Project Background, First Installment

In less than two weeks, the summer 2011 field season at the Garden Creek site will be underway! But before we begin, it’s worth recalling the previous work at the site, which has played a major role in shaping the current project.

The history of archaeological research at the Garden Creek site is long and varied. Early on, in fact, archaeologists visiting the site recognized that it included several different components:

  • Mound No. 1, a Pisgah phase (ca. AD 1000 -1450) mound that supported an earth lodge
  • A Pisgah phase village that surrounded Mound No. 1 (31HW7)
  • Mound No. 3, a small burial mound that may date to the Pisgah phase or the earlier Woodland period
  • Mound No. 2, a Middle Woodland period (ca. 300 BC – AD 700) platform mound
  • A Middle Woodland period village that surrounded the platform mound (31HW8)

Here,  I’ll limit the discussion to Mound No. 2 and 31HW8, which are the focus current research at Garden Creek. However, Mound No. 1, the Pisgah village, and Mound No. 3 have interesting excavation histories of their own; to learn more about them, check out some of the references now listed under the “Resources” tab.

The first excavators to visit Mound No. 2 were Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Osborne, representatives from the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia. In 1880, they dug two large pits into Mound No. 2, from which they removed several burials, shell beads, bone tools, and other artifacts. Unfortunately, they were more interested in collecting materials for display rather than information about the people who built and used the mound. The few records that remain from their efforts offer only meager details that can used for anthropological interpretation.

Eighty-five years later, Garden Creek Mound No. 2 was scientifically excavated for the first time by archaeologists from the University of North Carolina as part of Dr. Joffre Coe’s Cherokee Project. This landmark undertaking involved archaeological survey in nine counties in southwestern North Carolina and resulted in the identification of more than 600 prehistoric sites. Bennie Keel, field director for much of the Cherokee Project, selected Garden Creek Mound No. 2 for excavation because it was about to be destroyed for a housing development. His salvage effort entailed the excavation of the entire remaining mound to subsoil. In the process, he uncovered two episodes of mound construction on top of a pre-mound midden (the accumulated remains of a more-or-less permanent occupation).

1966 Excavations at Mound No. 2, with the top of the first episode of mound construction exposed. Photo courtesy of UNC-RLA.

Keel’s excavations led to a number of discoveries about the ancient inhabitants of Garden Creek. For one thing, he was able to date the mound itself to the Middle Woodland Connestee phase (ca. 200 – 700 AD). Previously, many archaeologists working in the Southeast thought that earthen platform mounds were only built by later Mississippian societies, in which elites could muster sufficient labor for their construction. To the best of our current knowledge, Connestee communities were not as hierarchically organized as the Mississippian societies that followed, so how and why they built platform mounds require new explanations. The sorts of social relationships that enabled and promoted the creation of public monuments is something we hope to clarify with a new phase of research at the site.

Additionally, Keel also found evidence in Mound No. 2 that the local community at Garden Creek was interacting with other groups across Eastern North America. This evidence included prismatic stone blades made of non-local raw material; copper sheets, beads, and pins; pottery from Georgia, Tennessee, and possibly Ohio; and human and animal figurines. These artifacts suggest that the inhabitants of Garden Creek traded with, visited, hosted, or somehow felt the influence of far distant peoples. Among other things, it appears that they participated in the Hopewell Interaction Sphere, a network that linked groups across Eastern North America through trade in exotic artifacts, particular forms of mortuary ritual, and elaborate earthwork construction. In fact, the Mound No. 2 discoveries bolstered long standing claims that the Blue Ridge Mountains were the source area for Hopewellian mica, which has been recovered at sites across the Southeast and Midwest.

Hopewellian artifacts from the Appalachian Summit. All but (d) are from Garden Creek Mound No. 2. Photo courtesy of UNC-RLA.

By the end of the 1966 field season, Keel had excavated Mound No. 2 in its entirety. All of the materials from the site are now curated at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and part of the current project involves revisiting these materials and subjecting them to more detailed analyses. However, there is still much to be done on-the-ground at Garden Creek. In particular, the Middle Woodland village that surrounded the mound remains virtually unexplored.  Keel and his crew opportunistically assessed its presence and extent in the sixties, but the existence of houses and lawns limited its visibility. They did note the presence of artifacts in garden plots, roadside ditches, and construction areas, which allowed Keel to approximate the village area on his 1976 site map.

This summer, we are going to return specifically to this area. By studying the village, we will reveal the broader social context for the unprecedented episodes mound construction and extensive interaction that were experienced by the inhabitants at Garden Creek. How did their daily lives change in the face of new ceremonial practices and new relationships with non-local communities? What local traditions did they continue to practice, in spite of such changes? We hope to answer these and other questions in the course of excavations and follow-up analyses. The first step in this process was a new, non-invasive survey of the village site, which we carried out this past March . That, however, will be the subject of the next installment of the project background!

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About Alice Wright

Alice is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Appalachian State University. She tweets about archaeology, Appalachia, and cats @alicepwright.
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