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Marksville Culture

This entry covers the prehistoric Marksville Culture during the Middle Woodland Period, 1–400 CE

Marksville Culture

Photo by Stephen J. Conn, Wikimedia Commons

Burial Mound, Marksville, Louisiana

Marksville culture is best understood as a continuation of the preceding Tchefuncte culture with the adoption of some traits from the Hopewell tradition. Although present at only a handful of sites in Louisiana, these Hopewell-related traits include some form of status hierarchy; ceremonial centers, sometimes with earthen embankments; mound burial; and exquisite, exotic grave goods. While there was little change in most utilitarian artifact styles, pottery technology improved, and a new set of designs were developed that were shared over a broad area.

Marksville Culture: Definition and Important Sites

The Marksville culture is named after the Marksville site, which lies in the town of Marksville, in Avoyelles Parish. Prior to archaeological investigations in the 1920s, local legend had it that the Marksville site, with its C-shaped enclosure and six earthen mounds, was the work of the Hernando de Soto expedition, which traversed the southeastern United States between 1539 and 1543. In fact, members of that expedition did not travel in the area of the Marksville site. However, the people at the Marksville site did have connections with an external force that brought major changes to many societies in the eastern United States—the Hopewell tradition.

Once considered a monolithic cultural entity that moved out of the Ohio and Illinois River Valleys to colonize select areas in the Southeast, Hopewell (ca. 200 BCE–500 CE) is now seen as an amalgamation of political and religious ideas that may have begun in the north but was adopted, adapted, and elaborated on by other peoples in the southeast. Compared to other Hopewell-influenced cultures in the eastern United States, Marksville people (at the site itself and in Louisiana in general) were clearly less enamored of the trappings of status hierarchies than contemporaneous cultures to the north and east. Relatively few individuals buried in mounds contain the lavish display of mortuary items found elsewhere, and, in fact, few ceremonial centers were built.

In addition to the Marksville site, only the Crooks site in LaSalle Parish; the Coral Snake Mound in Sabine Parish; the Veazey site in Vermilion Parish; and Big Oak Island site in Orleans Parish have produced Hopewell-related artifacts in burial contexts. The Marksville site is enclosed by an embankment, as is the McGuffee mound site in Catahoula Parish. Enclosures at both of these sites are poorly dated, however, and the embankments may postdate the end of the Marksville period. The Troyville site, also in Catahoula Parish, had a D-shaped enclosure. A portion of that enclosure dates to around 540 CE. Troyville was once thought to date no earlier than 400 CE, but recent research indicates the site contains at least one Marksville culture mound. At present, the amount of Hopewell involvement at Troyville is unknown.

The designs that appear on Marksville pottery were shared over a large area, probably as a result of Hopewell influence. Designs virtually identical to those of the Marksville culture were incised onto locally made pots at sites in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin, where archaeologists consider the pottery to be a ceremonial ware. Utilitarian vessels in the northern sites were decorated differently, by marking the vessel with cord-wrapped paddles. In Louisiana, however, Marksville pottery was used as both a secular and a ceremonial ware. Thus, it is possible that the ceremonial vessels associated with the northern Hopewell tradition had their origin in or near Louisiana.

Hopewell influence faded from Marksville culture sites almost entirely after 200 CE. Mound building ceased everywhere, except possibly at the Troyville and McGuffee sites, and trade in exotic artifacts disappeared. But the core of Marksville culture—those deeply embedded daily practices learned from their ancestors—continued, apparently unfazed by these changes. Indeed, despite the addition of ceremonial centers in some areas, most early and late Marksville people probably lived much as their Tchefuncte ancestors did.

Marksville Culture Artifacts

Marksville culture artifacts must be discussed on two levels. On one level, there are the exquisite, often exotic, artifacts that were placed in mounds to accompany the dead; these are discussed later in this essay. At the other level are the artifacts produced by Marksville people for everyday use.

The most recognizable Marksville artifact is the distinctive pottery. Although still soft compared to later wares, Marksville pottery is technically superior to Tchefuncte pottery. Marksville potters were the first to add temper to their clay. Temper is some material, like sand, shell, or even moss, which opens up space in the dense clay paste to allow more thorough firing. Also unlike their predecessors, Marksville potters kneaded their clay to produce a homogeneous paste; most Marksville pottery does not have the contortions and laminations that are characteristic of the Tchefuncte pastes. For temper, Marksville potters used grog (crushed pieces of pottery)—ushering in a tradition of grog tempering in Louisiana that persisted until European contact.

