Archaeologists have been studying Mississippi since 1902, when Charles Peabody from Harvard University’s Peabody Museum conducted excavations at the Oliver Mound site in Sunflower County.
He uncovered a remarkable array of late prehistoric artifacts there and established a pattern of archaeologists from eastern institutions spending extended field seasons in the state exploring the rich cultural resources, focusing primarily on the Delta. Through the 1950s and 1960s, archaeologists documented hundreds of sites and, more important, established the cultural chronology for the region. After about 1970 one of the major sources of external funding was cultural resources management (CRM) contracts. A suite of federal laws required that archaeological sites be studied in advance of any projected impact on those sites as a result of a federally funded project. Perhaps the most notable of the CRM projects conducted in Mississippi was associated with the construction of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway in the northeastern part of the state. Thousands of previously unrecorded archaeological sites were discovered, and archaeologists excavated many of them. Not only did we learn a great deal about an area that was poorly understood, the archaeological research funded by this and other CRM projects represented a shift in focus. While the archaeologists of the first half of the twentieth century concentrated on establishing a chronology for the artifacts and sites they were studying, CRM archaeologists explained the archaeological record in terms of environmental adaptation, technology, raw material exchange, and social organization, among many other concerns. As a result, the prehistory of the state is now understood as a complex and regionally diverse network of settlements that changed through time in ways that depended on evolving subsistence bases, changing environments, and contacts with contemporary peoples from throughout the South.
The prehistory of the South is generally understood in terms of four major stages. The earliest of these, the Paleo-Indian period, is poorly represented in Mississippi. Paleo-Indian sites in other states have demonstrated that these early hunters took advantage of large, late Pleistocene animals such as mammoths and a now extinct species of bison. Analysis of these sites indicates that Paleo-Indians were largely nomadic, following the big game they were exploiting. Spear points from this period are usually made from the best raw material available within a fairly large area, indicating that during their seasonal migration, Paleo-Indians made a point of stopping where the finest stone was available and replenishing their tool kits. This high-grade stone was transformed into some of the most finely crafted spear points that have been found in Mississippi. Not only are Paleo-Indian points extremely symmetrical and carefully flaked, they characteristically have a single large flake taken from each face of the tool, beginning at the base and running up to three-quarters of the way to the point. The flutes or grooves are thought to have made hafting the point on a shaft more secure. The argument for this innovation is that since the hunting strategy focused on a few large and likely difficult-to-kill animals, the Paleo-Indians increased their chances of success by maximizing their technology. Although rare, Paleo-Indian spear points are found in surface collections from Mississippi. A large number of these points are made from the high-grade bedrock cherts from extreme northwestern Mississippi. Since no examples have been excavated in the state, there are no dates for this period in Mississippi, but it is generally dated to between 13000 and 8000 BC.
The Archaic period accounts for the next sixty-five centuries, the longest of any of the prehistoric periods. It is broken into the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic. We are fortunate to have data from the excavation of the Hester, a stratigraphic site near Aberdeen in northeastern Mississippi that spans all of the Early and most of the Middle Archaic periods. This prehistoric campsite was located on a terrace of the Tombigbee River where, over the centuries, flood deposits alternated with periods of occupation so that several feet of deposition preserved the prehistoric sequence, with Early Archaic artifacts at the bottom and Middle Archaic tools at the top. Careful excavation of this site documented a series of different styles of spear points. During the first half of the twentieth century, prior to the excavation of stratified sites such as Hester, these styles of points were thought to represent different and possibly contemporaneous tools with a separate tool for certain kinds of game or tasks, somewhat like a prehistoric golf bag with drivers, irons, and putters. A better analogy would be the way that automobile designs have evolved over time. Some developments reflect changes in technology, but the large majority—the kinds that allow viewers to differentiate a 1959 Cadillac from one made in 1969 or 1979—fall into the general area of style. However, some distinctive technological features allow archaeologists to identify Early Archaic spear points. Most are corner notched—that is, they are roughly triangular, with notches at the two basal corners—apparently to facilitate their attachment to hafts. The bases of Early Archaic spear points are usually ground to dull the sharp edges made while flaking the tool. This style is generally interpreted as a way to improve hafting. Finally, when viewed in cross section, Early Archaic points are not roughly symmetrical, like most spear points, but are more like parallelograms with beveling on alternate edges. This trait indicates that they were regularly resharpened while still hafted and must have been used as knives as well as spear points. Microscopic analyses of the traces of wear preserved on the edges of these points confirm that they were used for a number of tasks. The Early Archaic lasted for several centuries (8000–5000 BC). Studies of animal and plant remains recovered from sites dating to this period indicate that hunting, primarily white-tailed deer, was a major activity, while wild plants were exploited for seeds, fruit, and nuts. These Early Archaic hunters were nomadic, moving from resource to resource on a seasonal basis, though across a smaller range than their Paleo-Indian ancestors. Local resources were used almost exclusively for manufacturing their stone tools.
