The Woodland period in Alabama was characterized by increasing cultural complexity and population growth and began about 1000 BC and lasted until about AD 1000. During this era, people widely adopted horticulture, pottery-making, the bow and arrow, and complex ceremonies surrounding death and burial. Archaeologists divide the Woodland period into the Early, Middle, and Late Woodland time periods. They base these divisions on changes in the way people lived, including their settlement patterns (where they lived), subsistence (what they ate), the tools they used, and mortuary practices (how they buried their dead).
Early Woodland (1000 BC to AD 1)
The Early Woodland lasted from about 3,000 years ago to about 2,000 years ago. The transition from the Late Archaic to the Early Woodland is marked by an increase in cultural developments that can be traced to the Middle and Late Archaic. Although pottery, horticulture, and earthen mounds were familiar to some people who lived during the Archaic period, after about 1000 BC such innovations became widespread across Eastern North America. As in the Archaic, Early Woodland people lived in small groups of related families, known as bands, who shared a base camp most of the year. People usually located their base camps along the Gulf Coast or in Alabama's river valleys and then left as needed to hunt or fish in the surrounding areas. However, unlike the people of the Late Archaic, Early Woodland peoples generally did not travel long distances from their base camps. As a result, the long-distance exchange networks that developed during the Late Archaic broke down. Leadership during the Early Woodland probably consisted of a male elder who provided guidance to the band but had no real power. Everyone was of generally equal status in Early Woodland society.
Archaeologists learn about the lives of prehistoric peoples by studying the remains of the things that they made and used, which they call artifacts. The most common types of artifacts found at prehistoric sites are made of pottery and stone because these materials do not deteriorate as easily as bone, textiles, or other organic remains. People made pottery in different ways and decorated it with different patterns at different points in time, and archaeologists use these changes to determine cultural stability and change as well as the age of an archaeological site or artifact. People collected local clays to make their pots and other vessels. Before they formed the object, they added temper to the clay to prevent the pot from cracking as the clay dried and then hardened in an open-pit fire. Tempers included plant fiber, grit (coarse sand), crushed limestone, crushed bone, and grog (crushed potsherds).
The earliest pottery included plant fibers as temper and was made during the Archaic period about 2500 BC Such pottery was not widespread, however, and people seemed to have preferred using stone bowls for cooking well into the Early Woodland. Between 1500 and 1000 BC, people began using sand as temper, and pottery-making became much more common and widely distributed. Early Woodland people made a variety of pottery, including bowls and straight-sided beakers for serving and jars for cooking, serving, or storing food. The pieces usually were decorated with stamped, punctuated, pinched, brushed, or incised designs. Jars with pointed bases seem to have been the most popular types for cooking directly on a fire, and Early Woodland pottery is known for its jars with three or four nodes (leg-like pieces) on their bases.
Because Early Woodland people did not move around as much as Archaic people, the various bands did not see each other and share ideas as much, so styles of making pottery became very distinct from region to region. For example, people in northern Alabama tempered their pottery with crushed limestone and decorated it with stamped designs, but in south Alabama, pottery was tempered with sand and decorated with different stamped designs. At the same time, Early Woodland people in central Alabama made their pottery with sand temper but decorated it by using sharpened sticks or other tools to incise designs on the exterior.
The stone tools of the Early Woodland are similar to those made during the Archaic. People continued to make stemmed points with broad blades, but they were slightly smaller. Because people tended to remain near their base camps in the Early Woodland, they used stone from nearby sources for making tools. Tubular stone pipes first appeared during the Early Woodland and were likely used for ritual and ceremonial smoking.
A remarkable development of the Early Woodland was the widespread construction of earthen mounds. Mound-building seems to have originated in what is now Louisiana during the Archaic, but by about 1000 BC the tradition was adopted by people all over eastern North America. Like early mounds elsewhere, those in Alabama were usually conical or dome-shaped and were small, usually between two and five feet high and 30 to 60 feet across at the base. The mounds generally were built on top of burial pits or tombs of important individuals. Often buried with the person were items such as projectile points, natural pigments like ocher, or a few special trade items. Not all Early Woodland people were buried under mounds, however. Village sites often include graves in round pits scattered over the site. Bodies were buried in a tightly flexed position, with knees and arms folded up against the chest, and grave goods were uncommon. As with pottery styles, there was much geographic variability in Early Woodland mortuary practices.
Middle Woodland (AD 1 to AD 500)
The Middle Woodland lasted from about AD 1 to 500 and is marked by changes in settlement and subsistence patterns. Populations increased, and people began to spread into a variety of environments where they could take advantage of diverse food resources. They also tended gardens and gathered shellfish from the local rivers, which enabled them to live in one place for long periods of time without having to hunt for food as often. An increase of exotic artifacts at Middle Woodland sites indicates that there was more interaction between different regions than there had been during the Early Woodland. People living near the Gulf Coast and Mobile Bay area likely interacted both with people in the interior and with other coastal peoples, as reflected in the similarities in their pottery styles, the nonlocal sources of stone for their tools, and the presence of exotic items.
