Widows Creek Site (1JA305) Collection Study

In a project funded by the Federal Highway Administration and Alabama Department of Transportation in a cooperative agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research (TVAR) recently completed a study of collections recovered during excavations at the Widows Creek site (1JA305) in 1973. The site is situated at the confluence of Widows Creek and the Tennessee River (i.e., Guntersville Lake) in Jackson County, Alabama. Notably, the well-known Russell Cave site lies less than 10 miles away within the upper reaches of the Widows Creek drainage basin. The Widows Creek site consists of relatively deep soil deposits containing prehistoric stone, bone, and ceramic (i.e., pottery) artifacts and well-preserved food remains such as mussel shells, animal bones, and carbonized plant seeds.

Mussel shells recovered from the site indicate that most of the shellfish species represented in the collection dwell in environments distinguished by relatively shallow water, swift current, and a stream channel bottom consisting primarily of gravel and gravelly sand. This type of environment existed in the riverbed adjacent to and immediately upstream from Widows Creek where the river passes through a relatively narrow gorge situated between an unnamed ridge and Sand Mountain. Prior to the impoundment of the river in the first half of the twentieth century, the downstream portion of this stretch of the Tennessee River contained shallow shoals and was referred to as Widows Bar.

Prehistorically, river shoals were important places. While they were occasionally obstacles to riverine voyages requiring canoe portage, shoals often provided shallow river crossings for pedestrian travel.
These areas sometimes furnished access to important stone resources such as chert (i.e., flint), which was used to make various implements including projectile points. This is especially evident in northwestern Alabama where some of the highest quality chert is found in gravel bar deposits. Shoals often were used as stations for collecting fish and shellfish, and the recovery of bone fishhooks, fish remains, and large assemblages of freshwater shell attest to the importance of the shoals at Widows Bar to the occupants of the Widows Creek site.

The 1973 Widows Creek excavations unearthed over 200 fire hearths, refuse-filled pits, and postholes as well as 28 human burials. With the possible exception of a single small, open-sided windbreak type structure, there is no evidence of substantial architectural structures at Widows Creek. The overall lack of substantial architectural structures suggests that the site was not a location used for prolonged occupations in colder months. Moreover, evidence indicates that late summer to early fall shellfishing activities were primarily responsible for the extensive site deposits. Taken together, this suggests that the Widows Creek site occupations were associated with repeated, short-duration seasonal visits rather than extensive long-term occupations.

Based on various contexts, radiocarbon dates, and materials recovered from the site, Widows Creek appears to have experienced numerous visits by prehistoric inhabitants of the Tennessee Valley over a span of time encompassing several millennia. The earliest site occupation appears to date to the Archaic period. During the past several decades, studies of Archaic remains across eastern North America have identified successions of chronologically diagnostic projectile points and placed these sequences within a broad calendar of radiocarbon dates. Archaeological investigations in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama have contributed greatly to this process through radiocarbon dates and the study of stratified remains from various riverbank sites, rockshelters, and caves. Archaic populations in the Tennessee Valley were likely organized into hunter-and-gatherer kinship-based groups with seasonal rounds tied to resource procurement, especially various available plant resources. Notably, the Middle Archaic period coincided with the beginnings of substantial mollusk shell accumulations at riverbank sites in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, and the first recorded earthen mound in the valley consisted of a small clay platform constructed by Late Archaic populations. Evidence indicates that the Widows Creek site was first used by Middle and Late Archaic groups, and the first substantial shell deposits at the site were associated with the Late Archaic site component.

The Gulf Formational stage is recognized by the addition of ceramics to otherwise Late Archaic artifact assemblages. Insofar as Gulf Formational pottery is linked to distinct ceramic-making traditions which developed on the Coastal Plains of the Southeast, it can be readily distinguished from Early Woodland ceramic traditions emanating from the Northeast and South Appalachians that were characterized by vessel surfaces textured primarily with cord and fabric impressions. The earliest Gulf Formational sites are located in eastern Georgia and Florida and are recognized by the appearance of fiber-tempered pottery (i.e., pottery in which plant fibers were added into the clay before firing). The initial appearance of fiber-tempered pottery in the Tennessee Valley was around 1200 to 700 B.C. These Gulf Formational occupations have been recorded in association with extensive shell deposits at riverbank sites as well as both rockshelters and open-air sites in upland environments. Burials were sometimes accompanied by artifacts including bone tools, stone blade caches, steatite vessels and tubular pipes, fiber-tempered ceramic vessels, marine and freshwater shell beads and pendants, jasper beads, and copper beads. The recovery of fiber-tempered ceramics, steatite (soapstone) vessels, tubular stone pipes, certain types of projectile points, and jasper beads from Tennessee Valley contexts is indicative of interactions with the Poverty Point phenomena in the Mississippi Valley. Notably, certain types of stone used to manufacture some of the projectile points found at the Poverty Point site were likely obtained from the Tennessee Valley.