The Middle Archaic (5000–3000 BC) is marked by a change in the style of spear point. Basal-notched and corner-removed forms predominate. Beveling and basal grinding are rare. Other, more significant changes also occurred. For the first time in Mississippi we have evidence for long-term and intensive settlement in some locations. The best examples are the midden mounds of the Upper Tombigbee River Valley near Amory in northeastern Mississippi. These sites are located in low-lying areas of the floodplain, often surrounded by swamps. Excavation has shown these to have been low elevations in the swamp that were reoccupied for hundreds of years. The result is a rich organic deposit where the earth is dark brown or black as a result of the midden (trash) left at these sites. These deposits are often as much as six feet deep and are well stratified, with a few Early Archaic artifacts in the bottommost layers and a few late prehistoric artifacts in the top levels. The majority of the artifacts date to the Middle Archaic. One of the most interesting developments during the late Middle Archaic is the introduction of well-constructed, medium-sized, corner-removed points that were not made from locally available gravel. These points, called Benton after the county in Tennessee where they were first described, are made from a high-quality blue-gray bedrock chert from the Fort Payne formation located more than eighty miles to the northeast near Muscle Shoals in the Tennessee River Valley. These spear points were brought to the midden mound sites as nearly complete blanks to be finished, used, and discarded there. Archaeologists excavating the large mounds of shell along the banks of the Tennessee River that mark the location of Middle Archaic campsites found levels containing finished Benton points, blanks, and so much flaking debris that these were dubbed the workshop levels. Another set of artifacts, oversized Benton points, also were made from Fort Payne chert and deposited in the midden mounds. They are four or five times as long as the standard forms, with even longer bipointed “spear points.” The bipointed forms and oversized Benton points were almost certainly not actually used as spear points because they are much too long and thin and would have shattered on impact. Instead, they might have been used in ritual and were certainly used to mark status, since they have been found in burials. In addition, middens include what appear to have been burned clay floors with isolated post holes. So far, none of the midden mound excavations has uncovered a pattern of post holes that outline a structure, but they are still the first evidence of structures to have been recorded in Mississippi.
Other, more spectacular finds indicate that technology and by implication social organization had become more complex during the Middle Archaic. Ground-stone tools have long been recognized as a marker of the Middle Archaic. The characteristic ground-stone artifact of this period is the banner stone. These are symmetrical cylinders of stone three to five inches long and two to three inches in diameter. They are sometimes square or rectangular in cross section and often have flattened panels or “wings” on either side. They were made from quartzite and other extremely hard stone. Examples broken during manufacture and discarded show that they were shaped by pecking and grinding. The final step was to drill a hole about an inch in diameter following the long axis of the cylinder. This was done using a drill made of cane with sand as an abrasive. Hundreds of hours were invested in the manufacture of these objects, and some are quite fantastic. They have been found in burial context with sufficient preservation so that a characteristic bone hook is found in line with the hole and twelve or more inches away from it, indicating that these were spear thrower weights. Spear throwers were wooden shafts with hooks on the end that fit into sockets in the bases of spears. They extended the arm, allowing the hunter to exert more force. The banner stones counterbalanced the weight of the shaft of the spear. The hunter could watch for game with the spear ready to throw.
