Late Archaic and Early Woodland Research in Virginia: A Synthesis

Theodore R. Reinhart and Mary Ellen Hodges, editors. Archeological Society of Virginia, Special Publication 23, 1991. ix + 275 pages, illustrations, references. $15.00 (paper).

Late Archaic and Early Woodland Research in Virginia is the latest offering in the series of research syntheses published by the Archeological Society of Virginia. Previous studies in this series have covered the Paleo-Indian and Early/Middle Archaic periods, and this publication continues the chronological sequence. However, this volume differs from the two earlier syntheses in that no portion of it was written by anyone connected with Catholic University and William M. Gardner. (The first two volumes were very much the "Gospel according to Gardner," with my mentor Gardner authoring the lead essay in the Paleo-Indian volume, and the lead essay in the Early/Middle Archaic volume authored by me.) When I first looked at this volume, whose lead article is authored by Dan Mouer, I was more than a little concerned because I have never agreed with Dan Mouer about much of anything. However, as I worked my way through the volume I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part.

Mouer's lead essay comprises almost 25% of the volume and is the best article in the book. Based on his past papers and articles, I expected to read much about "social territories," migrations, and buffer zones. However, what I found was a very well-reasoned and readable synthesis of much new data on Late Archaic and Early Woodland culture history in Virginia. A vast amount of new data is described and synthesized in Mouer 's essay, and it is certainly required reading for anyone planning on undertaking research concerning Virginia’s Late Archaic and Early Woodland prehistory. (Because Mouer has teased me in a review of one of my books, I must reciprocate and note that Mouer’s essay is based on his recently completed Ph.D. dissertation. I have been told that Mouer’s alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, has since retired the position of Graduate Student Emeritus upon his graduation.)

Even though data synthesis is a major component of Mouer’s essay, it should be noted that he does not just describe culture history. Indeed, the title of the essay, "The Formative Transition in Virginia," implies that Mouer has much to say about transformations of societies during these time periods. A basic theme in Mouer’s essay is that "sedentary, village-dwelling societies developed in Virginia much earlier than was previously believed" (p. 70), namely during the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods, and Mouer marshals much data to support this idea. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see that Mouer regards his ideas as hypotheses to test, rather than as dogma to accept. From the data presented, Mouer’s hypothesis certainly seems reasonable. However, I found myself wondering if some of the large Late Archaic/Early Woodland sites described by Mouer could have resulted from multiple occupations by small groups rather than from single component occupations by large groups. Some recent large-scale excavations of Late Archaic - Middle Woodland sites in Delaware covering more than 20 acres have shown that very dense sites thought to be villages or large "macro-band" base camps may actually be sites that were repeatedly inhabited by a few small groups. Further research is clearly needed to better understand the community patterns that produced large sites with dense accumulations of artifacts. Nonetheless, Mouer’s thoughts on the topic of Late Archaic and Early Woodland settlement and community patterning make for interesting reading.

The second chapter in the book is "Late Archaic and Early Woodland Material Culture in Virginia" by Douglas C. McLearen, and it is a very detailed and thorough overview of a variety of tools. McLearen provides a balanced view of controversial topics such as the functions of "broad-spears" and also includes a discussion of features, such as rock platform hearths. My only criticism is that I would have liked to see McLearen include a discussion of ceramics as well, but none is included. However, Mouer’s introductory essay does discuss ceramics.

Michael Klein and Thomas Klatka, in an essay entitled "Late Archaic and Early Woodland Demography and Settlement Patterns," use data from the site files of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to test a series of ideas about settlement patterns of this time period. Their effort is commendable, but it is doomed from the start because the data base is inadequate for the formal methods that they use. Klein and Klatka are very much aware of the data’s limitations, and when they finish a long list of caveats for their results, they describe their conclusions as "dour" (p. 167). They are right.

