Middle and Late Woodland Research in Virginia: A Synthesis

Theodore R. Reinhart and Mary Ellen N. Hodges, editors. Archeological Society of Virginia, Special Publication No. 29, 1992. x + 310 pages, figures, tables, references cited. $15.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Charles W. McNett, Jr.
The American University

This volume is the best yet in the planned series of four volumes on the archaeology of Virginia sponsored by the Council of Virginia Archeologists and funded by a grant from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy. Indeed, the project has been so successful that a fifth volume on the historical archaeology of the state is forthcoming.

The series got off to a rocky start with the first two volumes on Paleoindians and Early-Middle Archaic. In retrospect, it would have been better to follow the analytic lead of Bill Gardner and consider the Early-Middle Archaic as an extension of the Paleoindian to be covered in one volume.

In several reviews and papers, I made the point that contract archaeology, however much it has helped archaeology as a whole, has not shed much light on earlier and more obscure cultures. The sites are just too rare and not likely to turn up in a typical CRM project. Woodland sites, on the other hand, are much more common and tend to be located in river valleys and other areas likely to be settled by our modern culture as well. This current volume makes it clear that an enormous amount has been learned about the Middle and Late Woodland in the last 20 years or so of organized archaeological activity in the Old Dominion, much of it funded by cultural preservation laws.

Following an Editors' Foreword by Theodore R. Reinhart and Mary Ellen N. Hodges and a Preface by J. Mark Wittkofski, Michael Stewart gets the book off to a rousing start with his synoptic study of the Virginia Middle Woodland in the Middle Atlantic regional perspective. He argues that there is ample reason to set the time period 500/400 B.C. to A.D. 800/900 apart as a separate period within Virginia prehistory. He defines the characteristics of the Middle Woodland as: (1) "relatively sedentary" settlements, (2) traditional subsistence based on hunting deer, (3) supplemental fish, shellfish, roots, and tubers, (4) possible use of domesticates, and (5) increasing social complexity including burial ceremonialism and/or widespread interaction networks. Stewart's use of ethnographic analogy and the "big man" complex to explain the organization of this increased social complexity is especially compelling.

Douglas C. McLearen also presents a synthesis of the Middle Woodland focused on the subregions within Virginia. He provides an almost exhaustive summary of known sites within these subregions and concludes with his own list of Middle Woodland characteristics: (1) "interregional interaction spheres, including the spread of religious and ritual behaviors which appeared in locally transformed ways," (2) "localized stylistic developments that sprung up independently alongside interregional styles," (3) "increased sedentism," and (4) "evidence of ranked societies or incipient ranked societies." He sees these characteristics as directly related to Adena and Hopewell manifestations elsewhere. However, he is dubious about more than incipient horticulture at this time period.

Yet a third paper, Middle Woodland Settlement Systems in Virginia, by Dennis B. Blanton, approaches the archaeology of the Middle Woodland from a different perspective but reaches startlingly similar conclusions: "certain basic trends are very clear: a gradually increasing degree of sedentism, population increase, and closer definition and restriction of group territories." He, too, is lukewarm about more than incipient horticulture and also proposes the "big man" model of social complexity.

The nearly unanimous picture of Middle Woodland culture that emerges is a "segmentary tribe" of micro units ranging on a seasonal round but assembling at periods of particular resource availability, to use Blanton's description.

These papers serve as the antecedents for The Virginia Coastal Plain During the Late Woodland Period by E. Randolph Turner who states, "With the foundations of sedentism firmly established by the end of the Middle Woodland Period, one finds rapid changes characterizing the Late Woodland Period in the Virginia Coastal Plain." Turner continues, "These changes are manifested over its 700-year length (A.D. 900-1600) through rapid increase in the importance of agriculture in local lifeways accompanied by progressively increasing population, larger and more frequent sedentary villages, and increasingly complex means of socio-cultural integration within the region..."

It is clear that Late Woodland culture was based upon maize agriculture, with the rare excavated cultigens and dates clustering first around A.D. 1000. Two major types of villages appear as a result: the village palisaded for defense and the 'internally dispersed' village so aptly described by Capt. John Smith. The latter allowed the placement of each house in the village near to its fields while maintaining a central core of houses within. Many of these houses are the classic longhouse. Increasing social complexity is amply attested by the formation of the Powhatan confederacy and the appearance of ossuary burials.

In addition, Jeffrey L. Hantman and Michael J. Klein address both the Middle and Late Woodland in succession as they appeared in the Piedmont, once again citing the same changes toward larger population and greater sedentism.

Joan M. Walker and Glenda F. Miller present an equally interesting paper on Life on the Levee: The Late Woodland in the Northern Great Valley of Virginia. From their perspective, major changes included: (1) the bow and arrow, (2) increased sedentism, (3) the spread of dispersed hamlets, leading to villages and towns, (4) a climatic shift reducing the growing season at about A.D. 1400, (5) rapid population growth, and (6) many cultural migrations.

Keith T. Egloff sums up the Late Woodland Period in Southwestern Virginia thusly, "the acceptance of a horticultural system of subsistence based on the growing of corn, beans, and squash. The rich bottomlands became the focus of large permanent villages for the ever-expanding population."

Unfortunately, as Eugene B. Barfield and Michael B. Barber point out in their Archaeological and Ethnographic Evidence of Subsistence in Virginia During the Late Woodland period, "Virginia prehistory has been a victim of history." In short, the historical record in the Old Dominion is so lush that prehistory has taken a back seat, resulting in the phenomenon that several other authors of this volume note -- the relative paucity of ethnobotanical and ethnozoological data, let alone analysis. While this is being rectified at present with such studies as the doctoral dissertation of Elizabeth Moore at The American University, there is precious little knowledge extant, and their paper summarizes it all as it relates to plant usage.

Donna C. Boyd and C. Clifford Boyd, Jr., present a very interesting and exhaustive summary of Late Woodland Mortuary Variability in Virginia, including data on the intriguing stone mounds of the interior and the ossuaries of the coast.

The data portion of this volume concludes with Clarence R. Geier's discussion of Development and Diversification: Cultural Directions During the Late Woodland/Mississippian Period in Eastern North America. He reviews the present state of knowledge of the "most politically, economically, and socially complex prehistoric societies to develop in the Eastern United States" and their relationships to the Late Woodland cultures of Virginia.

This excellent review of Virginia archaeology concludes with a view of future research directions in the state by C. Clifford Boyd, Jr. He discusses theoretical and interpretive issues, repatriation of human remains, and the role of avocational archaeologists.

All in all, this is an extremely rewarding book, and I expect to cite all of the papers in it frequently. I also look forward to the next 20 years of Virginia archaeology. I suspect that not even 10 volumes will be able to contain a synthesis by then.

Reprinted by permission from the Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, 1995, (11):162-164.