Another kind of ground-stone artifact has recently been associated with the late Middle Archaic as the result of research done in Mississippi. Small, tubular beads, one or two inches long and less than half an inch in diameter, were made using a technology similar to that used to make banner stones. While the majority of these beads are simple tubes, many are formed in the shape of stylized insects and animals. These beads are found throughout the state, but one of the largest collections of them was recovered from the plowed fields of the Denton site near the town of Lambert in northwestern Mississippi. Other ground-stone effigy forms without holes drilled for suspension were found at Denton. Benton-like spear points made from Fort Payne chert have also been found at Denton, although it is more than 180 miles from the source area. The Denton site also has a small earthen mound that was originally related to the small number of pieces of broken pottery found at the site and dating to a much later period of time. Middle Archaic Indians were not previously thought to have lived in large enough groups or have the social organization required to build mounds. A number of discoveries in Louisiana dating back to the 1990s have proven that those assumptions were false. Several late Middle Archaic mound sites just across the Mississippi River have been positively dated using spear point types, soil analysis, and radiocarbon dating. Some contain ground-stone beads and the tools used to make them. A small mound in Lincoln County in southwestern Mississippi has recently been dated to this period. Although it was once argued that the social organization implied by mound construction was possible only with advent of horticulture, no evidence suggests that the Middle Archaic Indians who built these mounds had access to any cultivated plants. These discoveries have forced archaeologists to reassess their understanding of the Middle Archaic.
In fact, the archaeological record of Mississippi and the rest of the Southeast can be characterized in terms of periods of cultural florescence where raw material obtained from outside the immediate area was transformed into elaborate and nonutilitarian artifacts that were likely used to mark differential status. In addition, mounds were constructed to define sacred spaces and to demonstrate the power of a few elite members of the culture to mobilize labor. These periods of florescence are often punctuated by several centuries when mounds and special classes of artifacts are absent or rare. The Late Archaic (3000–1500 BC) in Mississippi is, as far as we know, one such period. The same utilitarian tools are made with a whole new set of spear point shapes. Ample evidence indicates that natives lived well, and in fact, the state has more Late Archaic sites than Early or Middle Archaic sites, suggesting that the population continued to grow. However, earthworks, long-distance exchange, and specialized tools do not appear again until the very end of the Late Archaic. The extensive and elaborate earthworks at the Poverty Point site, a short distance across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, have been known since the 1960s to date to the terminal Late Archaic. Until recently, this complex of concentric ridges arranged in a hexagonal pattern around a central plaza large enough to hold a couple of football fields confounded archaeologists as a unique and too early expression of monumental architecture. In addition, the site complex includes three large mounds and evidence for considerable fill in the plaza as well as a large number of artifacts made from raw material derived from distant sources. With the discovery of the Middle Archaic mounds, Poverty Point is no longer considered so unusual, but we still do not understand how nomadic hunters and gatherers generated the surplus resources to build these large earthworks. Moreover, recent remote sensing surveys of the plaza at Poverty Point have revealed large circular structures, too big to be houses, that may have been ritual post enclosures. Several sites in Mississippi were contemporaneous with Poverty Point and contain similar assemblages of artifacts made from exotic raw materials. The best known of these is the Jaketown site near Belzoni in the Delta. Recent work there has uncovered what may have been earthworks buried by more than ten feet of river deposits.
One diagnostic artifact of the Poverty Point period is fired clay balls about the size of plums. These Poverty Point objects, as they are called, come in a variety of shapes and appear to have served as cooking stones in the stone-poor environment of the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. A pit was dug and lined with Poverty Point objects, and then a fire was built. Once the fire had burned down and the Poverty Point objects were red hot, food was placed in the pit to cook. The use of fired clay at Poverty Point anticipates ceramics, a technology that was important during the subsequent occupation of Mississippi. Fragments of broken pottery are the predominant artifact at most prehistoric sites dating to the Woodland and Mississippian periods. In fact, ceramics are generally used to mark the beginning of the Woodland period (1500 BC–AD 1000). During this time there is increasing evidence for long-term, sometimes permanent settlement. Group size appears to have grown, since some Woodland sites are quite large. Hunting of deer and other land mammals continues to have been important, but analyses of the faunal remains from Woodland sites show that in addition to nuts and wild plants, the Woodland Indians domesticated sunflowers and other indigenous seed-bearing plants. This early agriculture no doubt explains the changes in settlement patterns and site type that characterize the Woodland period. The period is usually broken into three segments, Early Woodland (1500–200 BC), Middle Woodland (200 BC–AD 500), and Late Woodland (AD 500–1000). While archaeologists usually distinguish these phases on the basis of changes in the way the Indians decorated pots, other aspects of the archaeological record are more interesting.
