farmstead at the northern extremity of the Moundville chiefdom. Surprisingly there is no site plan of the excavation, an unfortunate omission. But, as Welch says, with only a minimal knowledge of the hamlet/farmstead sites, where it might be assumed the majority of the people lived and worked, the details of this scheme remain to be filled in.
Despite my initial reservations it should be clear that there are many good points to this volume. The early chapters at least provide a fair overview of an interesting and important site. Any researchers interested in the archaeology of chiefdoms, or of social stratification and social organisation, will find a great deal of interest here. While we must continue to wait for a comprehensive overview of Moundville (with maps) this volume gives us a good idea of the current state of play.