WOODLAND (USA): Materials dispute decline
Archaeology : Materials dispute Woodland decline
Bradley T. Lepper
Ohio's Late Woodland period, circa A.D. 900 to 1100, traditionally has been considered to be a time of marked cultural decline following the remarkable achievements in art and architecture that characterized the Hopewell culture, circa 100 B.C. to A.D. 400.
Hopewell people built elaborate and monumental earthworks, such as those at Newark and Chillicothe, and sought exotic raw materials from the ends of their world. They obtained copper from the upper Great Lakes, mica from the Carolinas, shells from the Gulf of Mexico and obsidian from Wyoming, which artisans crafted into marvelous works of art.
Around A.D. 400, however, the Hopewell culture appears to have suffered a collapse. The people ceased building monumental earthworks and no longer made extraordinary efforts to bring exotic goods into Ohio.
However, new evidence from an unexpected source is forcing researchers to rethink this simplistic picture. Scrapings from the teeth of four Late Woodland people buried along Lake Erie in Ottawa County reveal that some exotic materials continued to find their way into this region centuries after the Hopewellian "collapse."
Ohio State University graduate student Samantha Blatt and several other colleagues discovered cotton fibers embedded in the dental calculus, or tartar, of the teeth of three men and one woman from the Danbury site located along the north side of Sandusky Bay.
Co-author Brian Redmond of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History excavated the burials between 2004 and 2005.
Calculus consists of mineral deposits on teeth in which tiny bits of food or other matter can become fossilized. By scraping off the calculus and examining it under high-powered magnification, particles embedded in it can be identified, providing important clues to the diet of ancient people.
Blatt and her colleagues were surprised for two reasons.
First, cotton does not grow as far north as the Ohio Valley. The Danbury cotton had to have come from somewhere in the Deep South. The closest contemporary sources of cotton were in the southwestern United States or along the coast of northeastern Mexico.
Second, researchers were looking for traces of ancient diet, but cotton isn't a food plant. Finding it in the calculus of human teeth indicates that the folks from the Danbury site were using their teeth to work the cotton fibers into textiles nets, or perhaps fishing line.
Reporting the results in the forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Blatt and her co-authors conclude that "the cultural implications of this discovery are far-reaching and could suggest long-range interaction between either Southwestern Pueblo groups or northern Mesoamerican societies, and groups living in northern Ohio during the Late Woodland period."
These new data do not mean that the Late Woodland cultures of Ohio were as obsessed with the acquisition of exotic raw materials as were their Hopewellian predecessors. It does show us, however, that they were more cosmopolitan than we previously suspected.
And new discoveries, almost certainly, will continue to surprise us.
Bradley T. Lepper is curator of archaeology at the Ohio Historical Society.