The characteristic earthwork of the Woodland period is the burial mound. These mounds vary a good deal in internal structure, occasionally containing a central burial that was placed in a pit dug into the original land surface and covered with logs before the earth was mounded over it. At times the burials were placed in the mound, and the mound grew as burials were added. Occasionally both customs were followed, with the central tomb followed by several stages of construction with accompanying burials. There are clearly not enough mounds to accommodate the entire population, indicating that the mounds must have been reserved for elite members of society. The often-elaborate artifacts buried in the mounds support this argument. In addition to the introduction of horticulture and ceramics, the Woodland marks the beginnings of differential status as expressed in the archaeological record. Some of the most elaborate grave goods are found in mounds dating to the Middle Woodland period. The Bynum Mound, located near Houston in east-central Mississippi, is a good example. Ceramic vessels with elaborate incised images of stylized birds were included in the central tomb, along with greenstone adzes and cremated burials. Other Middle Woodland burial mounds contain pan pipes made from cold-hammered copper and shell cups made from marine shell. Stone tools were often made from midwestern raw materials, and there is a similarity between the way that Middle Woodland ceramics were decorated in Mississippi and contemporaneous ceramics from the Midwest. The similarities exist primarily in the ceramics from the burial mounds.
Woodland burial mounds are generally semihemispherical and fairly small. Topped mounds that are rectangular in plan view are usually called temple mounds and associated with the subsequent Mississippian period. Over the past two decades, a number of flat-topped mounds have been discovered that do not date to the Mississippian period and were not temple mounds. Mound B at the Batesville Mound site is a good example of a Woodland period platform mound. Although the mound is flat on top, no evidence indicates that a structure was ever built on its summit. One of the early stages of mound construction is full of the locally available gravel that had been heated and then cooled so quickly that it exploded. This fractured rock was likely used in cooking—a good deal of cooking. This stage of the mound appears to have been made up of the residue of large, likely ceremonial feasts. This mound dates to the Early Woodland. An even larger Woodland period flat-topped mound was erected near what is now the city of Ingomar just south of New Albany.
The most dramatic shift in settlement occurred with the introduction of corn-based agriculture at the beginning of the Mississippian period (AD 1000–1700). The period is named after the river and the vast floodplain of the Mississippi River, which was densely populated from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico during this period.
Mississippi contains a substantial number of Mississippian period sites. In contrast, the uplands of the state—areas that were well used by Archaic and Woodland Indians—were sparsely settled during the Mississippian period. Mississippian populations targeted the natural levees of the major rivers. These were the highest ground and less likely to flood and had prime agricultural soil.
The typical larger Mississippian site consists of one or more platform mounds arranged around a central plaza with associated conical burial mounds. The platform mounds are often imposing structures. The main mound at the Winterville Mounds located near Greenville is more than fifty-five feet high. Excavations in these mounds show that the mounds served as platforms for some of the largest structures on the site. Excavation in the main mound at the Parchman Place Mounds near Coahoma in the Delta exposed six burned floors, stacked one above the other, representing mound-top structures that were intentionally burned and immediately buried. Some sort of renewal ceremony as well as an expression of social power in terms of mobilized labor and mound construction is implied. There can be no doubt that Mississippian social structure was hierarchical, with powerful elites living at major mound centers in structures located atop temple mounds. When the elites died, they were buried in central locations within the mound centers, often accompanied by elaborately constructed and decorated artifacts. The major mound sites were surrounded by small mound sites (often single mounds) that in turn were surrounded by smaller village sites without mounds. Intense rivalry likely occurred between sites on the different levels, with rapid shifts in power as sets of leaders had more or less success in attracting followers. Ample evidence documents warfare at least during the early part of this period—iconography, burials containing arrowheads, trophy skulls, and fortified villages. Power centers rose and fell in cycles that sometimes lasted little more than a century. A major task for the next couple of decades in Mississippian archaeology will be working out the local histories of the distribution of power as expressed by the construction and abandonment of Mississippian mound centers.
