The Archaeology of North Carolina

North Carolina Archaeological Time

The Woodland and Mississippian Periods in North Carolina

Coastal Woodland || Piedmont Tradition Early/Middle Woodland   ||  Piedmont Tradition Late Woodland   ||  Southern Piedmont Late Woodland  ||  Appalachian Summit Woodland   ||  South Appalachian Mississippian

The South Appalachian Mississippian Tradition

Pisgah Phase (A.D. 1000 - 1450)

Most Pisgah sites are located in the eastern and central portions of the Appalachian Summit, and the largest concentration is found in the Asheville, Pigeon, and Hendersonville intermontane basins.

Pisgah settlements are characterized by a variety of sizes, ranging from small farmsteads to fairly large nucleated villages that sometimes have substructure mounds. Extensive excavations at two sites, Warren Wilson and Garden Creek, make the Pisgah phase one of the best understood cultural complexes in the Appalachian Summit.

Excavation plan of the Warren Wilson site through the 1982 excavation season showing burials, features, houses, and palisades associated with the Pisgah phase occupation. Only postholes associated with architectural features are shown.

Warren Wilson seems to be a typical middle-sized Pisgah village of three acres. It is surrounded by at least seven palisade lines, most of which probably represent expansion over time.

Artist's conception of Pisgah phase village at Warren Wilson site
An artist's conception of the Pisgah village at the Warren Wilson site (drawing by Frank Weir, 1970; from Dickens 1976:95).

A near absence of storage pits at Warren Wilson site may indicate that Pisgah people preferred aboveground storage cribs and granaries. Use of such facilities has been documented for the Historic Cherokees and other southeastern Indians. However this pattern stands in sharp contrast to the Piedmont Siouans, who made extensive use of underground storage.

Pisgah phase dwelling at Warren Wilson site
View toward the entrance of a rectangular Pisgah dwelling at the Warren Wilson site, showing excavated wall posts (outer alignments), interior support and partition posts (inner alignment), parallel entryway trenches, and pits. This house measured 22 ft square and had a central hearth (Photo from Dickens 1976:42).

Pisgah houses were roughly rectangular and measured about 20 feet on a side. Walls were constructed by setting individual posts in holes. Most houses had central hearth basins with prepared clay collars. Half of the Warren Wilson Pisgah houses had parallel entry trenches.

The most striking pit features at Warren Wilson were large shallow depressions around the edge of the village near the palisades. These facilities sometimes measured over 10 feet long and five feet wide, but less than a foot deep, and their bottoms were lined with a thin layer of clay. These have been interpreted as roasting pits, perhaps for community celebrations.

Pisgah phase burials at Warren Wilson site
Types of Pisgah phase burials found at the Warren Wilson site (top row, plan view; bottom row, profile view). The funerary objects shown with Burial 7 include four cut-mica disks, 18 small mica disks, a conch shell filled with red ocher, two columella bead bracelets, and a bone awl. Items found with Burial 13 include two columella bead bracelets and two columella ear pins (from Dickens 1976:104).

Most graves were placed inside or adjacent to houses. Individuals were buried with their heads oriented in a westward direction and placed in a flexed position in simple, straight sided pits or shaft and chamber pits.

Funerary objects, when present, usually consisted of ornamental items made from shell (e.g., beads, gorgets, and ear pins), animal bone (e.g., turtle-shell rattles and beads), or mica (e.g., plates and disks). Only two burials contained non-ornamental artifacts, a small conch shell, a conch-shell bowl, bone awls, red ocher, fish scales, and panther claws.

Pisgah phase jar rims
Collared rims and thickened rims from Pisgah jars with lug handles (top three rows and bottom rows, far left) and loop handles (fourth row and bottom row right two specimens).

Pisgah pottery types are easily distinguished from earlier and later pottery of the Appalachian Summit. Collared rims and rectilinear complicated-stamped vessel surfaces set Pisgah sherds apart. This rim form has no precedent in western North Carolina or the surrounding area. However, similar forms have been found in the Iroquois area of western New York and southwestern Ohio, and similarities to the Oliver phase in Indiana have been noted.