The weakest paper in the volume is J. Sanderson Stevens’s "A Study of Plants, Fire, and People: The Paleoecology and Subsistence of the Late Archaic and Early Woodland in Virginia." Probably the most prominent flaw of the paper is sloppy scholarship. For example, Stevens would like to blame many of the vegetation changes of the Middle Holocene pollen record on human beings via clearing of land for collection of seed plants. This is an interesting idea, but Stevens doesn’t realize that others have considered it first as an explanation of very localized variations in the geomorphological record (e.g., Custer et al. 1990). Furthermore, if I was going to try to link changes in the Middle Atlantic pollen record to human activities, such as land clearing, I would want to cite the work of McAndrews (1988), which provides an overview of the data on this topic for North America. Dimbleby's (1985) overviews are also important and, when the standards of these studies are considered, it is clear that the Middle Atlantic pollen data do not even come close to indicating that human beings can be blamed for disrupting local vegetation during prehistoric times. Perhaps they did, but the pollen data do not clearly indicate so. Furthermore, even a cursory reading of the literature on human alteration of prehistoric landscapes would reveal that the European literature on this topic is rather extensive (e.g., Simms 1973). None of these studies are noted by Stevens. He does, however, cite the recent work done by Delcourt et al. (1989) in the Little Tennessee River Valley. Nonetheless, he fails to notice that the kinds of changes noted by these researchers are not present in the Middle Atlantic pollen data.

Stevens's paper also contains some seriously flawed logic. For example, he states that many of the examples of aeolian erosion and deposition noted for the Late Archaic and Early Woodland time periods actually took place prior to 3000 B.C. (p.199). Most of the Middle Atlantic examples of Middle Holocene aeolian erosion and deposition include clearly dated Late Archaic - Middle Woodland living surfaces buried by wind-blown sediments (e.g., Custer and Watson 1987). Unless Stevens is using a sense of time and stratigraphy not commonly applied to Middle Atlantic archaeology, I think that he is probably incorrect in attributing the site burial to a time period that occurred before the site was created. Clearly Stevens needs to think his thoughts through a bit more clearly. Also, the volume editors need to take a bit of the blame for not spotting this obvious problem in logic.

Most of the remaining papers in the volume are quite short. Mary Ellen Hodges provides an interesting overview of how archaeologists have thought about Late Archaic and Early Woodland societies in "The Late Archaic and Early Woodland Periods in Virginia: Interpretation and Explanation Within an Eastern Context." Keith Egloff, who probably knows more than anyone about Virginia prehistoric ceramics, has written a chapter "Development and Impact of Ceramics in Virginia." While this chapter is interesting and informative, I know that Egloff has many more ideas to offer, and I would like to have seen a much longer discussion. Michael Barber’s chapter "Evolving Subsistence Patterns and Future Directions: Late Archaic and Early Woodland" offers a clear research agenda for the future.

Mouer provides the concluding chapter of the volume entitled "Concluding Remarks: Explaining the Formative Transition in Virginia," and in this chapter he covers four topics: plant domestication, environmental change, population growth, and competition and evolution. I found the discussion of environmental change to be thought-provoking, and Mouer makes an important point in noting that we probably have not fully appreciated the importance of the emergence of the productive estuarine environments of the Chesapeake Bay during these time periods. Mouer is correct, but I wonder if the really significant event of the Late Archaic time period is the fortuitous co-occurrence of the emergence of estuarine environments and the shift from oak-hemlock forests to oak/hickory forests. The combination of these two, probably unrelated, events created a situation in which a number of new cultural innovations would be useful. Furthermore, the role of population growth may have been even more significant.

In conclusion, this book contains important overviews and insights. The participants and the publishers should be congratulated for their efforts.

Custer, J.F., W.P. Catts, J. Hodny, and C. Leithren
1990 Final Archaeological Investigations at the Lewden Green Site (7NC-E-9),Christiana, New Castle County, Delaware. Delaware Department of Transportation Archaeology Series 85. Dover.
Custer, J.F. and S.C. Watson
1987 Making cultural paleoecology work: An example from Northern Delaware. Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology 3:81-93.
Delcourt, P.A., H.R. Delcourt, P.A. Cridlebaugh, and J. Chapman
1986 Holocene ethnobotanical and paleoecological record of human impact on vegetation in the Little Tennessee River Valley, Tennessee. Quaternary Research 25:330-349.
Dimbleby, G.W.
1985 The Palynology of Archaeological Sites. Academic Press, New York.
McAndrews, J.H.
1988 Human disturbance of North American forests and grasslands: The fossil pollen record. In Vegetation History, edited by B. Huntley and T. Webb, pp.673-698. Kiuwer Academic Press, Boston.
Simms, R.
1973 The anthropogenic factor in East Anglian vegetation history: An approach using absolute pollen frequency techniques. In Quaternary Plant Ecology, edited by H.J.B. Birks and R.G. West, pp. 223-236. Blackwell, Oxford, England.

Reproduced with permission from the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, 1992, (8): 164-166.