Landscape Archaeology

by Anne Bader of Corn Island Archaeology, LLC

One of the twin spring-fed pools at the KYANG site, Jefferson County

Archaeology interprets the past through the study of the material remains left behind by people of long ago.  To most, that brings to the mind collections of artifacts.  Things that have been made or modified by humans.  Things that can be handled, counted, measured.  Things that can be labeled, bagged, boxed, and stored away.  Sometimes however we need to step back a few feet, or a few thousand feet, and look at past behavior from a broader perspective in order to interpret past lifeways. We need to consider the settings of human activity, that is, the places where people lived out their day-to-day existence. The physical environment is one of many factors that influenced the cultural development of an area. Landscape archaeology is essentially the study of the ways in which past peoples modified and used the environment around them. Landscape archaeology does not consider artifacts, the bread and butter of archaeology, but rather, places. It seeks to learn the patterning of human activity over a wide area.

1952 Aerial photograph of the Lone HIll site, an isolated 57-foot-tall natural knoll in Jefferson County.

The landscape approach is one way to identify linkages between cultural and natural resources. It is based on analysis of the spatial relationships between natural and human features across the land.  An awareness of the natural setting and available resources of an area allows informed interpretations of cultural issues such as settlement patterns, sedentism and mobility, as well as the utilization and exploitation of natural resources. Different types of activities occurred in different locations across the land. Often, these were tied to the seasonal availability of important resources, such as ripening nut trees in the Fall of the year, or berries in the summer.  Fishing and the harvesting of mussels would have been, of course, by the streams and rivers, but would not likely have occurred in the winter or times of heavy flooding. Some resources, like stone quarries, could have been accessed at any time.  By tracing the sequencing of these activities over the year, we can learn about how the people structured their annual cycle of subsistence practices.

Stone mound, Clark County.

Some places on the landscape may have had multiple meanings to the people who lived nearby. Spring-fed pools, for instance, were not only sources of water, but may also have held special, spiritual significance to the people. Certain caves and rock overhangs offered shelter, but the dead were often buried in these locations as well. Prominent knolls or small hills may have provided a dry place to settle amid an otherwise wet area, but they also have offered a strategic view of the surrounding countryside. The positions of some prominent natural landmarks along transportation routes, for instance, may have added to their importance to Native groups, perhaps as meeting places with other groups.  Through time, these and other locations became persistent places for the ancient peoples, that is, they were visited over and over.  As such, they became more special than other places.

Not only did the landscape determine, in part, cultural development in a given area but it was itself affected by human activity. Over time, the ancient peoples changed the land, writing their history across it.  Many of the modifications made by Native indigenous and early European peoples can still be seen today. As they traveled from place to place, they made trails, which likely started out as animal paths. Later, historic European American settlers often used these trails, making them wider and deeper through the use of wagon traffic. Within the caves and rockshelters, deep layers of refuse were deposited. The people built stone weirs in streams to catch fish.  Either intentionally or due to trash disposal, situated on high large heaps of mussel shells built up along rivers where they camped. Mounds of earth and stone were constructed in elevated parts of the landscape where they could be visible. Cemeteries were also often situated in elevated locations such as knolls and may have been marked by painted wooden poles. Their cemeteries not only honored lost family members, but also signaled to the rest of the Native world that this ground belonged to them and was sacred to their people.

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Historic Roadbed, Madison County

While some of these early constructions can still be seen today, others have been reduced in height or completely lost to modern development and landuse. Sometimes, however, while the cultural feature may not be visible in the field, traces of them can be detected through various forms of technology. Modern and historic aerial photographs may highlight “shadows” or subtleties in elevation that are not easily detected from pedestrian survey. LiDAR imagery is a method used create high-resolution models of ground elevation with a high degree of vertical accuracy. LiDAR and other similar programs can visually illustrate the vertical variation in landforms across the landscape.

LIDAR imagery of the Hornung shellmound (in white in the foreground) on a high point overlooking
a low wetland along the Salt Rive, Jefferson County.

The connections of the ancient peoples continued beyond their deaths. When they died and passed from life, their very bodies became one with ground. And the changes they made to the land would last for thousands of years and tell their stories for those that followed long afterwards.