Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Bayesian Modeling of the Occupation Span of the Averbuch Site in the Middle Cumberland Drainage, Tennessee

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

Bayesian Modeling of the Occupation Span of the Averbuch Site in the Middle Cumberland Drainage, Tennessee

Article excerpt

Research on Mississippian-period (ca. A.D. 1000-1600) polities in southeastern North America over the past few decades has increasingly stressed their volatility. These chiefdoms experienced dramatic surges in size and complexity, equally significant declines, and oftentimes impressive rebirths. Although the shift in emphasis toward political-economic cycling and instability can be attributed to changes in theoretical outlook and the kinds of questions that are being asked (Anderson and Sassaman 2012; Blitz 2010; Cobb 2003), it has also been made possible by a number of methodological advances. In particular, continuing refinements in radiocarbon dating have allowed researchers to focus on the narrower time increments necessary to model increasingly detailed perspectives on the past.

One particularly beneficial consequence of these transformations in archaeological method and theory is that researchers are now turning their attention to intra-site dynamics with greater confidence than ever before. Steadman and Cobb's research in the Middle Cumberland Region (MCR) in Tennessee, USA, began with a study of long-term, regional, and diachronic trends in health and conflict (Cobb and Steadman 2012; Worne et al. 2012). Advances in accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) and the statistical processing of radiocarbon data have allowed us to begin addressing more temporally precise statements about events at the site level. We have recently focused on Averbuch, a village occupied by an average of ca. 100-200 people during the latter part of the Mississippian sequence, or the Thruston phase (ca. A.D. 1250-1450), in the MCR (Figure 1).

Averbuch was partially excavated in the mid-to-late 1970s (Klippel and Bass 1984). From a chronological perspective it typically has been treated as a single unit: a village representative of the latter part of the Mississippian period before the larger region was abandoned in the fifteenth century. The Thruston phase (first defined by Smith [1992]) is characterized by a rapid increase in the number of sites, the widespread construction of defensive palisades, and a general decline in health (see also Moore et al. 2006). Our knowledge about this period of time is only in broad outline, however, a function of a history of calibrated radiocarbon dates with large confidence intervals.

The improved resolution of AMS dating has provided the opportunity to refine the relative sequencing of features and construction episodes in the development of the Averbuch village plan. The incorporation of Bayesian probability approaches to absolute chronology modeling has further clarified the resolution of radiocarbon dates old and new (Bayliss et al. 2011; Buck et al. 1991, 1996). Even within a fairly narrow time frame of ca. 200 years we can now demonstrate significant alterations in the built environment of the town-changes that may be related to climatic deterioration and social upheaval.

We focus our discussion on our ability to detect site organization changes in greater detail than ever before, rather than the broader implications of those changes. However, in our concluding remarks we provide some new insights afforded by these details that promise to lay the groundwork for new directions of research.


The Mississippian cultures of southeastern North America are justly recognized for their impressive mound centers. These are characterized by large, earthen platforms with evidence for chiefly habitations on their summits, sizable residential areas, reliance on maize agriculture, complex mortuary ritual, and participation in impressively far-flung exchange networks. Similarities in the built environment, iconography, and general patterns of adaptation speak to a widespread sharing of ideas and objects, as well as movement of peoples, with a rapid florescence in the eleventh century A.D. (Anderson and Sassaman 2012:155163; Smith 1990). …

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