Woodland Period

by Michael Perry
© Copyright 1996 The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.

The technological and subsistence practices developed during the Archaic period continued to be used by later populations. But a number of major social, technological, and economic developments are evident in the archaeological record of the Woodland period (500 B.C.- A.D. 1000). These developments include bow and arrow hunting, pottery production, plant domestication and cultivation, and burial mound construction. 

During the Woodland period, climatic conditions approached modern averages, landform development stabilized in most places except in flood plains and stream channels, and vegetation patterns were much like the forest-prairie mix documented by nineteenth- century land surveys. Woodland peoples refined their hunter-gatherer adaptations, making heavy use of fish and clams in major river valleys, and continuing to exploit deer and bison. Woodland farmers developed domesticated varieties of some native plants long before corn or beans became important. The principal early cultivated plants included gourds, sumpweedgoosefoot, sunflower, knotweed, little barley, and maygrass

Early Woodland settlements (500-100 B.C.) in the Midwest were small and seasonally occupied. Early Woodland subsistence patterns in Iowa are not well known, but they probably involved broad-based procurement of mammals, birds, and aquatic species. Early Woodland peoples built large burial mounds similar to some in Ohio, and they interacted with groups throughout the Midwest, as evidenced by artifacts made of exotic raw materials. The typical Early Woodland spear point was a straight stemmed or contracting stemmed point, and pottery of the period includes both a thick, flat-bottomed type (500-300 B.C.) and a thinner, bag-shaped type often decorated with incised lines in geometric patterns (300-100 B.C.). Early Woodland sites are relatively common in the Mississippi Valley but are difficult to identify in central and western Iowa. Perhaps groups on the eastern Great Plains retained an Archaic lifestyle during this period, making remains of their settlements difficult to distinguish from older occupations. Sites from this period may also have become deeply buried and can not be found using common survey methods. 

The Middle Woodland period (100 B.C.-A.D. 300) is noted for its refined artworks, complex mortuary program, and extensive trade networks. Middle Woodland communities throughout the Midwest were linked by a network archaeologists refer to as the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The Hopewell Interaction Sphere involved the dissemination of ideas about social organization and relationships, technology, and economic activities from centers of Hopewellian culture in Illinois and Ohio. Hopewell network participants exchanged exotic raw materials such as Knife River flint from North Dakota and obsidian from the Yellowstone Park area. Also traded were artifacts of Gulf coast marine shell, Great Lakes copper, mica from Appalachia, galena from the Dubuque and Galena localities, and several pipestones derived from Minnesota, Illinois, and Ohio. High quality ceramic vessels with elaborate decoration were produced for trade, utilitarian, and mortuary purposes. Perishable materials which have not survived archaeologically also may have been traded. Hopewell-related populations spread into Iowa from settlements along the Mississippi River, establishing small outposts at points along the major rivers in eastern Iowa, and may have ventured into southwestern Iowa from a Hopewellian center near Kansas City. 

Elaboration of the mortuary program to include more extensive mound construction is one of the more visible signs of increased levels of social and political complexity. Toolesboro Mounds State Preserve, located near Wapello in southeastern Iowa, is an excellent example of a Hopewell mound group. Individuals who were buried in mounds may have occupied positions of high status among Middle Woodland societies, since mound excavations frequently encountered skeletal remains associated with the finely pottery, stone tools, pipes, and other items produced from exotic raw materials that characterize Hopewell culture. If variation in burial treatment reflects status differentiation, a class of social or religious leaders developed among Hopewell-related populations. 

Trading and ceremonial activities aside, most Middle Woodland peoples probably lived in small communities or farmsteads, focusing their subsistence economy on food resources in large river valleys and tending gardens of squash, tobacco, marshelder, and goosefoot. Typical Middle Woodland tools included broad, corner-notched spear points and finely made, thin blades. Middle Woodland pottery was characterized by rather thick-walled, conoidal or bag-shaped vessels decorated with combinations of bosses, incised lines, and stamping with a toothed or cord-wrapped stick, usually in a zone around the upper part of the pot. The influence of Hopewell culture in Iowa diminished abruptly after about A.D. 200. The changes in social relationships brought about by the end of Hopewell are paralleled by changes in pottery styles and other artifacts. 

Middle Woodland pottery in western Iowa consisted of thick-walled conoidal vessels that were often heavily cord-roughened on the exterior surface. The pots were not as elaborately decorated as the Middle Woodland pottery found in the Mississippi valley, but similar decorative elements were employed. Projectile point styles were also similar to those found in eastern Iowa, with broad-bladed, corner-notched knives and straight or contracting stemmed points. Middle Woodland people in central and western Iowa retained the pattern of small, temporary settlements that had developed during the Archaic period. In north-central Iowa, settlements were placed near the shores of natural lakes, where native plants such as wild rice and arrowhead could be exploited. Fish and waterfowl also were exploited from lake shore settlements. In contrast to the commonly found Middle Woodland sites of eastern Iowa, sites of this period are difficult to locate in western Iowa. Artifacts dating to this period in western Iowaare usually found in the channels of streams and rivers, where erosion or channel straightening have cut through buried occupational horizons. Such horizons may occasionally be found in the walls of deep gullies and stream banks. 

