Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Why Wall Trenches?

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Why Wall Trenches?

Article excerpt

In eastern North America, the construction of poleand-thatch buildings using wall-trench construction techniques is a recognized hallmark of the Mississippian period, ca. A.D. 1050-1600 (Griffin 1967). Yet the historical reasons for and implications of this wall foundation type relative to other single-set-post varieties have seldom been explored. In part, this is because the robust, well-dated regional architectural samples necessary to examine historical variability - especially post or trench cross-sections - are scarce outside of the greater Cahokia region.

In a series of recent papers, wall-trench construction has been analyzed in terms of its structural implications, with the central question being whether "flexedpole" or "rigid-post" construction technologies correlate with the trench foundations (Lacquement 2007, following Lewis and Kneberg 1946:50-54). This question is the jumping-off point for the present consideration, which contextualizes wall trenches with respect to the evidence for a fairly rapid, widespread alteration in architectural conventions in the late-eleventh- and early-twelfth-century Midwest and Southeast. Based on detailed architectural data from the greater Cahokia region, we argue that this question obscures the considerable architectural variation that existed during the Early Mississippian period. Certainly, flexed-pole constructions, where walls and roof were one continuous structure, are demonstrable for a series of preMississippian-style single-set-post buildings in the greater Cahokia region. Similar flexed-pole construction cannot be so easily demonstrated for most Early Mississippian wall-trench buildings in the same region. For these, there are other options to consider depending on the size, intended purpose, and permanence of the construction.

Knowing how buildings were constructed within specific Mississippian regions through time is significant if we seek to explain the relationships between social organization and labor mobilization or to understand the long-term cultural effects of architectural construction. Such understanding is especially critical around Cahokia, where excavated data suggest that there was an abrupt adoption of wall trenches, ca. A.D. 1050 (Pauketat 1994). But it may be equally critical in other regions, such as around Angel in Indiana, where Mississippian ways seem to have been introduced abruptly in the form of central construction projects (Peterson 2010). The rapidity of this process in turn raises three additional questions: Do wall trenches correspond with a new construction technology? If so, was that technology meaningful or politically charged in ways that older construction modes were not (Alt 2001; Blitz and Lorenz 2002)? And were wall-trench buildings intended to look different from antecedent styles of architecture (Pauketat 1994)?

To answer such questions, it is necessary to closely examine the evidence of post molds (the actual traces of the wooden pole walls) in both single-set-post and wall-trench foundations. Where this information is lacking or poorly documented, as in old, salvage archaeological efforts or other excavations that employ a "post hole scooping" methodology, conclusions made concerning the flexed-pole/rigid-post debate will probably remain tentative. Some of the debate in Cameron Lacquement's (2007) volume would doubtless be resolved by more robust excavated samples where more attention was paid to structural and depositional details. With detailed floor-plan and cross-section data in hand, additional insights into the Early Mississippian transition to wall-trench architecture may be made.

For present purposes, our consideration of architectural data will remain qualitative, although we draw on a range of recent floor-plan and wall cross-section data from the Cahokia, East St. Louis, Halliday, Horseshoe Lake, Grossmann, and Pfeffer sites in southwestern Illinois. Based on our review, it seems likely that the walls of most Early Mississippian wall-trench buildings in the central Mississippi Valley, whether flexed or rigid, were probably prefabricated on the ground, permitting rapid construction if not also standardized buildings. …

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