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Popular Study Series
History No. 4: Prehistoric Cultures in the Southeast
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The Coordination of Southeastern Archeological Studies*



By A. R. Kelly, Chief, Archeologic Sites Division, Branch of Historic Sites, National Park Service.

DURING the last few years, archeological exploration in the eastern United States, particularly in the southeast portion, has flourished under sponsorship of numerous local and State scientific organizations in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution. In several instances, involving both National and State park developments, the National Park Service has served as sponsor.

map of important Southeastern archaeological sites
(click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

At Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Ga., there has been developed the first national monument east of the Mississippi River which is predicated primarily or solely on American pre-history. Interest created by archeological exploration and restoration projects at Ocmulgee has led to the demand from many parts of the Southeast that a museum be established which would serve as a center of prehistoric research and survey for the whole region. Tentative plans were drawn for a museum and initial work on a small unit of the structure was started under the Emergency Relief Act. [A modern administration-museum building which will cost approximately $280,000 is in progress—ED.]

At Mound State Monument, Moundville, Ala., another smaller park museum is in process of erection. [An excellent structure has been completed—ED.] A State-wide archeological survey was initiated to catalog the prehistoric resources of Alabama. Similarly, the University of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have combined to sponsor a State-wide archeological survey.

In Tennessee, the University of Tennessee has carried out extensive archeological investigations in an effort to salvage valuable sites and information from destruction as a result of the impounding of waters under the Tennessee Valley Authority program.

The largest scale archeological operations under emergency relief auspices have been those directed by Prof. W. S. Webb, Chairman, Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky. Work is still going on in connection with an extended TVA program to salvage many valuable sites which will soon be under water.

map of distribution of major Southeastern cultures
NOTE.—The five prehistoric cultural distributions can be indicated only approximately because their periods of development in the Southeast took place over a span of 700 to 1,000 years. The clue to these cultures consists of distinctive pottery types found on the sites assigned to the different horizons of prehistory. Areas as suggested by Dr. A. R. Kelly and compiled by Gordon R. Willey.
(click on map for an enlargement in a new window)

At Louisiana State University, James A. Ford, Research Associate in Archeology, a former assistant in directing archeological explorations at Ocmulgee and later a collaborator in the restoration of the Macon ceremonial earth lodge, is continuing an archeological survey, begun several years ago, which resulted then in extensive surface collection of study sherds from many village sites in Louisiana and Mississippi.

All these institutions in the southeastern United States sent representatives to the Ceramic Repository at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Mich., to discuss the problem of obtaining uniform terminology and essential agreement in classification of pottery, regarded as the best criteria available to the archeologist in working out problems of cultural relations.

As a result of the Ann Arbor meeting, it was decided to establish a uniform pottery nomenclature involving a trinominal classification referring to pottery types perceived to be distinctive and widely distributed in the Southeast. This trinominal system of classifying Indian pottery promises to have wide usage as pottery types agreed upon in discussion are to be recognized as standard among the group of specialized workers in the southeastern area. The method of standardization allows for a maximum interchange between the respective field workers with results coordinated in annual or semiannual conferences.

All archeological field workers in the region will have opportunity to see and become acquainted with the new pottery types, as proponents of the types will send representative examples to each of seven centers where archeological survey is going on. After a period of discussion, criticism, and correspondence on the pottery types, the members in joint conference will decide upon the selection of approved types. Full descriptions, with pen drawings of these types, will then appear in mimeographed form, put out under the editorship of Mr. Ford at Louisiana State University. Copies will be supplied to the cooperating field workers in archeology. The same institutions have expressed, individually, a desire to see the coordination of pottery studies carried further in a uniform systematization of methods of archeological survey in the Southeast.

These preliminary agreements between cooperating institutions in the southeastern United States will facilitate the program of surveying historical and archeological sites under the sponsorship of the National Park Service. It is recognized that the administrative difficulties of undertaking a Nation-wide survey of historical and archeological sites would be extremely complex and unwieldy. For this reason, a regional breakdown in supervision is contemplated, with the Southeast serving as a testing ground for initial efforts to realize objectives in survey. The following institutions, either now engaged in archeological survey or planning surveys in the near future, have expressed an interest in the plan: Louisiana State University, and the Universities of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Georgia.

Ocmulgee National Monument has become a center of archeological survey activity. Throughout the Southeast, other collaborating institutions, as named, have expressed individual concurrence and support for the projected plan to establish at Ocmulgee an archeological museum of regional character, which will serve the area in much the same manner that the Laboratory of Anthropology at Santa Fe, N. Mex., acts as a research center to unify survey and research activities in archeology in the Southwest.

Recent additions to our knowledge of southeastern prehistory, coming from extensive explorations undertaken in several parts of the region, strongly suggest a number of distinctive localized cultural manifestations, whose character must be perceived at present on the basis of specialized pottery traits. These cultural subdivisions of the Southeast have some geographic distinction, and seem to be separate hearths or centers which nourished distinctive cultural developments, and that, as centers of diffusion, they influenced widely and at different times the prehistoric settlements in central Georgia on the Ocmulgee. Specifically, it appears that the Ocmulgee site was influenced from afar by several of these centers, and that the central Georgia area was peripheral to such influences.

The following cultural subareas might be defined tentatively as showing appreciable localized or specialized cultural developments in the southeastern archeological area regarded as a whole:

(1) The lower and middle Mississippi;

(2) The Piedmont or Southern Appalachian section, comprising north Georgia, with extension into the mountainous sections of neighboring States;

(3) The South Atlantic littoral, which includes the coastal plains and confluent major drainage in the Carolinas, and the Savannah Basin with a long Atlantic coastal sweep south into Florida;

(4) The Florida Gulf Coast, which extends west into Alabama;

(5) The fall-line region of central Georgia, with Macon on the Ocmulgee as a central point whose cultural position might be connoted by geographical reference as the southeastern marginal subarea.

The strategic position of the last-named cultural subarea, the central Georgia fall-line, finds Macon and Ocmulgee National Monument situated in the precise spot where cultural influences were being received from the greatest number of developing cultural centers. This makes Ocmulgee an ideal museum location for the Southeast, and also makes it an advantageous center from which to initiate a southeastern archeological survey.

It may not be generally recognized how much responsibility is invested in the National Park Service to conduct such a survey of archeologic and historic sites. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 specifically embodies the national policy as applied to the preservation of historic sites, and fixes the duty of surveying historic and archeologic sites directly upon the Secretary of the Interior, through the National Park Service. The duty and functions of the Service in section 2 of this act definitely impose the obligation to undertake a survey and to carry out research investigation needed to evaluate the various sites.

In pursuance of the conditions created by the Historic Sites Act of 1935, an interbureau agreement defining objectives and working relationships has been reached between the Branch of Historic Sites of the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution regarding survey planning and the coordination of Government activities in conducting archeological investigation.


*From The Regional Review (National Park Service, Region One, Richmond, Va.), Vol. I, No. 1, July 1938, pp. 9-12.


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