30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 27
Washington University in St. Louis
How were Southern Appalachian social networks reorganized in the context of shifting sociopolitical landscapes? How did social networks serve to mediate episodes of heightened social, political, and economic uncertainty? The Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project seeks to address these questions through the reconstruction of a 1,000-year history of social networks across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia (Figure 1) between roughly AD 600 and 1600.
Figure 1. Location of the Southern Appalachian project area.
Two major junctures in the social histories of Southern Appalachia occurred between roughly AD 600 and 1600. One ca. AD 1150 and once ca. AD 1325. The first of these major transitions, at ca. AD 1150, was characterized by the classic markers of “Mississippianization” including the emergence of hierarchical political systems, institutionalized inequality, new religious practices, and an intensified agricultural economy. This is also the point at which Etowah emerges as a major socio-religious center for the Southern Appalachian region. The second of these transitions, ca. AD 1325, is characterized by the collapse of Etowah as a major center, the reorganization of communities across the region, and the influx of non-local peoples from middle Tennessee into eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.
Using a database of over 350,000 ceramic sherds from roughly 100 sites across the region (Figure 2), social networks were constructed to evaluate how regional relationship were reorganized across each of these transitions. Two kinds of social networks were built: one set of networks based on tempering practices and one set of networks based on surface decoration. Tempering practices likely reflect potting communities within which technological information is passed between potters. Surface decorations (complicated stamped, cordmarked, painted, etc…) represent social signals, the use of which do not have to be learned through processes of teaching and learning like the use of different technologies (e.g., temper choice). In this case, networks based on temper use are akin to the kinds of interpersonal networks within which we might pass down a particular biscuit recipe, where face-to-face teaching, learning, and information exchange must take place. Networks based on surface decorations however are akin to networks within which members may all have a particular political bumper sticker on their car. In this case, members need not interact with one another or maintain personal relationships.
Figure 2. Location of archaeological sites used in this study.
Networks based on temper (Figure 3) are highly correlated with geography. That is, those potters living closer to one another are practicing similar forms of pottery manufacture, with little crossover between populations living in Tennessee and Georgia. We see this pattern repeated over the entire 1,000-year period, signaling the continued resilience of such relationships as kinship, marriage practices, and residence patterns even across the critical points of transition. Given that pottery production was likely undertaken primarily by women, what is indicated is the enduring foundation of women’s social and political networks across the region. In evaluating these networks, it is clear that Etowah is one of the only sites in the network with substantial ties that cross-cut these separate communities of potters, with many ties between Etowah and communities in Tennessee. Such access to social capital from across both northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee likely contributed to Etowah’s rise as a major political center.
Figure 3. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on temper data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of tempering practices between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of tempering agents in their respective ceramic assemblages.
Unlike networks based on temper, those based on highly-visible signals adorning the exteriors of pottery display a completely different patterns of regional relationships (Figure 4). While few interpersonal relationships existed between societies inhabiting northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, there seems to have been region-wide participation in practices and relationships driving the choice of surface decoration. No clear sub-groups based on geographic proximity exist. Rather, networks are open, with few communities occupying central locations in the networks. These open networks, which also seem to remain stable between AD 600 and 1600, likely reflect a combination of a macroregionally shared clan system and/or shared religious practices and ideology that serves as a context for continued interaction between northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee communities. Whatever the case, the sociopolitical landscape of Southern Appalachia was clearly defined by multiple, cross-cutting sets of social, political, and economic relationships that were fundamentally stable across major periods of socio-political reorganization.
Figure 4. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on surface decoration data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of surface decorations between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of surface decorations in their respective ceramic assemblages.
While sociopolitical entities like chiefdoms are often characterized as fleeting, unstable strategies of political organization, what is clearly highlighted here is that the relationships underlying these political systems were some of the most enduring features of Southern Appalachian societies. While specific leaders, lineages, families, and strategies may have come in and out of control every 100 years or so, the relationships and connections between non-elites were incredibly resilient in the face of social, political, and economic transformation, reorganization, and collapse.
Phase II of the Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project will focus more closely on the post-Etowah (post AD 1325) landscape, a period marked by the collapse of a major political center and the influx of non-local migrants into the region. These migrants into Southern Appalachian from the middle Tennessee region seem to have been pushed out of these areas by migrants from further west who were suffering at the hands of a major drought. In addressing processes of immigration into the Southern Appalachian region, Phase II of the project is driven by the following questions: How do interregional social networks structure immigration events? And how are community-scale institutions reorganized to mediate the influx and introduction of non-local people into existing communities? These questions will be addressed by extending the project boundaries to include the middle Tennessee region and through close analysis and reanalysis of changes to the organization of specific communities across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.