Stone Tombs and Ancient Ritual: Status Marking and Social Roles in the Early Late Woodland of Southeastern Michigan

Article excerpt


The discovery of an unusual stone-lined burial chamber in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during an archaeological salvage excavation prompted the reexamination of certain aspects of mortuary ritual and social organization in the Early Late Woodland in southeastern Michigan. Previous research in this region is underdeveloped with respect to hypotheses regarding ritual practice, social marking, and gender for this time period. We focus on a class of burials from several sites whose funerary treatment appears to mark a community leadership role and discuss the implications for gender and social organization during this time period.

Among the mounds of the Mississippi, and further south, are occasionally found some built of stones. An instance of a similar construction is reported to me by Mr. Day, of Romeo, associated with the ancient remains in Macomb County. He says: "In several places in this vicinity are found mounds made of stones, nicely piled up to height of four to five feet, like a hay-cock. [Hubbard 1887:209]

In archaeological mortuary studies, variability in funerary assemblages and practices is typically understood to reflect differences in social position and cultural organization (Goldstein 1981; O'Shea 1984; Saxe 1970). In terms of social position, the traditional line of thought is that the role a person held in life is often marked unambiguously in death by certain classes and quantities of artifacts, type of burial, burial placement in relation to land features and other burials, and construction. By identifying social status in funerary populations it is then possible to develop explanations regarding overall social organization.

Early Late Woodland funerary sites in southeastern Michigan exhibit a great deal of variability in the attributes outlined above, but detailed analyses are lacking. Part of this problem stems from a lack of complete data for numerous sites, many of which were excavated by amateurs long before professional archaeology arose (e.g. Gillman 1874, 1877; Hubbard 1887; Riley 1881). The result has been an incomplete record that, like the above introductory quote, provides a few tantalizing references with an occasional detailed description in old journals, random newspaper articles, or the even rarer published manuscripts.

Until fairly recently, another evident problem has been a relative lack of interest in the topic by both professionals and amateurs (see Stothers 1999). While several dissertations and publications have examined specific aspects of Early Late Woodland cultural relationships and practices (Brashler 1981; Fitting 1965; Halsey 1976, 1981; Luedtke 1976; O'Shea 1987; Wilkinson 1971), theories concerning the social organization of the regional communities during this time period have remained largely underdeveloped. As one researcher noted, "Archaeologists did not view Michigan as an area where exciting things might be found and careers advanced" (Halsey 1981:17).

This paper specifically examines mortuary patterns in southeastern Michigan in light of the discovery and analysis of two burial sites, Brandon (20WA336) and Oison (20WA111), in the Huron River Valley in Washtenaw County, Michigan. The Brandon site presents an enigma in Michigan archaeological research as the only documented stone-lined tomb in the state for this time period. On the other hand, the Olson site is more consistent with other documented sites in southeastern Michigan. Overall, these Early Late Woodland funerary data suggest that there are important, unambiguously marked social roles that were open to both sexes, an interpretation in contrast to that of Halsey (1976, 1981) butin accord with that of O'Shea (1987). What we suggest is that this social role may have been open, but that the burial assemblages for males and females possessed differences that raise questions concerning gender marking. Comparison with other archaeological sites in the region and ethnohistoric data on both Algonquian and Iroquoian regional cultures is also used in this study as a means of identifying possible historical correlates for this social role. …