Alabama Archaeology: Prehistoric Alabama

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

A Brief History of the Development of Southeastern Archaeology

Thomas Jefferson

Archaeology's earliest roots in the United States is evident in the writings of Thomas Jefferson who systematically excavated an Indian mound on his property at Monticello. Jefferson dug a trench through the mound and noticed that this mound had various strata of differing soil colors and consistency. He also uncovered several burials and through this evidence, he surmized that that the mound had been created with the placement of the burials and then capped over with soil and that this process had been repeated a number of times throughout the years until the mound reached its final height of 12 ft.

Jefferson's work on the mound was ahead of its day in three respects. First, he was one of the first people on this continent to excavate at all. Second, his excavations were done with such care that they enabled him to clearly view the stratigraphy of his trench. This was remarkable considering that it wasn't until the 1930s that archaeologists began paying attention to stratigraphy.

And third, Jefferson was seeking an answer to a question that he posed, then, through his experimental procedures, he was able to draw conclusions. In essence, he used what we are taught in school today is the scientific method. Thomas Jefferson wasn't simply interested in gathering artifacts, he was interested in learning about the people who inhabited this land before him through the only means at his disposal, those things which they left behind with their burials.

View of the Mississippi Valley, painted by John Egan, 1850.
View of the Mississippi Valley, painted by John Egan, 1850. This painting shows an early excavation of a conical mound that is often erroneously associated with Thomas Jefferson.

Clarence B. Moore

Although Jefferson took copious notes and published the methods of his research along with his results, his practices were not followed by archaeologists in the years to follow. While many surveys were conducted throughout the eastern United States in order to locate and document early Native American sites, perhaps the archaeologist leaving the greatest legacy in Alabama was Clarence B. Moore.

C. B. Moore was a wealthy man born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and educated at Harvard University. At the age of 40, Moore puchased a flat bottomed steamship, named the Gopher, and navigated the Florida rivers during the summer. Concentrating on the shell middens and sand burial mounds along the rivers of Florida, year after year, C.B. Moore carefully excavated sites along the waterways. While Moore reserved the warmer months for traveling along the southeastern waterways and excavationg sites, the winter months were spent analyzing his findings and writing reports that were published by the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

In 1899, Moore ventured into Alabama traveling up the Alabama River. Then, in 1905, Moore traveled up the Black Warrior River where he spent most of his time excavating two mounds and surveying Moundville, a Native American center with over 20 mounds. Impressed by the size of the site and by the elaborate artifacts Moore uncovered, he returned the following summer to continue excavations. Moore was one of the first archaeologists to explore Moundville and document his findings, and, although his methods were not as sound as Jefferson's, he nevertheless provided modern archaeologists with a wealth of information that might otherwise have been lost.

C. B. Moore
The Gopher C.B. Moore and his steamship the Gopher. Reproduced from Certain Aborginal Remains of the Black Warrior River.

New Deal Archaeology in Alabama

Archaeology in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama received its biggest boost during the Federal Work Relief Projects of the 1930s and early 1940s. The New Deal projects focused on the excavation of Native American sites in an effort to collect information before areas were flooded by the creation of dams. Along the Tennessee River in Alabama, for instance, the creation of Wilson, Wheeler, and Guntersville Dams led to the innudation of many Indian sites which were situated next to the Tennessee River.

Thanks in part to these projects, a great deal of information was obtained. However, post-federal relief project archaeologists now found themselves in the extrodinary task of sifting through all this data to better understand what it all meant. One of the ways they organized the material at hand was to set up a relative chronology. In order to set up a relative chronology, archaeologists would first look at one site and examine and classify the artifacts based on the strata in which they were recovered. Presumably, the artifacts located in the lowest layers of the strata were the oldest, while the more recent artifacts were deposited closer to the surface.

Once the stratigraphy of a site was established, artifacts were grouped and compared based on the stratum in which they were located. Some artifacts appeared in multiple strata, but other types of artifacts were located in either one stratum or a few isolated strata. Since each stratum represents a slice in time, those artifacts which appear in a few strata, would presumably represent brief time spans in which the artifact was used.

For example, you probably know that vinyl records occurred before cassette tapes which occurred before compact disks. Fast forward a bit and pretend you are a future archaeologist studying the turn of the 21st century. You find an artifact, say a vinyl record, in a lower stratum, with a cassette tape recovered from an upper stratum and a CD that was recovered from a stratum above the cassette tape. Based on the Law of Superposition, you would probably assume, then, that the record was the oldest, the CD was the youngest, and the cassette tape was older than the CD, but younger than the record. In essence you are providing a chronology, or timeframe, without the use of dates, but is instead based on, or relative to, the other artifacts that have been uncovered.

1Ma10 excavations in 1939
WPA excavations at 1Ma10 in 1939. Photo courtesy of the University of Alabama Museums.
According to the Law of Superposition, the lowest stratum is the oldest, and the highest stratum is the more recent deposit.

So, what does any of this have to do with Prehistoric Indians in Alabama? Well, archaeologists began acquiring so much information that they needed a system for organizing it. So, archaeologists in the 1940s and 1950s came up with a system and nomeclature that all archaeologists use today. In order to study and learn about Prehistoric Alabamans, you need first to understand the nomenclature that archaeologists use.

A site is a location where a concentration of archaeological remains are found. It can be fairly large, for instance Moundville is a site that is approximately 300 acres. A site can also be fairly small, only a few feet by a few feet. Sites can be any number of things, they can represent settlements, camps, cemeteries, quarrys, or anywhere that someone happened to drop a few items.

A phase represents a designation of time that is used to separate artifacts that occurred together in time from those which may have occurred earlier or later. Moundville, for instance, has been identified with at least four different phases of occupation, Moundville I, Moundville II, Moundville III, and Moundville IV. Of course, the Moundville III Indians probably didn't realize that they were living in a different phase from the Moundville II and IV Indians; phases are simply ways for archaeologists to organize the artifacts that have been recovered. Phases are also limited to the site where the artifact assemblage was found; in other words, the Moundville I phase only occurs in the area in and around Moundville. In the area around Mobile that phase, or time period, would be referred to with a different name.

A stage represents a designation of time that is much larger than a phase. In Alabama there are four Prehistoric stages, Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian. Moundville, for instance, is largely associated with the Mississippian Stage. Follow the links below to learn more about each of the four Prehistoric stages.

Paleoindian Archaic Woodland Mississippian


The Paleoindian stage is characterized by small, nomadic bands who gathered plants and hunted Pleistocene megafauna with large fluted projectile points such as Clovis, Cumberland, and Dalton.


The Archaic stage is characterized by larger groups of people coming together in seasonal camps who hunted smaller game such as deer, rabbit, turtle, frog, etc. A greater emphasis was placed on gathering nuts and vegetables than in the Paleoindian stage. More diverse artifacts have been found in Archaic deposits such as groundstone tools, large, stemmed points, and stone vessels, to name a few.


The Woodland Stage is characterized by its developments in pottery, the introduction of the bow and arrow, conical burial mounds, long-distance trade items, and agriculture. Also during the Woodland Stage is an increase in ceremonialism, perhaps as a result of people settling down longer in towns and villages. Woodland Indians appear to have placed greater emphasis on tending crops, such as maize, than their Archaic ancestors.


The Mississippian stage is characterized by distinctive forms of pottery and the construction of large, rectangular mounds built around a central, rectangular plaza for religious rituals and elite residences. Other Mississippian traits include small, triangular stone points, shell tempered pottery, maize-based horticulture, long-distance trade, and the emergence of chiefdoms.

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

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