Likewise, the complicated-stamped designs commonly found on the surfaces of Pisgah vessels show no close affinities to earlier local types, although connections to Pisgah rectilinear complicated-stamped designs are found in Napier, Etowah, and Woodstock ceramic traditions of northern Georgia.

Pisgah phase vessels from Jackson and Haywood counties
A Pisgah Check Stamped bowl with a castellated rim from Jackson County (left) and a Pisgah Rectilinear Complicated Stamped jar with a collared rim from Haywood County (right).

Changes in Pisgah ceramics through time point to a continued flow of ideas from the south into the central North Carolina mountains, a flow that continued as the Lamar phase of northern Georgia merged with local ceramic traditions to form the Protohistoric/Historic Qualla phase.

Pisgah phase pipes from Warren Wilson site
Pisgah pipes from Warren Wilson.

Other artifacts that reflect an influx of new ideas with the Pisgah and Qualla phases include clay pipes, polished stone discoidals, and stone celts.

Like other Woodland and Mississippian cultures of North Carolina, Pisgah folks took full advantage of their natural environment by consuming a variety of wild animal and plant foods. Deer, bear, and wild turkey were important. Interestingly, large numbers of toad remains, probably for ceremonial or hallucinogenic purposes, have been found in both Pisgah and Qualla sites.

In the bottomlands near their villages, Pisgah people planted fields of corn, beans, squash/pumpkin, and sumpweed. As much as half of Pisgah subsistence was derived from agriculture, a major shift in the importance of agriculture from the preceding Connestee phase.

Pisgah phase people's dependence on agriculture and their construction of elevated platform mounds upon which temples or chiefly residences were built mirror important changes in sociopolitical organization.

Garden Creek Mound #1
Two views of the Garden Creek Mound No. 1 during excavation: excavating an east-west exploratory trench to the mound center (top, looking west); and the exposed remains of Earth Lodge 1 at left and Earth Lodge 2 at right (bottom, looking west) (Photograph from Dickens 1976:85).

The Garden Creek site complex is on the Pigeon River in Haywood County. Garden Creek Mound No. 1 was constructed during the Pisgah phase and associated with a large village. The sequence of events for the mound tells us a great deal about Pisgah ceremony and social organization.

Paired earth lodges at Garden Creek Mound #1
Excavation plan of the paired earth lodges at the Garden Creek Mound No. 1 (Based on Dickens 1970:209).

Before the mound was begun, two semi-subterranean earth lodges were built side by side with a passageway between them. Along with a large arborlike building around the earthlodges, the buildings were probably used for communal gatherings. Later constructions added soil to the flanks of the earthlodges and, after their collapse, capped them with a mound. Then two structures, a palisade, and a number of burials were placed on the mound. Over half of the burials, much more than Warren Wilson site Pisgah burials, were accompanied by grave goods, such as columella beads, tubular shell beads, shell gorgets, and shell ear pins.

The changes in form and structure between the Middle Woodland Connestee phase mound (Mound No. 2) and Pisgah phase mound (Mound No. 1) at Garden Creek site suggest fundamental difference in political organization and ceremonial practice. The Connestee phase mound started as a low platform to support a wall-post structure, and the succeeding stage of construction duplicated this function. Numerous hearths and refuse pits, indicating communal feasting, were present, but no Conestee burials were found on the mound.

In contrast, Pisgah peoples initially built earth lodges for ritual and civic functions. The remains of these lodges were covered by elevated platforms where temples or chiefly residences and numerous burials were placed. This shift seems to reflect a shift to a more hierarchical form of political organization. These political and ritual changes, shared by other South Appalachian Mississippian mound sites in Georgia, South Carolina, and the North Carolina Piedmont, do not seem to derive from earlier Middle Woodland mound-building.

Although these changes continued in the Qualla phase, Pisgah and Qualla phase cultures were at the low end of the scale of sociocultural complexity during the period of major Mississippian influence across the Southeast.

The chronological and cultural relationships between Pisgah, Qualla, and Lamar phases are indirectly addressed by sites in the Catawba River valley, where temporal overlap forces a re-examination of the traditional view of a Pisgah-to-Qualla developmental sequence.

©2010 UNC-RLA