The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds

By Lapham, Heather A. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds


Lapham, Heather A., Southeastern Archaeology


The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds. DEBRA L. GOLD. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2004. xv + 160 pp., illus., tables, biblio., index. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8173-1438-5; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8173-5144-2.

Reviewed by Heather A. Lapham

When Southeastern archaeologists think about prehistoric earthen mounds, and there are many to consume one's thoughts in the Southeast, rarely does one consider the mounds that dotted the landscape of the Virginia interior from the eleventh century onward, but these mounds and the people who built them are precisely the focus of Debra Gold's book, The Bioarchaeology of Virginia Burial Mounds. Throughout the Late Woodland period (ca. A.D. 1000-1600) in the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley regions in central Virginia, Native Americans built at least 13 accretional earthen and earth-stone mounds to entomb their dead. In the mid-eighteenth century, Thomas Jefferson witnessed a group of American Indians visiting one of these sacred places near his home and paying tribute to those buried within. Since then, most of the Virginia mounds have been leveled by agricultural activities and natural erosion and many were subjected to looting during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Despite these less than ideal circumstances for data collection, Gold examines more than 15,000 fragmentary human remains to explore health and subsistence among the native peoples who constructed and used these mounds, what some have called "ancestral Monacan burial mounds," during the eleventh through fifteenth centuries and later.

In chapter 1, Gold delves into what is known about the lifeways of the Monacan Indians who resided in the central Virginia Piedmont during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to provide an appropriate context for interpreting the bioarchaeological data that she presents in chapter 4. She draws upon ethnohistorical accounts and archaeological evidence of the Monacan and their better known neighbors to the east, the Powhatan. The Powhatan, who inhabited the Coastal Plain at the time the English settled Jamestown in 1607 and during centuries prior, were comprised of various Algonquian-speaking tribes associated with a paramount chief by the same name. Much has been written about the Powhatan,, especially when compared to what exists for the Monacan, and Gold presents an informative and concise summary of this information, covering topics such as Powhatan sociopolitical organization, interregional interactions, warfare, subsistence and health, and mortuary practices.

Gold discusses the history of the modern exploration of the Virginia mounds in chapter 2 and then describes the three main sites included in her study: Lewis Creek Mound (44AU20), Hayes Creek Mound (44RB2), and Rapidan Mound (440R1). These three sites are the only mounds to have large, fairly well-preserved human remains associated with them, although Gold studied only part of the Rapidan mound sample so additional bioarchaeological research is possible. Two other mounds, John East Mound and Linville Mound, have such limited skeletal collections that Gold describes them briefly, but excludes them from her more detailed analyses of mortuary practices and health in the Virginia interior. Virginia mounds, which reached heights up to 15 feet, contained a variety of burial types, including primary interments (both single and multiple), bundle burials and other secondary interments, cremations, and large collective burial features. Interestingly, Gold identified several different types of burial treatments in most mounds, although generally not all burial types were present in a single mound. She argues the construction and use of these burial mounds in the Virginia interior spanned at least 500 years by closely related people who participated in a shared mortuary program.

In chapter 3, Gold examines small-scale, sedentary societies to develop several general expectations for the bioarchaeology of Late Woodland native groups in the Virginia interior. …

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