The corn and beans that formed the economic basis for Mississippian society were clearly derived from Mesoamerica, and archaeologists have been quick to point out the superficial similarities between the temple mounds–plaza arrangement of Aztec and Mayan sites and the mound architecture of the Mississippian ceremonial centers. Given what we now know about the indigenous Woodland period development of flat-topped mounds, the mound tradition may well have grown at least in part from local antecedents. While similarities can be seen between Mesoamerican and Mississippian iconography, recent analyses based on native North American myths have made a persuasive argument for a rich indigenous belief system with only general similarities to those of Mexico and Guatemala. Moreover, plazas, while certainly present on Mississippian sites, are not an invariable element. In fact, one of the major discoveries of the past two decades of archaeology focusing on Mississippian sites is that a remarkable degree of variation exists in terms of site organization, symbolism, and complexity. For example, the Mississippian culture in the northern half of the Delta rests on a local, relatively conservative Woodland base. The transition into the Mississippian period was initiated at least in part through contact with major northern Mississippian centers such as Cahokia near St. Louis in west-central Illinois. Although the southern half of the Delta shows evidence of northern influence, the local Woodland tradition was expressed in terms of larger mound sites and represents a culture that is common to the South and along the Gulf Coast.
Given the regional diversity and the unstable nature of centralized power that we have come to recognize, it should come as no surprise that the Europeans recorded much different cultures in different parts of the state. De Soto and his party encountered the Chickasaw living in villages without mounds scattered throughout the Black Prairie of eastern Mississippi, somewhere in the vicinity of Columbus or West Point. Although medium-sized Mississippian mound centers had been located on the terraces of the Tombigbee River, they appear to have been abandoned prior to the de Soto expedition. After leaving the Black Prairie, de Soto crossed the north-central hills of North Mississippi as quickly as possible because there were no villages that the Spaniards could plunder for food. The Delta, conversely, was populous, and de Soto met with native leaders who lived in substantial structures built on large mounds. The Delta was abandoned by the late seventeenth century, when French explorers returned to the region, likely as a result of the political and economic disruption caused by the European-sponsored trade in Indian slaves. The Fatherland site to the south in Natchez was, however, the home of the Great Sun, the paramount leader of the Natchez who lived on one of the mounds until conflict with the French forced the Natchez to leave their homeland in the early eighteenth century.
Mississippi’s archaeological record provides the opportunity to better understand the relationship between humans and their environment as well as the way that different forms of social and economic organization relate to one another. Remarkable parallels connect our culture and that of the native Mississippians. Almost every major city in the Delta, for example, was built on the remains of a Mississippian site. The main street in Clarksdale once split to go on either side of a mound too large to easily dismantle. The same factors that made the location favorable for European settlement were also important prehistorically. The city of Tupelo has completely encompassed the location of the major eighteenth-century Chickasaw villages. The Fatherland site is located within the Natchez city limits. And although undeniable similarities exist, so do stark differences. As we learn more about the archaeological record, we learn more about ourselves. After all, the Indians lived in Mississippi for more than fifteen thousand years, and only a small fraction of that period of time is accessible through historic documents.
- David G. Anderson and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., eds., The Woodland Southeast (2002)
- Judith A. Bense, Archaeology of the Southeastern United States: Paleoindian to World War I (1994)
- Judith A. Bense, ed., The Midden Mound Project (1987)
- Jeffrey P. Brain, in Mississippian Settlement Patterns, ed. Bruce D. Smith (1978)
- Samuel O. Brookes, The Hester Site: An Early Archaic Occupation in Monroe County, Mississippi (1979)
- John L. Cotter and John M. Corbett, Archeology of the Bynum Mounds, Mississippi (1951)
- Charles Hudson, Knights of Spain, Warriors of the Sun: Hernando de Soto and the South’s Ancient Chiefdoms (1997)
- Jay K. Johnson, in Histories of Southeastern Archaeology, ed. Shannon Tushingham, Jane Hill, and Charles. H. McNutt (2002)
- Vernon J. Knight Jr., James A. Brown, and George E. Lankford, Southeastern Archaeology (Winter 2001)
- Bonnie G. McEwan, ed., Indians of the Greater Southeast: Historical Archaeology and Ethnohistory (2000)
- Samuel O. McGahey, in The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast, ed. David G. Anderson and Kenneth E. Sassaman (1996)
- Robert S. Neitzel, Archaeology of the Fatherland Site: The Grand Village of the Natchez (1965)
- Robert S. Neitzel, The Grand Village of the Natchez Revisited: Excavations at the Fatherland Site, Adams County, Mississippi, 1972 (1983)
- Philip Phillips, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin, Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940–1947 (1951); Joe Saunders et al., Science (September 1997)