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Quick Study

Mississippian Period (AD 1000 to AD 1650)

Archaeologist David Hurst Thomas says one of the neat things about being an archaeologist is you get to name things. Find a new kind of pottery, you name it; find a new archaeological site, you name it. Find a bunch of similar-styled artifacts geographically spread in similarly dated soil levels, you name it. And this is big-time naming because what you call it becomes the umbrella for a cultural period.

Archaeologists don't quibble much about what to call periods from Paleoindian through Woodland times. But faced with what was going on in North Carolina and the Southeast after AD 1000, they get stuck. North Carolina then was in a crossroads. Influences traveled to it from places like Virginia, Georgia, and Tennessee.

These influences affected North Carolina people variably. Where they filtered in, they helped mold life. How to shape and decorate pottery; how to organize politically and socially; how to bury and honor the dead; how to feed, clothe, house, and protect.

What gets sticky is that in some North Carolina places, like the Coastal Plain and the northern Piedmont, changes from previous ways of life were gradual; in these places, drawing a line separating the Woodland period from anything after AD 1000 seems like an arbitrary exercise. In other places, like the Mountains and southern Piedmont, the changes were more dramatic, as new customs associated with the Mississippian tradition were adopted; here, AD 1000 coincides with a major cultural transition.

So the sometimes testily debated issue is: What to call the period in North Carolina after AD 1000 and before European contact? Archaeologists use various names, depending on where they work in the state and the cultures that they find. Some archaeologists prefer the term Late Woodland, thereby emphasizing continuity with the preceding Woodland cultures. Others use Mississippian--the name given a cultural tradition found across most of the South and noted for its social structure, architecture, and art. Here we have decided to follow the broader regional trend and to use the name Mississippian period for the span between AD 1000 and 1650. This term recognizes the presence of the Mississippian cultural tradition (in the Mountains and southern Piedmont), but it should not be taken to mean that all cultures in North Carolina belonged to this tradition.



Key Characteristics


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