Woodland Period

The Woodland period is an archaeological construct defined by the presence of certain kinds of pottery and earthen mounds. Archaeological sites displaying these characteristics are found throughout the forested portion of eastern North America. In Mississippi, Woodland sites are distributed broadly, in many settings and environments. Based on radiocarbon dating, the period runs from ca. 800 BC to AD 1000.

This long period often is divided into Early (800–200 BC), Middle (200 BC–AD 500), and Late Woodland (AD 500–1000) segments. Within these eras, local phases have been defined for various regions of the state. Among the Early Woodland phases are Tchefuncte in the Mississippi Valley, Alexander and Wheeler in northern and eastern Mississippi, and Bayou La Batre on the Gulf Coast. For Middle Woodland, the respective phases for these three areas are Marksville, Miller I and Miller II, and Porter. Late Woodland phases are Baytown, Miller III, and Weeden Island.

The surfaces of Woodland pottery pieces often display fabric marking (made by a woven fabric, perhaps wrapped around a wooden paddle) or cordmarking (made by twisted strings), with the designs pressed into the surface of the pot before it was fired. Stylized bird and geometric designs, delineated by incised lines and by areas filled with stamped decoration, also were hallmarks of Woodland pottery. Sand and crushed pieces of pottery (grog) were the materials most frequently used to temper the clay to prevent the vessel from cracking during drying and firing.

Conical burial mounds are the most common kind of Woodland mound. They may cover log tombs, as at Pinson Mounds in Tennessee, or mortuary platforms, as at Bynum Mounds in Chickasaw County. Decorated pots from the Mississippi River Valley and axes made of greenstone from central Alabama were found in mounds excavated at Bynum and the nearby Pharr Mounds site. Flat-topped rectangular mounds, with earthen ramps leading up one side, also were built. Mississippi examples include Ingomar Mound 14 in Union County and Nanih Waiya in Winston County. Rectangular mounds appear not to have been used for burial or as substructures for buildings. Some may have been the locations of communal feasting, judging by the animal bones and charred plant remains dumped down their sides.

At a few sites near the Mississippi River, Middle Woodland people built large geometric earthworks, as at Little Spanish Fort, in Sharkey County. The semicircular embankment there is a maximum of six feet high and two thousand feet in diameter. A ditch along the outside was the source of the dirt that composes the earthwork. The wall likely had four gaps in it as part of the original site plan. Despite the name, Little Spanish Fort and places like it probably served not as forts but rather as ceremonial centers.

Woodland peoples lived year-round in small hamlets, villages, or towns. Mounds sometimes were built in association with a hamlet or larger habitation area. Site 22HO654 in Holmes County is an example. It has six conical mounds, each eight to ten feet high, spread across an area of about twenty-two acres. On one edge is a small village, covering slightly more than one acre, that has produced broken pottery dating from the Marksville to Baytown periods. In contrast, some large mound groups appear to have been vacant, lacking evidence of year-round habitation. One such site constructed in Middle Woodland times is Ingomar Mounds, where a rectangular mound and as many as nine conical mounds were built. These uninhabited sites probably served as ceremonial centers for outlying hamlets.

Woodland groups depended for subsistence on hunting wild game, fishing, and gathering nuts, roots, and seeds. In some areas, native plants such as sunflower (Helianthus annuus var. macrocarpa), lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium berlandieri var. Jonesianum), and marsh elder (Iva annua var. macrocarpa) were domesticated and became significant sources of food. Another important technological innovation was the introduction of the bow and arrow in Late Woodland times. This occurred by AD 700, based on the appearance of small stone arrow points.

Intergroup conflict became more prevalent in the Late Woodland period, as indicated by human burials with arrow points in the skeletons. Health also declined, with more indicators of anemia, other diseases, and arthritis present on the bones. Living in villages rather than in more scattered settlements helped to protect Late Woodland people from attack by neighboring groups but probably adversely affected their health. As these pressures worked on populations, cultivation of maize became increasingly important. In most parts of the state, this culminated in the sort of full-blown agriculture typical of the succeeding Mississippian archaeological period.

Further Reading

  • David G. Anderson and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., eds., The Woodland Southeast (2002)
  • Kenneth H. Carleton, Mississippi Archaeology(1999)
  • John L. Cotter and John M. Corbett, Archeology of the Bynum Mounds, Mississippi (1951)
  • Edwin H. Jackson, Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology (Fall 1998)
  • David T. Morgan, Mississippi Archaeology (1988)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Woodland Period
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018