The Woodland period is a label used by archaeologists to designate pre-Columbian Native American occupations dating between roughly 600 BC and AD 1000 in eastern North America. This time period traditionally is divided into Early, Middle, and Late subperiods, which refer to intervals characterized in very general terms by the first widespread use of pottery across the region, the rise and then decline of a vast exchange network throughout eastern North America,and finally, a period of increasing agricultural intensification and population growth in many areas.
During the Woodland period, sedentism, population, and organizational complexity dramatically increased. Around 600 BC, Native Americans in Arkansas were probably living in small groups tied together by collective ritual, including burial that sometimes involved the construction of small mounds. By the end of the period, some 1500 years later, large populations lived in multi-mound towns ruled by hereditary elites in some areas, and maize had become the predominant food crop for many peoples. Unfortunately, few Woodland-period archaeological sites have been excavated in Arkansas.
Early Woodland Period
Until quite recently, the onset of the Woodland period was assumed to have been the time of the initial appearance of pottery vessels, the beginnings of mound ceremonialism, the emergence of sedentary village life with well-defined structures and settlements, and intensive cultivation of crops. It is now clear, however, that the beginnings of these developments lie deeper in the past by a thousand years or more. Mound construction has great antiquity in the Southeast, dating back to at least 3000 BC. Intensive cultivation of native food crops such as chenopodium, sunflowers, and gourds was widespread by 1000 BC. Finally, in some regions, pottery predates the onset of Woodland cultures by over 1000 years.
Early Woodland occupations, dating between about 600 and 200 BC, generally are recognized based on the common occurrence of pottery with distinctive designs or “surface treatments” on vessel exteriors. Throughout Arkansas, plain surfaces are common; in the Mississippi River Valley, surface treatments include geometric motifs formed by individual cord-impressions, fabric marking, and cordmarking. Most of this early pottery was not well fired and probably was not suitable for cooking for long periods at high temperatures.
Projectile points, which were used on darts propelled by throwing sticks (“atlatls”), are about two inches long, with stemmed or notched bases. These are similar in style to points produced during the preceding Late Archaic interval.
No information about Early Woodland foodstuffs has been found in Arkansas, but the key staples of the Early Woodland diet elsewhere in the Midsouth were hickory nuts, acorns, and white-tailed deer, and this was probably the case throughout much of Arkansas. Archaeological evidence from Searcy County indicates that Native Americans cultivated domesticated lambs quarters, squash/gourds, marsh elder, sunflowers, and maygrass by around 1200 BC. Early Woodland societies probably continued to tend these crops, but the importance of these cultigens in Arkansas outside the Ozarks is not known. The potential crop yields of these species are as high as 1000 kilograms per hectare—comparable to that achievable from maize, which was not widely or intensively cultivated until around AD 900. Early Woodland communities in Arkansas were probably fairly small, on the order of a few structures and probably no more than fifty to sixty people.
Middle Woodland Period
The Middle Woodland period, dating between approximately 200 BC and AD 300, is noteworthy because of the widespread, though not numerous, construction of small conical burial mounds, as well as long-distance exchange of distinctive artifact types and materials—such as copper from the Great Lakes area, mica from the southern Appalachians, and shells from the Gulf coast—across much of eastern North America.
The apparent increase in mound construction was not accompanied by major changes in community or settlement organization. People continued to live in small communities of several circular or oval structures. A tribal form of social organization may have been present, consisting of a number of interacting, more or less equal clans, or people claiming descent from common or mythic ancestors.
The best-known Middle Woodland site in Arkansas was located at the southern end of Crowley’s Ridge in Helena (Phillips County), where a group of five burial mounds was once located. Two of the mounds, dated between about 100 BC and AD 100, were excavated in 1960; the others were destroyed by development. The remains of twenty-eight individuals were removed during the excavation. Many of the dead were buried in large pits covered with logs; others were placed on the surface of a mound during construction and covered with soil. Accompanying some of the dead were copper objects, shell beads, conch shells, and mica.
