A post on posts

Per usual, Meg really got me thinking with her post on ceremonialism, bears, and postholes at the Feltus site. Though I can’t speak much to the issue of bears (except to say that they are awesome), I have thought some about postholes with unique and seemingly purposeful fill. Like Meg, I’ve spent the last few years working at a Woodland period ceremonial aggregation site – in my case, the Garden Creek site (31Hw2 and 8) in western North Carolina. This site was first systematically investigated in the 1960s by Bennie Keel, and has more recently been subjected to geophysical survey and targeted investigation as past of my dissertation research.

During both of these phases of research, archaeologists identified postholes that appeared to be specially backfilled. Under Mound No. 2, Bennie (1976) noted a series of 29 postholes uniquely filled with a combination of dark colored midden soil and white coarse sand. These posts demarcated a single structure measuring 20 x 19.5 feet. Of the (at least) six structures below the mound (Wright in press), this was the only one whose posts received such special treatment.

Structure 1 below Garden Creek Mound No. 2, outlined by white circles. Photo courtesy of UNC-RLA.

Even more complicated post-post removal activities were associated with Garden Creeks Enclosure 1, a small, sub-rectangular ditch enclosure that may (or may not) have once been complemented by an earthen embankment (Wright 2012). The original ditch, which measured about a meter deep and nearly two meters wide at the top, appears to have been purposefully filled in with earth and refuse. Once it was completely backfilled, a line of large posts was erected through the middle of the former ditch. At some later date, these posts were pulled up, and then their holes were carefully filled with small to medium-sized river cobbles.  As a result, we only recognized these features as postholes once all the surrounding sediment was removed, when we were left with a line of tightly packed columns of rocks!

Line of postholes filled with river cobbles, going through the ditch of Garden Creek Enclosure 1.

Meanwhile, a small (2×3 m) excavation unit inside the enclosure revealed a complicated scatter of more than 30 postholes. Several of these included fragments of sheet mica at their base – again, something that appears to have been purposefully put there after a post was removed (or maybe, before a post was inserted, and then left there after it was removed).

The reasons why these posts were removed and these postholes so distinctively backfilled have yet to be thoroughly investigated. Recently, it was suggested to me that the river cobbles in the ditch’s postholes might have something to do with land/water symbolism that has been proposed as an important design principle at other Woodland enclosures (Whyte, personal communication). More generally, it’s my hunch (which Meg addresses in her comment to her 10/8 post) that these posts represent some sort of ritual closure event (Heitman 2007). In this scenario, the ceremonially significant features (posts, screen, structures, etc.) that produced these postholes would have been as temporary as the ritually motivated aggregations of people at these sites. Plausibly, they were re-erected and re-dismantled as the site was re-visited.

Close up of a rock filled posthole in the enclosure ditch, at the base of the second zone of ditch fill. It continued several more centimeters into the bottom-most zone of ditch fill.

I am really intrigued by Meg’s idea about a need to close down potentially dangerous trans-worldly portals; that seems to sit well with the idea of some of these singular poles served as “axis mundi” (Brown 2006; Kimball et al. 2010). I wonder if a similar case could be made for multi-post features, or if something else was at work. In these latter cases, a life history approach to entire architectural components (i.e., the mound and submound deposits as a whole, the original enclosure ditch/backfilled ditch/post outline as a whole) may offer a productive line of inquiry. The Garden Creek data set suggests that the ceremonies associated with these constructions changed dramatically over time. However, these alterations were not random; they depended on the features that were there before. Mound No. 2 didn’t go just anywhere – it went over the specially filled posts of Structure 1. Same goes for the rock filled posts, which conform far too closely to the outline of the ditch to be a matter of coincidence.

Meg, any sense of the timing of the postholes you encountered at Feltus? Did they all get pulled and backfilled in one go, or could it have been a staggered set of events? Does anyone else know where else such posts have been encountered? Is this just a Woodland thin, or is there an Archaic precedent or Mississippian/ historic incarnation as well? What other takes do you have on these features?



Brown, James A. 2006   The Shamanic element in the Hopewell Period ritual. In Recreating Hopewell, edited by Douglas K. Charles and Jane E. Buikstra, pp. 475-488. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Heitman, Carrie C. 2007   Houses Great and Small: Re-evaluating the Construction of Hierarchy in Chaco Canyon, NM, A.D. 850-1180. In The Durable House: Architecture, Ancestors and Origins, edited by Robin Beck. 22nd Annual Visiting Scholar Conference, Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.

