Alabama Archaeology: Prehistoric Alabama


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Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian
Lithics | Rock Art | Pottery | Southeastern Ceremonial Complex

 

Archaic: from the Greek, meaning Ancient

Archaic tools After the Ice Age ended, the environment changed and many of the larger animals became extinct.  The sea levels rose, and river deltas became flooded.  The weather was warmer, and vegetation changed.  The large animals that the Paleoindians hunted were no longer around.  People had to adapt to this new world around them.  As they adapted, a different stage of culture developed slowly over time, known as the Archaic stage.  It continued much longer than the Paleoindian culture did, lasting from 10,000 to 3,500 years ago. 
Illustration by C. B. Dupree (courtesy of the Alabama Museum of Natural History)
Archaic life

About Archaic Life...

Archaic people were not as nomadic as their ancestors.  Their changed lifeways relied less on migratory animals species. Instead, their subsistence relied more on smaller game such as deer, turkey, rabbit, and even skunk, fox, and wildcat.  Archaic Indians made seasonal moves because different food sources were available at different places and in different times of the year.

During the fall and winter, they camped in the forested hills.  Here the hunting was better and they could also gather nuts.  In the summer and spring, they returned to the lower lying river valleys to take advantage of fishing and collecting shellfish, such as mussels. 

Illustration by Roy S. Dickens, reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: the Archaeology of Georgia.

Shell Middens

Some of the most informative areas of the Archaic period are shell middens.  These are garbage piles of mussel shells.  As people disposed of the shells year after year as they stayed at the same campsite, these piles grew and preserved well over time.  Archaeologists find more than just shells in the middens.  Archaeologists also find other artifacts that provide clues to what life was like and what activities were taking place there, including hide preparation, woodworking, tool making, and house building.  Sometimes cemeteries are found at the sites, which gives us information about the Indians' religious beliefs. 

Shell Midden from 1Ma10
Photograph of a portion of the shell midden found at Site 1Ma10, near Huntsville, Alabama. Courtesy of the Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama Museums.
About Archaic Artifacts...
Atlatl
Illustrations by Roy S. Dickens, reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: the Archaeology of Georgia.

The Atlatl

Innovative new tools were also added to the Archaic Indians' possessions. One of these was the atlatl. An atlatl, or spear thrower, is a shaft with a weight (bannerstone) and hook on one end which a spear is then attached to. This device aids the spear thrower to hurl his spear farther and faster.

Roll your cursor over the picture to the left to find out how the atlatl was thrown.

Nutting Stones

Another new tool created by Archaic people was the nutting stone, used to grind up nuts and plants (with the aid of a hammer stone). Since the Archaic Indians had a more sedentary lifestyle than the Paleoindians, heavier stone tools, like nutting stones could be added to the Archaic tool kit.  

Nutting Stone
Illustration by Roy S. Dickens, reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: the Archaeology of Georgia.

Steatite, or Soapstone, Bowls

The Archaic Indians produced stone bowls in addition to stone tools. These bowls are made of a stone known as steatite, or soapstone, and sandstone.

Source for Steatite Steatite Blank

Carving a steatite bowl

A finished steatite bowl

Illustrations by Roy S. Dickens, reproduced from Frontiers in the Soil: the Archaeology of Georgia.
The finished steatite vessel.

When the bowls were completed they could not only be used for storage, but they could also be used in cooking by being placed directly over a fire.

Step 2.

These blanks were then carved using a wooden mallet and a chisel made from a deer antler.

Step 1.

In order to make a steatite vessel, mushroom-shaped blanks were carved from boulders of steatite.

A steatite vessel

The stone bowl on the right was recovered from a site on the Tennessee River in Northern Alabama (Newman 2002). Notice the two holes drilled into the vessel toward the back of the picture. These are most likely repair holes. If a crack appeared in a vessel, holes were drilled on either side of the crack and rope or string was threaded through the holes and tied off. This was done in hopes that the vessel would last a little longer.

A steatite vessel recovered from the Flint River Creek Site, 1Ma48. Photograph provided by the Office of Archaeological Research, University of Alabama Museums.

The Gradual Shift from Archaic to Woodland

Pottery was introduced in the Late Archaic period. With its beginnings in present-day South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, along the Atlantic coast, the production of ceramics began to spread westward into Alabama. Ceramic pots were used in much the same way as the earlier steatite vessels, for cooking and storage. However, with the advent of ceramic technology, came the ability to easily transport the vessels that were much lighter than their stone counterparts. 

The inventions continued in the Archaic stage.  People began to realize that they could encourage plants to grow better.  They were not farming yet, but instead helped thin out weeds and/or sheltered wild plants so they could grow better.  The first plants “harvested” were hard-rind squash, and bottle gourds, which were also used as containers. 

People were also sharing ideas and trading goods with others in the region.  For the first time, archaeologists find things that would not normally be found in that environment.  For example, rocks from the Appalachian Mountains are found in gravesites in Alabama.  They were most likely traded from neighbor to neighbor until reaching their final destination. 

Interested to learn more about Archaic life?

Check out this link to find out about Archaic sites that have been identified under rock shelters and early forms of Rock Art!

References

Dickens, Roy S. Jr. and James L. McKinley

1979 Frontiers in the Soil: The Archaeology of Georgia. Frontiers Publishing: Chapel Hill.

 

Newman, John B.

2002 A Steatite Bowl from the Flint River Site: 1Ma48. Journal of Alabama Archaeology 48(2): 98-101.

 

Walthall, John A.

1980 Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South. University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa.


Paleoindian | Archaic | Woodland | Mississippian
Lithics | Rock Art | Pottery | Southeastern Ceremonial Complex


Home | What is Archaeology | Archaeological Methods | Prehistoric Alabama
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Historic Alabama | Glossary