The most remarkable aspect of Middle Woodland culture is the development of the Hopewell Ceremonial Complex. As used by archeologists, the term "complex" refers to a group of specific artifact styles and mortuary practices that occur together. The Hopewell Complex first developed in what is now the Ohio Valley and other parts of the Midwest and gradually spread southward. It is characterized by large, geometric earthworks; conical mounds that contain elaborate tombs of logs and stone with many exotic grave offerings; and nonutilitarian artifacts made of exotic materials such as copper, mica, obsidian, and ocean shells. The elaborate tombs are especially important because they indicate that the person buried there had a special status. Although Woodland society was still basically egalitarian, these tombs suggest that some people may have achieved higher status possibly because of their activities as important traders, warriors, or religious figures. In Alabama, the Hopewell Complex appeared in the northern Tennessee Valley region, where it is called the Copena Mortuary Complex and is marked by village settlement patterns, burials in caves, and burial mounds. The Oakville Indian Mounds, southeast of Moulton in Lawrence County, are excellent examples of these structures. The name Copena comes from the first three letters of copper and the last three letters of galena (lead ore), which are commonly found in the burials, either as raw materials or fashioned into items. Other characteristic Copena artifacts include copper reel-shaped gorgets (a type of necklace) and earspools (cylinders worn through holes in the ears); cups made from ocean shell; and long, stemless, stone projectile points. Some of these items were traded in from long distances. Pottery was generally absent from Copena burials, and Middle Woodland pottery styles remained basically unchanged from those of the Early Woodland. Sand temper became more and more common, and pots with nodes on the bottom became smaller and less popular.
Groups of conical mounds are found in the Tennessee River Valley and the central Tombigbee River Valley. However, flat-topped, or platform, mounds also began to be constructed during the Middle Woodland. The remains of houses have been found on top of the mounds, which, along with elaborate graves, is another indicator that some individuals in Middle Woodland society had achieved a high social status. In north Alabama, archeologists excavated a Copena platform mound at the Walling site. Artifacts in the mound were more diverse than those in the surrounding village, and food remains from the mound consisted primarily of deer bones. This indicates that special rituals and feasts took place on top of the mound. Another important Middle Woodland site is the Pinson Mounds, located in western Tennessee. The site was a major Middle Woodland ceremonial center of at least 12 conical and platform mounds, including a geometric earthwork. Log-covered tombs with shell beads, copper, and engraved turtle-shell rattles were found under some of the mounds.
Late Woodland (AD 500 to AD 1000)
The Late Woodland period began about AD 500 and lasted about 500 years, until AD 1000. Populations increased and settlements filled up the landscape, spreading northward up small streams. People continued to live in base camps, but their increased numbers led to competition for resources and an increase in warfare. By this time, the use of the bow and arrow had spread from cultures to the west and fulfilled the need for a more accurate hunting tool and weapon. The bow and arrow made hunting less of a communal activity than it had been in the past, and individual families became more self-sufficient. People began making stone projectile points that were shorter, thinner, and more triangular so they could be attached to arrows. Middle Woodland people still hunted, fished, and gathered wild foods, but they also spent increasing amounts of time tending their plots of maize, squash, and other plants. Because they now grew food that could be stored, people developed large, rounded jars used for storage of surplus food. They continued to use sand, grog, limestone, or grit temper in their pottery.
As the Hopewell culture declined, mortuary practices became more variable and simplified. Small amounts of exotic items still occur in Late Woodland graves, but they seem not to have been part of an elaborate mortuary complex. The decline in ceremonialism may indicate the development of a new form of religion that focused on a reverence for the ancestors of certain lineages. There is evidence that many small groups occasionally gathered together to build mounds and maintain long-range ties. Likely as a result of these regional gatherings, pottery from different places developed widespread similarities in form and decoration. The mound centers expanded their functions from places for burial to places where civic and ceremonial functions occurred. The combined developments of surplus food, special lineages, and mound centers marked changes in society that were much different from how people had lived up to that point. And these changes set the stage for the developments that would take place in the Mississippian period.
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Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976.
Knight, Vernon J. Excavation of the Truncated Mound at the Walling Site: Middle Woodland Culture and Copena in the Tennessee Valley. Tuscaloosa: Alabama State Museum of Natural History, 1990.
Walthall, John. Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980.
Zschomler, Kristen, and Ian W. Brown. Alabama Archaeology: Now and Forever? Montgomery: Alabama Historical Commission, 1996. [n.b., out of print]
Published May 9, 2007
Last updated July 15, 2014