Redefining Plains Village Complexes in Oklahoma: The Paoli Phase and the Redbed Plains Variant

Article excerpt


The Custer and Washita River phases of the southern Plains are re-evaluated using data from recent research at Plains Village sites in central Oklahoma. Based on dates and variation in assemblages, settlement patterns, and subsistence activities, four temporally and spatially distinct but related complexes are identified and classified as the Redbed Plains variant. The Paoli phase represents the initial (A.D. 800-1250) sedentary occupation of the Washita and Canadian River valleys in central Oklahoma. This complex developed from local Plains Woodland groups and was ancestral to the Washita River phase (A.D. 1250-1450). The Custer phase is now restricted to early village sites in the mixed grass prairies of western Oklahoma. This complex developed into the Turkey Creek phase defined for western Plains Village sites comparable to Washita River phase sites in central Oklahoma.

Keywords: Redbed Plains Variant, Paoli Phase, Washita River Phase, Custer Phase, Turkey Creek Phase, Zimms Complex, Plains Village


Documenting variation in cultural systems is basic to analyses of culture change. Classification of sites into units and phases tends to emphasize similarities rather than variation, but defining cultural units provides a method to discuss culture change. Research over the past 10 years at Plains Village sites in western Oklahoma has indicated that some current cultural complexes encompass too much variation. This has obscured similarities and differences needed to identify factors affecting the evolution of southern Plains societies. Plains Village sites in Oklahoma, the focus of archaeological research for over 50 years, have been classified into several archaeological complexes (Bell 1984; Bell and Baerreis 1951; Brooks 1989; Brooks and Bell 1989; Hofman 1984). Among these, the Custer and Washita River phases or foci of the Washita and western Canadian River basins are two of the better studied in the southern Plains. Sites attributed to the Custer and Washita River phases are scattered over an area of several hundred square miles encompassing a great deal of physiographic and vegetation diversity. Regional variation in these Late Prehistoric cultural complexes has been identified (Drass 1988; Drass and Flynn 1990; Drass and Swenson 1986; Drass et al.1987), but, prior to 1988, few early village sites were known or investigated in the tall grass prairie settings of central Oklahoma. Excavations have now been conducted at several villages dating before about A.D.1250 in the central Washita River basin, and new data have been collected from sites to the west (Drass 1997; Drass et al 1987; Drass and Flynn 1990). It is time to re-evaluate some of the Late Prehistoric complexes in western Oklahoma and redefine the cultural taxonomy to reflect the variability present before historic contact. By redefining the boundaries of these complexes in time and space, variation in material culture can be related to the evolution of the society rather than broad geographical variables.

Bell and Baerreis (1951:75-83) initially defined the Custer and Washita River foci based on WPA (Works Progress Administration) and early University of Oklahoma excavations at villages along the central and western Washita River drainage.

This early definition distinguished the complexes by their geographic position, Custer in west-central and Washita River focus in central Oklahoma, and differences in material culture. Continued research in the 1960s and 1970s led Lintz (1974) and Hofman (1978,1984) to suggest that the Custer and Washita River foci were not geographically distinct, but represented a cultural continuum with the Custer focus developing from local Woodland groups and antecedent to the Washita River focus. Hofman (1978) redefined the complexes into phases to reflect this continuity, expanding the boundaries of both complexes and identifying changes in Plains Village assemblages and settlement-subsistence systems. …