Rethinking Moundville and Its Hinterland

By Vincas P. Steponaitis; C. Margaret Steponaitis | Go to book overview

12
Moundville as
a Ceremonial Ground

C. MARGARET SCARRY AND VINCAS P. STEPONAITIS

When talking about sites and settlement patterns, archaeologists often use terms such as “community,” “village,” “farmstead,” “capital,” “ceremonial center,” “settlement hierarchy,” and so on. These generic categories work for many purposes, but we seldom examine how such units relate to ethnographic structures in specific cultural contexts. Our failure to look beyond conventional archaeological meanings may lead us to overlook social arrangements that shaped the settlement patterns we seek to understand. Moundville, which dominated the Black Warrior Valley of west central Alabama from ca. AD 1100 to 1500, is a case in point.

The Moundville polity had a large mound-and-plaza complex, several single-mound sites, and numerous small, rural settlements. We and our colleagues have commonly used the conventional terms to describe Moundville and its hinterland communities. For example, Moundville has been called a mound-and-plaza complex (Scarry 1998: 64), a palisaded town (Knight and Steponaitis 1998:15), a ceremonial center (Knight 2010: 60; Peebles and Kus 1977: 435), a political and ceremonial center (Wilson 2008:1), a paramount center (Welch 1991:33; Welch and Scarry 1995:399), and a regional center (Steponaitis 1983a: 168). These terms have their uses, but they tell us little about how Moundville society was organized. Here we take a different perspective. We look at Moundville from the standpoint of social units that come from the ethnography and ethnohistory of native peoples of the American South. Specifically we ask, “Was Moundville a town?” Not whether it was a town in the generic, archaeological sense, but rather in the local, ethnographic sense. In thinking about this question, we have come to realize that the conventional meanings of some terms we have used to describe Moundville do not fit comfortably with

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