Research Laboratories of Archaeology

Craft Production and Trade at Moundville (Vin Steponaitis)

    The goal of this project is to reconstruct patterns of craft production and trade by identifying the geological sources of the raw materials used to make "prestige goods" at Moundville (ca. AD 1100-1500). Because these items were important in marking and creating social distinctions, understanding how they entered into and circulated through Moundville society will ultimately shed light on the nature of the political economy and the extent of social networks and political alliances. A variety of studies, all in collaboration with geologists and geochemists, have recently been completed or are currently in progress:

  • Neutron activation analyses of Mississippian pottery have identified geochemical "fingerprints" that are useful in discriminating local from nonlocal pottery at Moundville (see Steponaitis et al., "Large-Scale Patterns in the Chemical Composition of Mississippian Pottery," American Antiquity 61(3):555-572.[1996]). Current research, also involving neutron activation, focuses on determining the sources of specific "finewares" found at Moundville. Collaborators include M. James Blackman (Smithsonian Institution), Michael Glascock (U. of Missouri), Hector Neff (Long Beach State U.), and Paul Welch (Southern Illinois U.)

  • Chemical and mineralogical studies carried out by Daniel Gall (N.C. Wesleyan College) have identified the sources of greenstone used to make axes at Moundville. The rock was obtained, probably by direct procurement, from two localities in the Hillabee Formation of central and eastern Alabama (see Gall and Steponaitis, "Composition and Provenance of Greenstone Artifacts from Moundville," Southeastern Archaeology 20(2): 99-117 [2001]).

  • Limestones used to make the famous "cat pipes" found at Moundville have been identified by means of the fossils they contain as originating in the Glendon Formation, which has major outcrops in the vicinity of Vicksburg, Mississippi. In collaboration with David Dockery (Mississippi Geological Survey) other pipes of this so-called "Bellaire"style are being examined from throughout the Southeastern U.S. Preliminary results suggest that pipes of this style were manufactured in the Lower Mississippi Valley and traded to Moundville (see Steponaitis and Dockery, "The Geological Source of the Emerald Effigy Pipes and its Implications for Mississippian Exchange," Southeastern Archaeological Conference Bulletin 40:52 [1997]).

  • In collaboration with Cynthia Armendariz and John Rogers (U. of North Carolina), a petrographic analysis has recently been carried out on the gray, micaceous sandstones used to make palettes found at Moundville. This study confirms that the rock is identical to that found in outcrops at the Fall Line near Tuscaloosa, which strongly suggests that these artifacts were locally produced (see Armendariz, Steponaitis, and Rogers, "A Petrographic Study of Moundville Palettes," Southeastern Archaeology, in press).