Some Middle Woodland ceremonial complexes in the Midsouth, such as those at Marksville in Louisiana or Pinson Mounds in western Tennessee, include earthen embankments and are enormous, covering hundreds of acres. Nonetheless, even these large Middle Woodland mound centers did not support large resident populations. Rather, these sites appear to have served as locations where peoples from many different groups or over large areas came together to participate in collective ceremonies.
Late Woodland Period
The Late Woodland period, which is characterized by a lack of the non-local artifacts and materials (copper, etc.) that had been seen in the previous 500 years, began around AD 300. Despite the apparent reduction of inter-regional exchange, the Late Woodland period was a time of important cultural changes. There is evidence for population growth and larger settlements. A major technological advance, the bow and arrow, appeared around AD 700, as reflected by the widespread appearance of small triangular and notched arrow points. Very few preserved bows have been found in Arkansas, but a probable bow made of hickory was excavated from a bluff shelter in the Ozarks and may date to the Woodland period.
Few Late Woodland sites have been excavated in Arkansas, so little is known about subsistence in the state during this period. In southeast Missouri, Native Americans cultivated maygrass, lambs quarters, knotweed, sunflowers, and marsh elder during Late Woodland times; these were probably grown in at least some parts of Arkansas. Nuts and deer, and probably fish in the delta lands, continued to be important subsistence items. Deer and other animals were hunted using atlatls and darts.
Late Woodland ceramics are technologically superior to those of early times; they are stronger and can withstand higher temperatures for longer periods of time. Improvements in ceramic technology were probably linked with changes in the way certain foods were prepared and in the specific foodstuffs used. Throughout Arkansas, the exterior surfaces of most Late Woodland ceramic vessels were either smoothed or roughened with a cord-wrapped paddle. Distinctive vessel forms were characteristic of different parts of the state. For example, the bases of Late Woodland cooking jars from northeast Arkansas tend to be essentially conical, while comparable pots from the Ozarks and southwest Arkansas typically have flat bases.
In the last several hundred years of the Woodland interval, between about AD 700 and 1000, maize agriculture, relatively large towns, and shell-tempered ceramics were developed or introduced. The large Toltec Mounds site, located southeast of Little Rock (Pulaski County), was constructed and used during this time. Within an area of about 100 acres are eighteen earthen mounds surrounded on three sides by an earthen embankment. For several hundred years, Toltec was perhaps the largest mound complex in North America. The site is now an archaeological state park managed by the Department of Parks and Tourism. Archaeological sites that are culturally related to Toltec are found throughout much of the lower Arkansas and White river drainages. Most are non-mound habitation sites, but some have one to four mounds, some of which were used for burials.
Excavation of two relatively small mounds at Toltec recovered many food remains. Identifiable seeds include those of little barley, maygrass, lambs quarters, and amaranth. White-tailed deer remains were common. A moderate amount of maize was found in deposits dated to around AD 750–850, but this tropical cultigen probably was not a major portion of the diet. In fact, no evidence has been found, either through stable isotope analyses of skeletal remains or from numerous carbonized plant remains, for the intensive cultivation and consumption of maize in Arkansas until after AD 1000.
Located along the lower White River, the Baytown site includes two large mounds and seven smaller ones of Late Woodland age, but little is known about the site. Most Late Woodland people in Arkansas probably lived in smaller, non-mound communities of no more than several hundred individuals. Although at present little is known about these sites, it is clear that Late Woodland communities substantially outnumber recorded Middle Woodland sites.
Around AD 1000, maize became a very important element in the diet of Native Americans in Arkansas, and larger communities developed, which mark the beginning of what is broadly called the Mississippian Period.
For additional information:
Anderson, David G., and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., eds. The Woodland Southeast. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.
Morse, Dan F., and Phyllis A. Morse. Archaeology of the Central Mississippi Valley. New York: Academic Press, 1983.
Robert C. Mainfort Jr.
Arkansas Archeological Survey
Last Updated: 09/03/2020