How complex were Mississippian polities and in what ways were they complex? What role did small- scale social groups play in the emergence of regionally organized political hierarchies? These issues are the focus of this archaeological investigation of the Moundville site in the Black Warrior Valley of west- central Alabama. Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the Moundville site was the political and ceremonial center of a regionally organized Mississippian polity. The Moundville site encompasses 75 ha and consists of 29 mounds grouped in pairs around a rectangular plaza (Figure 1.1). There is a very orderly arrangement of these earthen monuments (Peebles 1971, 1978). The largest mounds are located on the northern edge of the plaza and they become increasingly smaller going either clockwise or counterclockwise around the plaza to the south (Figure 1.1). Knight (1998) has interpreted this community plan as a sociogram, “an architectural depiction of a social order based on ranked clans” (Steponaitis and Knight 2004:168). According to this model the Moundville community was segmented into a variety of different clan precincts, the ranked position of which was represented in the size and arrangement of paired earthen mounds around the central plaza. The largest earthen mounds on the northern portion of the plaza were associated with the highest- ranking clans while smaller mounds to the south were associated with lower-ranking clans.
There has been a general acceptance of Knight's (1998) interpretation, which is grounded in both archaeological analysis and ethnohistoric analogy. Still unclear is the kind of hierarchy this network of ranked clans at Moundville entailed. Did a corporate group's ranked place and space in the Moundville sociogram involve notable differences in status and wealth? If so, how were these inequalities materialized and what kinds of corporate- group strategies served to produce them?
Previous investigations of Moundville's Mississippian occupation portrayed a complex chiefdom that was highly differentiated politically, socially, and economically. It has been argued that substantial organizational differences not only characterized mound and off- mound residential contexts but also crosscut the broader community and regional polity (Peebles 1971, 1987a, 1987b; Peebles and Kus 1977; Steponaitis 1978; Welch 1991a, 1991b, 1996; Welch and Scarry 1995). This model of Moundville's political economy has become an oft- cited example of how Mississippian polities were organized and compare to other middle- range . . .