Sociotechnic Celts from the Upper Nodena Site, Northeast Arkansas

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In 1932, four spatulate celts and a cannel coal celt were found with human burials during excavations at the Upper Nodena site in northeast Arkansas. All were found within a restricted area designated by the excavators as "Mound C." The number of sociotechnic celts from controlled excavations is unprecedented among late period sites in the central Mississippi River valley. This paper presents a description of the artifacts and discusses their context and significance.

Late period sites in the central Mississippi River valley have long been well known for their quantity and quality of mortuary ceramics (e.g., Griffin 1952; Hathcock 1983; Moore 1911; Morse and Morse 1983; Phillips 1970). Little attention has been given to the far less numerous non-ceramic grave inclusions. Here we present data and commentary on four spatulate celts and a cannel coal celt associated with human burials at the Upper Nodena site in northeast Arkansas.

A distinctive class of ground stone artifacts that is rare, but widely distributed throughout the Southeast, spatulate celts have been recognized for some years as a late period horizon marker (e.g., Smith 1987:99; Williams 1980:108). Reported examples exhibit remarkable stylistic uniformity. Nearly all specimens are fairly broad and thin, with a wide, square-edged poll and a spatulate (spade-like) blade. The two faces are relatively parallel, though many examples are slightly lenticular in cross-section. Some examples have a drilled perforation, usually, but not exclusively, through the poll; a few spatulate celts have two perforations, and fewer still exhibit a bit of incising (e.g., Anonymous 1961; Holmes 1884:478-479). Stylistically similar forms are reported from the Caribbean and northern South America (Fewkes 1922; Moore 1903; Webb and DeJarnette 1942:291-294).

Spatulate celts and other forms of elaborated weaponry are examples of what Spielmann (2002:195) has termed socially valued goods, i.e., "objects that are critical for ritual performance and necessary for a variety of social transactions." Such objects are characterized by specialized production and acquisition through long-distance exchange. The raw materials from which they are crafted typically must be obtained from afar, and the finished objects exhibit elaboration such as polishing that enhances their aesthetic qualities.

Webb and DeJarnette (1942:291-294) compiled a brief distributional study of spatulate celts throughout the Southeast and beyond. More recently, Brain and Phillips (1996:377-379) presented additional data and proposed a rudimentary typology, which they believe has chronological implications. Stylistically, the three examples from the Upper Nodena site available for study resemble their "late form," though Brain and Phillips (1996) did not include these specimens in their study.

Excavations at the Upper Nodena Site

Upper Nodena (3MS4) occupies a low ridge near a relict meander channel of the Mississippi River about five miles northeast of the town of Wilson in Mississippi County, Arkansas (Figure 1). Within an area of about 6.2 ha are two substructural mounds and "12 to 15 small mounds" (Hampson 1989a:9) (Figure 2), though only a remnant of the largest mound is visible today. Upper Nodena is the type-site for and one of the larger sites assigned to the Late Mississippi period Nodena phase, which is centered in northeast Arkansas (Fisher-Carroll 2001 a; Fisher-Carroll and Mainfort 2000; Morse 1989, 1990; Williams 1954).

Over 1750 human burials from Upper Nodena have been recorded with varying degrees of detail. Of these, fairly good information is available for about 940 (Fisher-Carroll 2001a:60). In 1932, the University of Arkansas Museum (hereafter Arkansas) and the Alabama Museum of Natural History (hereafter Alabama) conducted excavations at Upper Nodena, the primary goal being the acquisition of the fine quality ceramic vessels for which late period sites in the Central Mississippi Valley are noted. …