Incorporating some techniques like rocker-stamping (rocking a shell edge along the surface to create designs) and incising from their Tchefuncte culture predecessors, Marksville potters developed complex curvilinear designs that were incised on the vessel surface using a distinctive broad, U-shaped tool. Most designs are geometric, but some pots have incised birds (variously identified as roseate spoonbills, shoveler ducks, or some kind of bird of prey) in highly structured motifs. These designs may have been reserved for vessels made for mortuary contexts. Vessel forms include small cups, bowls, and jars.

Other than pottery, there were few changes in the Marksville toolkit. Because the basic hunting and gathering techniques did not change, most utilitarian items are very similar to Tchefuncte culture items, many of which were unchanged since at least 3000 BCE. This is particularly true of stone points. These were lashed to lightweight spears and thrown with atlatls. The basic form of the points did not change until the bow and arrow were introduced around 500–600 CE.

Archaeologists suspect that bone and shell tools were used just as they were in Tchefuncte times, but the lack of excavation in habitation sites limits their ability to discuss them. There was evidence of basketry and matting from impressions in the mound fill at the Crooks site. Cane matting was used to line shallow grave pits and to cover burials. It also appears that soil for mound construction was transported in cane baskets, which were left in the mound. No doubt baskets and other organic objects were ubiquitous in Marksville culture sites.

Daily Lives and Deaths

Unfortunately, few Marksville residential sites have been excavated, so there is little information on daily life, including diet. Archaeologically, the sites have “low visibility.” The sites are typically small (less than one acre) scatters of artifacts with little midden (trash and organic debris) accumulation, and each site was probably inhabited for only a few years. Nothing in the few excavations at such sites indicates that there were status hierarchies within villages.

However, in a few cases, such as the Marksville site itself, mound burial clearly marked some kind of elevated social ranking. Thirty-six individuals and two dogs were buried in the only burial mound at the Marksville site, and some of these were buried in tombs similar to those used in other Hopewell sites. Evidently, these individuals were special in some way. Because men, women, and children were present, it may be that a certain social group—a lineage or clan—held special status. One archaeologist has suggested that those honored with mound burial at the Marksville site may have been the extended family or lineage that first introduced Hopewell concepts to the local community. Despite the high status, grave goods were relatively few in number and in kind. Mortuary items consisted of a few pots, a copper artifact, and two plain platform pipes.

The Crooks mound site in LaSalle Parish is an example of mound burial for the entire community. Over 1,100 individuals and three dogs (present at the feet of three individuals) were buried in Mound A, in three widely separated episodes. The second, smaller, Mound B at Crooks contained only thirteen burials. Mound A was likely the location for burial of people from many surrounding small habitation sites—people who may also have visited the Marksville site for ceremonies from time to time. Roughly half of the burials were interred shortly after death; these had the knees tucked tightly against the chest or, rarely, were laid out extended on the back. The other half were partially articulated individuals, bundle burials (only long bones, the skull, and the mandible in a tight package), or isolated skulls.

Crooks contained more variable grave goods than the Marksville site burial mound. Almost the full range (but not the abundance) of mortuary items generally associated with Hopewell burials was found: copper earspools, bracelets, and beads; plain and animal effigy platform pipes, clay figurines; freshwater pearls; greenstone celts; galena (lead ore); and quartz crystals. Other items include clusters of pebbles that were probably the inorganic remains of rattles; twenty-three individuals were buried with small piles of opened mussel shells. In total, over two hundred objects were buried with 169 burials. A number of other mortuary items were present in the mound but did not appear to be directly associated with burials.

Final Thoughts

Ideas about the proper way to conduct burials began to circulate in Louisiana among Late Tchefuncte culture peoples. By the Marksville period, communal burials and burial in mounds became the norm. This transition in burial styles is reflected in mortuary activities at the Big Oak Island site. Big Oak is a large, crescent-shaped Rangia shell midden (a midden primarily composed of brackish water clam). The site was mainly created by Tchefuncte culture peoples between circa 300 and 200 BCE. Typical single-individual, Tchefuncte burials are present. However, in a knoll on the northern end of the site, instead of unadorned, single burials, there was a burial area containing the remains of over fifty individuals. These were accompanied by pottery with an interesting mix of characteristics, with Marksville designs on Tchefuncte-like pastes and vice versa—clearly a transitional assemblage. In addition, two partial bowls with Marksville bird motifs were found, along with a few other grave goods that might also be south Louisiana contributions to the Hopewell tradition (e.g., conch shell cups). Big Oak is a fascinating, and rare, example of a culture in transition. Notably, the site was abandoned soon after the ossuary was created. But Marksville culture was born.