From Edge to Frontier: Early Mississippian Occupation of the Lower Illinois River Valley

By Delaney-Rivera, Colleen | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

From Edge to Frontier: Early Mississippian Occupation of the Lower Illinois River Valley


Delaney-Rivera, Colleen, Southeastern Archaeology


Despite the long history of work in the American Bottom, little archaeological research has focused on the Mississippian occupations of the lower Illinois River valley, a region of west-central Illinois relatively close to Cahokia and other floodplain Mississippian sites. Analyses of published and unpublished excavation notes, maps, and ceramic collections demonstrate that the early Mississippian occupation of the valley was more intense than previously proposed. Data from Audrey-North, the Schild Cemetery, and several other sites indicate contact and interaction between local Late Woodland Jersey Bluff phase individuals and those from a Mississippian culture, most likely the American Bottom. I suggest a colony-acculturation model (similar to suggestions by Stoltman [1991a] and Perino [1971]) to explain the local manifestation of the Mississippian social system present in the lower Illinois River valley by approximately cal A.D. 1100. This period was a time of dramatic social and political change in the region.

Recent archaeological work focuses on explaining the development of Mississippian societies in different regions of the southeastern United States (e.g., authors in Southeastern Archaeology 21(2); Emerson 1997; King 2003; Milner 1998; Pauketat 1994, 2003). In many of these cases, archaeologists are continuing years of work and are developing multifaceted explanatory and interpretive models to understand the development and expression of complex society as manifested by these varying cultures. In some regions, however, the archaeological record is less well known, and archaeologists are in a position where general descriptive analysis is still necessary and further work is required before more concrete explanations are possible. The lower Illinois River valley of west-central Illinois (Figure 1) is one such location.

Archaeological evidence suggests that as of A.D. 1100,1 Late Woodland and Mississippian individuals interacted with one another within the lower Illinois valley; little agreement exists, however, regarding the nature of such interactions (Farkas and Nolan 1999; Farnsworth et al. 1991; Goldstein 1980). Researchers frequently compare the Mississippian artifacts and archaeological evidence from the valley with that from the American Bottom2 region of Illinois (Conner 1985b; Farnsworth et al. 1991; Goldstein 1980), as this region is the most likely source of Mississippian immigrants moving into the lower Illinois valley. These individuals encountered local people following a Late Woodland lifeway (referred to as Jersey Bluff phase in this region), and this interaction influenced the eventual development of Mississippian societies in the lower Illinois valley. Mississippian sites coeval with the American Bottom Lohmann and Stirling phases (Table 1) seem surprisingly rare in the lower Illinois valley, given its proximity to the American Bottom, and appear restricted to the southeastern portion of the valley3 (Farnsworth et al. 1991:Figure 2).

Some researchers conclude that the paucity of evidence4 of early Mississippian (Stirling phase, A.D. 1100-1200) occupation in the lower Illinois valley, despite its proximity to the American Bottom, implies the maintenance of Late Woodland lifeways and only occasional trade with Mississippian peoples (Farnsworth et al. 1991). However, the adoption of a perspective that explicitly acknowledges local culture and the acculturation of Jersey Bluff phase individuals to Mississippian leads to a distinctly different conclusion. Indeed, the goal of this article is to suggest that the early Mississippian presence in the lower Illinois valley was more intense than is generally believed, and to support this conclusion with the archaeological record.

In the remainder of this article, I discuss a sample of the known archaeological evidence from the lower Illinois River valley to support the proposition that an early Mississippian era occupation did in fact occur in the valley, and I briefly consider previous models proposed to explain the presence of these Mississippian sites. …

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