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Feasting with Shellfish in the Southern Ohio Valley

Archaic Sacred Sites and Rituals

Cheryl Claassen

Publication Year: 2010

In this provocative work, Cheryl Claassen challenges long-standing notions about hunter-gatherer life in the southern Ohio Valley as it unfolded some 8,000 to 3,500 years ago. Focusing on freshwater shell mounds scattered along the Tennessee, Ohio, Green, and Harpeth rivers, Claassen draws on the latest archaeological research to offer penetrating new insights into the sacred world of Archaic peoples. Some of the most striking ideas are that there were no villages in the southern Ohio Valley during the Archaic period, that all of the trading and killing were for ritual purposes, and that body positioning in graves reflects cause of death primarily. Mid-twentieth-century assessments of the shell mounds saw them as the products of culturally simple societies that cared little about their dead and were concerned only with food. More recent interpretations, while attributing greater complexity to these peoples, have viewed the sites as mere villages and stressed such factors as population growth and climate change in analyzing the way these societies and their practices evolved. Claassen, however, makes a persuasive case that the sites were actually the settings for sacred rituals of burial and renewal and that their large shell accumulations are evidence of feasts associated with those ceremonies. She argues that the physical evidence—including the location of the sites, the largely undisturbed nature of the deposits, the high incidence of dog burials, the number of tools per body found at the sites, and the indications of human sacrifice and violent death—not only supports this view but reveals how ritual practices developed over time. The seemingly sudden demise of shellfish consumption, Claassen contends, was not due to overharvesting and environmental change; it ended, rather, because the sacred rituals changed. Feasting with Shellfish in the Southern Ohio Valley is a work bound to stir controversy and debate among scholars of the Archaic period. Just as surely it will encourage a new appreciation for the spiritual life of ancient peoples—how they thought about the cosmos and the mysterious forces that surrounded them.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

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pp. xi-xii

A study like this, depending as I did on the literature rather than primarily reexamination of collections and field notes or excavation, owes much to diggers, authors, curators, and colleagues. I need to thank specifically those colleagues who dealt with my (frequent) e-mail inquiries, often ...

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1. Thinking about Archaic Hunter-Gatherers

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pp. 1-10

The hunter-gatherer-shellfishers of the southern Ohio Valley, who are the focus of this study, like those living in other regions of the Americas were once viewed as so culturally simple that they cared little about their dead and were concerned only with food (Webb and Haag 1940:109). The sometimes 30-foot-thick piles of shell, rock, and ash and the seemingly jumbled bodies supported this impression. By 1983, however, ...

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2. Archaic Shell-bearing Sites of the Southern Ohio Valley

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pp. 11-34

The so-called “Shell Mound Archaic,” those shell-bearing sites found on the Tennessee River, Ohio River, and Green River, as well as elsewhere, is the best known, most poorly dated phenomenon in eastern United States prehistory. For sites that have been treated as a single phenomenon, they have radiocarbon dates ranging from 8586 bp to 1315 bp. ...

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3. Locations of Shell-bearing Sites

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pp. 35-49

To read the pre-1975 literature, one would think that Archaic shell heaps could be found on many rivers in the eastern United States. “[L]argely through the studies of Fairbanks (1942) and Haag (1942) Archaic came to be a near synonym for shell midden cultures found all over the East” (Jennings 1974:128). Rather than being ubiquitous, however, these shellbearing sites are clustered on few rivers (Figure 3.1). I am convinced that ...

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4. Overexploitation of Mollusks

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pp. 51-68

As rich as the riverine life appeared to have been at the shell-bearing sites, shellfishing declined and then stopped at most of the locations annotated in Chapter 2. One explanation given for the apparent abandonment of this activity and foodstuff is human overexploitation of this resource. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the hypothesized extirpation ...

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5. The Demise of the Hypsithermal

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pp. 69-83

Numerous authors have assigned the beginning and end of intensive shellfishing in the Archaic period to the Hypsithermal climatic episode (e.g., Klippel et al. 1978, Marquardt and Watson 2005a). A compendium of the various arguments goes like this: Prior to the onset of intensive shellfishing in the Archaic, humans, who did not live by rivers, either did ...

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6. Ohio River Valley Shell-bearing Sites: Villages?

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pp. 85-134

Prior to the late 1980s, the shell mounds that are the focus of this study were assumed to be villages, lived in at least half of each year. The quantity of debris and the size of some of these accumulations were just two of the lines of evidence. The types of artifacts and features found in them were even more significant in the village logic. ...

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7. Ceremonial Districts of the Southern Ohio Valley

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pp. 135-168

In previous chapters I have argued that the interpretive tag of “village” does not do the Archaic shell-bearing sites justice. But, if the huge shell sites at the riverside were not the places where families resided, dogs scavenged, children played, and from which gathering and hunting parties left and to which they returned, for what were these places created? ...

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8. Archaic Rituals at Shell-bearing Sites

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pp. 169-193

Archaic rituals and beliefs are the frontier in the study of the past in North America. Woodland period ritual beliefs have been tackled in two recent compendia (Charles and Buikstra 2006, Carr and Case 2005) and Mississippian beliefs continue to attract scholarly attention (e.g., Reilly and Garber 2007). Webb (1950a), Winters (1969), and Blitz (1983) offered thoughts on Archaic beliefs and ritual paraphernalia. ...

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9. From Archaic Villages to Ritual Camps: The Theoretical Landscape

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pp. 195-226

Although the shell heaps of the Archaic have been dug into for more than a century, they have been underproblematized. Several decades ago, I began to question the improbable locations of the Archaic shell heaps given that shellfish would have been available everywhere and given that the shells had been hauled to the tops of bluffs, in some cases. These ...

Appendix: Site Data

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pp. 228-233

References Cited

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pp. 235-264


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pp. 265-275

E-ISBN-13: 9781572337336
E-ISBN-10: 1572337338
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572337145
Print-ISBN-10: 1572337141

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 8 halftones, 9 maps
Publication Year: 2010