- Excavating a Mississippian FrontierFieldwork at the Carter Robinson Mound Site
The Mississippian period (AD 900–1550) in the Southern United States is typified by corn agriculture, earthen mound construction, and extensive trade networks.1 Although many of these traits had existed before this time, it was during the Mississippian period that institutionalized hierarchy became part of Southern cultures. Societies now had permanent leaders, and those leaders (and their retinues) had access to more and better material culture, seen archaeologically as larger houses located close to mounds; more varied diets, including choice foods; and burials accompanied by exotic artifacts. Chiefs, in turn, may have provided protection or stability to the inhabitants of the chiefdom. Chiefdoms were present throughout the South at this time, starting most notably at Cahokia in Illinois near presentday St. Louis, whose size and magnitude were not replicated again; however, large chiefdoms were also located at Moundville in central Alabama and at Etowah and later Coosa in northwestern Georgia. Many studies have attempted to better define Southern chiefly economies, politics, settlement patterns, diet, and interactions, so that we now know more about the nature of Southern chiefdoms than ever before.2 As a result, researchers recognize the large amount of variation in Mississippian chiefdoms; although they are generally alike, there are also marked differences within and between regions. Examining such variation is one avenue toward better understanding the nature of these societies.
One way to identify variation is by studying the societies that were located on the frontier of the Mississippian world. The study of frontiers of any culture is important because frontiers are areas where multiple identities intersect, and where power can be re-created or reconfigured. [End Page 27] Boundary places also tend to be frontiers of multiple areas, and these change over time and scale. To understand the importance of prehistoric frontiers in local and regional economies, their interactions must be reconstructed to identify evidence of trade and other types of relationships with all surrounding communities.
This paper discusses one frontier site in presentday southwestern Virginia and evidence for one of its relationships, that with Southern Appalachian Mississippian communities. Archaeologists have recognized multiple causes of variation in chiefdoms, including access to locally specific natural resources, strategic location (including along active trade routes), and the particular pre-Mississippian and Mississippian histories of each area. Many such studies focus on very local issues of political economy and include only those sites within the immediate region.3 Alternately, several researchers have stressed the importance of also viewing Mississippian political economy at the macroregional scale, because both scales are needed to understand the nature of these societies.4 A study of the Mississippian periphery is essential to forming a macroregional understanding of these complex societies.
The lack of identification and excavation of frontier Mississippian groups, particularly to the north and east of the Mississippian heartland, has limited our ability to fully comprehend the nature of Mississippian chiefdoms. Large-scale excavation of one frontier site, the Carter Robinson mound (44LE10), was begun in 2007 to better understand the formation and role of groups on this one Mississippian frontier, their interactions with Mississippian and non-Mississippian groups, and the effect of these interactions on different cultures within the region.
Goals of excavations during the initial field season were to identify any village remains present, identify the occupation span of the village, and identify any ties between this mound site and surrounding sites. Earlier work has suggested that the location of frontier chiefdoms in this region was directly tied to trade.5 Frontier groups may have acted as nodes along long- and short-distance exchange routes. Trade may have become increasingly more important during the late Mississippian era in Southern Appalachia. Adam King has argued that groups in present-day northwest Georgia, for example, changed from corporate to network strategies of leadership, and access to exotic trade goods was important in establishing and maintaining chiefly power in network strategies.6 This frontier site, if settled because of trade, may have been evidence of [End Page 28] an expansion of contemporaneous groups in the nearby Norris Basin region of present-day northeastern Tennessee, a colonial enclave perhaps. Or, and...