Keel, Bennie  1976   Cherokee Archaeology. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Kimball, L.R., T.R. Whyte, and G. Crites  2010   The Biltmore and Hopewellian Mound Use in the Southern Appalachians.  Southeastern Archaeology 29(1):44-58.

Knight, Vernon James, Jr.  2001   Feasting and the Emergence of Platform Mound Ceremonialism in Eastern North America. In Feasts: Archaeological and Ethnographic Perspectives on Food, Politics, and Power, edited by Michael Dietler and Brian Hayden, pp. 239-254. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Wright, Alice P.  In press Under the Mound: The Early Life History of the Garden Creek Mound No. 2 Site. In Early and Middle Woodland Landscapes of the Southeast, edited by Alice P. Wright and Edward R. Henry. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Wright, Alice P.  2012   “Artifacts Writ Large”: Ditch Enclosures and Middle Woodland Interaction in Southern Appalachia. 77th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Memphis, TN.


9 comments on “A post on posts

  1. MC Sanger says:

    Alice – these photos are fantastic! Really shows off the excellent excavation skills….

  2. Alice Wright says:

    Thanks Matt! I can’t take credit though — Bennie’s team was responsible for the first photo, while the rock filled posts were largely targeted by a few patient undergrad and UM grad student Jess Beck. I was too busy hitting my head against the wall (i.e., attempting to take micromorph samples from highly bioturbated profiles — good times??).

  3. Tim Schilling says:

    Hi Alice, I’ve been lurking around the edges here for a while, but you may want to check out some of Julie Ann Van Nest’s work on the Havanna Hopewell. She has some interesting ideas about the use and placement of sediments in premound contexts. There’s also been some neat ideas about posts coming out of the Cahokia literature, You may want to check out Fowler’s Mound 72 work and I think one of Tim P’s students had a paper in Southeastern Archaeology in the last year of so. TR (2011) has some interesting ideas about planning and landscape histories at Poverty Point that may stimulate some thought. Anyway, I think you have some great ideas and seem to have hit on the real issue here, you are going to have to address the timing of these construction events. I am interested to here what you ultimately discover. The one thing that really strikes me is that even though each of these places are unique, there really are some common themes that are common across both space and time. Some of these Woodland mounds look like things that you could find out on the plains!

  4. Meg says:

    Alice, sorry for the delay in commenting… this stuff is just too cool to comment on briefly, so I had to wait until I had the time!

    To answer your question about the timing of the Feltus postholes… we think that there was likely only one (or maybe a few) posts standing at a time. The best evidence we have for this is that certain posts were set, pulled, and then re-set so close to one another that they are actually overlapping, thus letting us see a sequence of post setting. Even when this is considered, no structural patterns are even close to discernible. Furthermore, we have radiocarbon dates from three of them, and just because we are this lucky, one comes from each of the three major periods of use of the Feltus site (separated by significant periods of non-use). Finally, we have reason to believe that some of these posts were erected before the mound was built, while others were erected from the mound summit (or an apron coming off of the mound). In this case, the mound itself has been destroyed, but the shallowness of the posts indicates that they must have been coming down from a raised surface.

    That brings me to something else you said that was REALLY interesting to me… the idea that the mounds were not just built anywhere, but instead were built atop of these earlier ritually important remains. This is definitely the same at Feltus. The majority of the activity at the site took place BEFORE mound construction began and left behind an oval-shaped midden on which the mounds were constructed. This is starting to seem like a Coles Creek pattern, as Ford (1951) also reports the presence of an oval, premound midden at Greenhouse. For me, this has elicited the idea that Woodland mounds were not necessarily important only because of the activities that took place on top of them (the way they are often treated in Mississippian) but also because they were markers of important locations. Believe me, you’ll all get your fill of that idea when reading my dissertation.

