The Woodland Culture
Archaeologists use certain words to divide prehistoric time (the time before history was recorded with words) into units. A period groups a span of years during which time the people shared similar characteristics in terms of their life styles.
For prehistoric Iowa, the four periods of human activity from earliest to most recent are the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland and the Late Prehistoric period—during which the Great Oasis, Nebraska (the Glenwood), Mill Creek and Oneota cultures thrived. The Paleoindian period was about 12,000 years ago. The Archaic period in Iowa was between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago. The Woodland period began about 300 B.C.E. (Before Common Era) in Iowa and lasted about 1,000 years. The late prehistoric period began about 900 C.E. (Common Era).
About 3,000 years ago, the culture of the native peoples of Iowa was changing. New customs and tools were spreading across much of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. The new culture was known as the Woodland. Archeologists use three traits to separate the older Archaic cultures from the Woodland cultures. Woodland cultures had pottery, burial mounds and cultivated plants. Archaic cultures, for the most part, did not have any of these.
For many archeologists, the appearance of pottery marks the beginning of the Early Woodland period in Iowa. Although pots are easily broken, pieces of broken pottery (called potsherds or sherds) are very durable. This means that pottery pieces from thousands of years ago can still be found.
Pottery was also an art form. Potters decorated their work in many different ways. Some pottery styles became popular and were copied by other potters. Sometimes it is possible to follow the history of a pottery style. Crude forms mark its beginning. The existence of a specific type of sherd found in many areas suggests that it was a popular style. As the existence of the sherds becomes rare again, it indicates that style of pottery was replaced by newer styles.
The earliest ceramics tend to contain large amounts of temper. Temper is material like crushed stone, shell, sand, ground sherds or plant fiber. Temper is added to wet clay. It prevents the pot from cracking during the drying and firing process.
Early Woodland pots almost always contain fiber or grit. Early potters used two main ways to form their pots: coiling and paddling. In coiling, the potter starts by rolling a lump of clay into a coil. More coils are added to build up the vessel wall. Each coiled layer is pinched to the layer beneath it. Then the potter thins the coils by squeezing them between the thumbs and fingers. Sometimes the potter would use a wooden paddle to smooth out the places where two coils joined together.
To form a vessel by paddling, a lump of clay is pounded into shape. The clay is held against an anvil stone and slapped with a wooden paddle. These paddles were often covered with woven fabric or cordage. As the clay was paddled, the fabric or cordage made marks on the walls of the pots.
The earliest type of pottery in Iowa is referred to as “Marion Thick.” Marion Thick are straight-walled, flat-bottom vessels. The Early Woodland potters may have made their first pots to look like their baskets or leather containers. They were probably coiled and paddled into shape. They have cord marking on both the inside and outside surfaces. Marion Thick has been found at mound and home sites along or very close to the Mississippi River.
A later type of Early Woodland ceramic is known as “Black Sand” pottery. Black Sand pottery is found in sites on sand ridges in the valley bottoms of large rivers in eastern Iowa. Black Sand pottery is somewhat better made than Marion Thick. Cord or fabric markings are seen only on the outer surface. Before pots were fired, a pointed bone or wooden tool was used to carve designs of lines, triangles and dashes on the surface of the wet clay.
A Middle Woodland ceramic tradition called Havana was developed in the Central Illinois Valley and the nearby valley of the Mississippi River. Havana pottery began showing up around 200 BCE in large villages in parts of southeastern Iowa. In time, this tradition spread as far as Oklahoma and the Missouri Valley of southwestern Iowa. Havana pottery was still thick, bag-shaped vessels with large amounts of grit temper. But it had a variety of dentate (toothed) and rocker-stamped designs and areas of geometric patterns. Rocker-stamped designs were made by rocking a sharp-edged tool back and forth over the clay while it was still soft.
By the Late Woodland times, the pottery began to look rounder and less like a bag. This pottery tends to have a narrower opening. At first, it was decorated with fairly simple designs. Later, in some areas, decoration was made by impressing a woven belt or collar around the neck and shoulder of the pot.
Although some villages of the Woodland culture have been excavated, there has been a lot more interest in Woodland burial mounds than in houses. While some mounds were used for burials, other mounds were not. They might have been used to mark borders between groups. Perhaps the mounds were ceremonial centers where people from a wide area came together on certain occasions.
The Middle Woodland mounds in Iowa are mostly cone-shaped mounds that often contain multiple burials. Both bodies and the remains of cremations are included. Sometimes the burials were placed inside log tombs. Certain types of pottery, stone pipes, human and animal figurines, stone and copper axes, panpipes and finely chipped points were placed with the burials. Some artifacts are made of exotic raw materials such as Gulf Coast conch shell, obsidian (volcanic glass) from the Rocky Mountains, Appalachian mica, and Great Lakes copper. Such items suggest that the people with whom they were buried may have held a position of high social standing. Only these people would be able to get these luxury goods. Similar items were found in burials from Iowa to New York and from Wisconsin to Florida. These shared burial customs suggest the people were trading and sharing traditions with groups from thousands of miles away.
A convenient date for separating the Middle Woodland Period from the Late Woodland Period in Iowa is 500 C.E. By this time, smaller Woodland campsites replaced the large villages in southeastern Iowa. Mounds were still being made as monuments to the dead. However, they were smaller and didn’t have most of the exotic trade items found in the earlier mounds. Late Woodland mounds were commonly oblong (linear). In northeastern Iowa, the mounds were frequently made into the shape of animals. These animal-shaped or "effigy" mounds are found primarily in Allamakee and Clayton counties. However, they extend as far south as the city of Dubuque and west to Hardin County. While some contain burials, others do not.
Throughout the Woodland period, people in Iowa grew crops including gourd, squash, sunflower and tobacco. They also planted lamb's quarters, marsh elder, little barley and erect knotweed. By the Late Woodland, corn or maize was becoming a primary food in the diet of many communities.
The Woodland people still used the spear or dart in hunting. The points found at sites include a variety of straight stemmed or side- and corner-notched styles. However, by Late Woodland times, smaller notched and unnotched triangular shaped points were being made. These were probably used with the bow and arrow.
After about 900 CE, the Late Woodland lifestyle was found in only a few areas of Iowa. Most of the people had changed to a new lifestyle based on farming corn, hunting with the bow and arrow, and using new styles of ceramics. These changes created new patterns of society. They are separated into several different late prehistoric cultures in Iowa, including the Great Oasis, Glenwood and Mill Creek.