The Late Woodland period (A.D. 300-1000) was one of remarkable change. The continent-wide exchange of exotic goods declined but interaction between communities and regions continued. Population levels apparently increased rapidly. In some parts of Iowa, Late Woodland peoples aggregated into large, planned villages, but in most of the state settlements continued to be small and generally became more dispersed across the landscape. Uplands and small interior valleys became settled or more heavily utilized. Late Woodland peoples introduced the bow and arrow into the Midwest. Continued native crop horticulture and diversified hunting and gathering provided the subsistence base through most of the period. Corn was introduced to many groups around A.D. 800 but did not form a staple crop until the Late Prehistoric period. 

Pottery technology changed greatly during the Late Woodland period, resulting in the production of much thinner-walled cooking vessels. Between A.D. 300 and 600, pottery decoration was simple, using a fingertip or stamping with a plain or cord wrapped stick. By about A.D.600 the use of stamping in pottery decoration was replaced by cord impressing, in which a twisted cord was pressed into the moist clay of the completed but unfired pot. A similar technique involved the use of a woven fabric of twisted cords to produce a complex design around the rim of a pot. 

Mound construction was generally simpler than in the Middle Woodland period, but regular aggregations for ritual and other purposes are reflected in hundreds of Late Woodland mound groups found throughout the state. Groups of linear, effigy, and conical mounds in northeastern Iowa form a distinctive element of the Effigy Mound Culture (A.D. 650-1000). Effigy Mounds National Monument, near Marquette, Iowa, contains mounds in the shapes of birds, bears, and other forms. Effigy Mound populations may have lived in dispersed groups in the interior of northeast Iowa during much of the year, coalescing regularly in the Mississippi valley to exploit the vast array of seasonally available resources. The dwelling sites of Effigy Mound peoples show such a seasonal settlement pattern involving fish and shellfish collection during warm seasons in the main river valleys, nut harvesting in uplands in the fall, and winter use of rockshelters. The effigy mound groups along the Mississippi bluff line may have signified the territories of loosely related nuclear or extended family units which met seasonally and merged into larger social units. 

Suggested Reading

Benn,  David W.
1980 Hadfield's Cave: A Perspective on Late Woodland Culture in Northeastern Iowa.
Report 13.   Office of the State Archaeologist,  Iowa City.

Benn,  David W. (editor)
1990 Woodland Cultures on the Western Prairies: The Rainbow Site Investigations.
Report 18.   Office of the State Archaeologist,  Iowa City.

Brose,  David S., and N'omi Greber (editors)
1979 Hopewell Archaeology: The Chillicothe Conference. Kent State University Press,
Kent, Ohio.

Farnsworth,  Kenneth B.,  and Thomas E. Emerson  (editors)
1986 Early Woodland Archaeology. Center for American Archeology Press,  Kampsville

Logan, Wilfred D.
1976 Woodland Complexes in Northeastern Iowa.  Publications in Archaeology 15.
National Park Service, U.S.  Department of the Interior, Washington,  D.C.

Mallam,  R.  Clark
1976 The Iowa Effigy Mound Manifestation: An Interpretive Model.  Report 9.
Office of the State Archaeologist,  Iowa City.
1976 The Mound Builders: An American Myth. Journal of the Iowa Archeological
Society 23:145-175.

Perry,  Michael J.
1987 Late Woodland Ceramics in Southeastern Iowa: A Perspective from the lower
Skunk valley. Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 34:57-62.

Roper,  Donna C.
1994 A Randolph Phase Winter Camp in the White Breast Creek Valley. Journal of
the Iowa Archeological Society 41:76-107.

Theler,  James L.
1987 Woodland Tradition Economic Strategies: Animal Resource Utilization in
Southwestern Wisconsin and Northeastern Iowa. Report 17. Office of the State
Archaeologist Iowa City.

Tiffany,  Joseph A.,  Shirley J.  Schermer,  James L. Theler, Douglas W. Owsley, Duane C. Anderson,  E. Arthur Bettis III, and Dean M. Thompson
1988 The Hanging Valley Site  (13HR28): A Stratified Woodland Burial Locale in
Western Iowa.   Plains Anthropologist 33:219-259.

Weitzel,  Timothy S. and William Green
1994 Weaver Ceramics from the Gast Farm Site (13LA12), Southeastern Iowa. Journal
of the Iowa Archeological Society 41:76-107.