    One final point… I think we’re really hitting on am important point here with the idea of backfilling/refilling as a method of ritual closure. Go us! However, Whyte’s idea of land/water symbolism is something that I had already been considering. One key thing about the Feltus posts is that they are packed with clean, brown clay. Clay is not something readily available in the 100 foot loess bluffs of the Natchez area, so getting clean clay to plug those post holes with would have to be a very purposeful act. We also have clay being used in the mounds themselves, and the gray color and stickiness of this clay indicates that is must have been brought up all the way from the Mississippi River floodplain (no small feat!) and was thus undoubtedly important. So… clay is to Feltus as river cobbles are to Garden Creek?? Perhaps!

    P.S. Be sure to check out Weeden Island when it comes to interesting Woodland post ceremonialism. I see some super exciting connections between that and what I think is going on at Feltus regarding the bear-post ceremonialism. Can’t wait to have time to finish my article on that one!!!

    • Alice Wright says:

      Meg, forgive me if I come on strong, but is it possible that we are archaeo-soulmates??? Thanks for your comments. Your point that “Woodland mounds were not necessarily important only because of the activities that took place on top of them…but also because they were markers of important locations” hits the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve found this perspective to be really useful for framing patterns of landscape use/monumentality created by seasonally sedentary foragers (like those who lived in WNC during the Middle Woodland). If folks were what explains the investment in monuments at some of these places? In turn, that makes me wonder if/how mounds of agricultural, Mississippian societies may have marked important locations as well, or how that role of mounds intersected with their other functions. Questions, questions…

      The Weeden Island ref has me especially amped because one of the grad students here (shout out to Christina Sampson!) is hoping to visit the Weeden Island site for her dissertation. I will definitely have to pick her brain on that front!

  5. Meg says:

    First of all, Alice, I am proud to be your archaeo-soul mate. 🙂

    Second of all, gosh, I’d love it if someone was going to pick up work on Weeden Island again. There are some majorly impressive connections between Feltus and McKeithen…. I get more excited every time I read that report (yes, I am a nerd).

    And now to the main point…. you’re right, It is really interesting to think about the different roles/functions that mounds may have played in different types of societies. In reality, mounds are one of the more consistent traditions through time in the Eastern U.S. So what about their functions carries on through all of that time, and what changes as level of sedentism, etc. changes? At least at this point, I am not ready to make an attempt to answer that question…. but I do have two related points: (1) we need to be careful to determine rather than assume the what role mound building played in each in each culture we study (see the point made by me, David Cranford, and Erin Nelson in our SAA Archaeological Record article), and (2) no matter the time period, we need to consider the fact that the process of construction maybe have been as important as the final product!

  6. scot keith says:

    Hey Alice, I’ll make it quick because I don’t have much time right now, but take a look at the Leake data recovery report (see pp. 128-132; if you don’t have a copy, email me – Meg, you too). Keeping in mind that this is a late Early Woodland context, under Mound B we found a line of posts in an excavation trench that contained pockets of fine white sand – unfortunately we were pressed for time and could not excavate them (now I wish we had!). We also found a very large post (~ 80 cm diameter) under an early mound stage (possibly the first stage), around which midden had built up (or it had been emplaced within a midden) – this post was removed prior to the mound fill, and the vacant posthole was filled with the sterile mound fill. The profile was as clear as could be!

    Also, as to cobbles and materials denoting water symbolism, in a 1976 American Antiquity article Bob Hall discusses the symbolism of such, and of course this idea is also in Carr and Case’s 2005 volume. Again at Leake, we found river cobbles in a couple of what I believe to be very important contexts – one associated with the ditch (Feature 1395 – see pp. 116-121), including a post that has unmodified cobbles and FCR, and the other located within/under what appears to be a prepared red clay surface adjacent the large squircular structure (Structure 1) (see pp. 267-274).

  7. Ramie Gougeon says:

    I’d like to echo Tim Schilling’s suggestion above about looking at Fowler’s work on Mound 72. Just yesterday I had Elizabeth Benchley, one of Fowler’s students, give one of my classes an overview of work at Cahokia, so it’s all sort of fresh in my mind. Fowler’s “thing” was engineering and solar alignments (etc.) and his interpretations reflect that, but it might not be much of a stretch to consider these possibilities for the Garden Creek site. Do your filled/refilled (and possibly unfilled/used/refilled!) posts correspond to any celestial events – winter solstices, for instance? Wouldn’t be hard to test and might reveal much.

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