The recovery of fiber-tempered ceramics indicates a Gulf Formational affiliation for some of the Widows Creek site deposits. A geoarchaeological study of soil samples derived from the deposits suggests that during the Gulf Formational occupation of the site there was increased flooding of the Tennessee River, which interestingly corresponds with evidence of more extensive flooding in the Mississippi Valley at roughly the same time. The remains of a small open-sided windbreak type shelter also were found in the Gulf Formational deposits. Similar small open structures were used in Tennessee during the Late Archaic.

The Woodland stage is perhaps best known for the Adena and Hopewell earthworks and mortuary practices in the Ohio Valley and for widespread exchange networks in which nonlocal artifacts made of copper, stone, and seashells were distributed across much of eastern North America during the Early and Middle periods of the Woodland stage. There is evidence that cultivation of some of the plants domesticated in eastern North America became an important subsistence pursuit in the Ohio Valley and other areas of the East. While less numerous and spectacular than those of the Ohio Valley, Middle Woodland platform mounds and linear earthen embankments, piled-stone structures (i.e., mounds, effigies, and linear “wall-like” structures), and burial mounds are fairly widespread across various landscapes in the Southeast. Woodland mound burials sometimes were accompanied by nonlocal materials such as marine shell, copper, galena, and mica, to name but a few. During the Late Woodland, there was an obvious reduction in both earthworks and distributions of nonlocal materials in some areas of the Southeast, though this pattern does not hold throughout the region. A major technological change is signaled by the introduction of bow-and-arrow technology into the region during the Late Woodland. Four periods are designated for the Woodland stage in the Guntersville Basin: Early Woodland (ca. 600 to 100 B.C.), Middle Woodland (ca. 100 B.C. to A.D. 500), Late Woodland (ca. A.D. 500 to 1000), and Terminal Woodland (ca. A.D. 1000 to 1100).

Early Woodland ceramic complexes of the Guntersville Basin are recognized on the basis of assemblages numerically dominated by pottery specimens exhibiting cord-wrapped rod impressions on exterior surfaces. There are no known examples of Early Woodland burial mounds in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, and Early Woodland burials rarely have associated artifacts. When burial artifacts are present they usually consist of steatite (soapstone) vessels and utilitarian items such as stone projectile points and bone tools. Early Woodland ceramics were recovered from some of the deposits excavated at Widows Creek. Geoarchaeological evidence suggests that the these deposits were associated with a relatively stable landscape, and an analysis of mussel shells showed a concentration of species indicating that the adjacent shoals were in all likelihood shallower during the Early Woodland occupations of the site.

In the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, Middle Woodland times were marked by earthwork constructions, mound and cave burials, and increased interregional exchange. Middle Woodland platform mounds have been investigated at the Walling and Florence Mound sites, located west of the Guntersville Basin, and Middle Woodland burial mounds and cave burials have been recorded throughout the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama. Some of the mound and cave burials contained nonlocal artifacts and materials such as copper reel-shaped gorgets, earspools, bracelets, axes, and beads; seashell shell cups and beads; ground galena nodules; mica; steatite pipes; and greenstone celts.
The items made of nonlocal materials provide corroborating evidence of local participation in the widespread network of Middle Woodland interregional exchange. In addition, evidence from Russell Cave indicates that a domesticated variety of goosefoot was grown in the Tennessee Valley during the Middle Woodland period. While there is ample evidence of remarkable developments during the Middle Woodland in the Tennessee Valley, radiocarbon dates and ceramic distributions indicate a lack of a Middle Woodland component at Widows Creek. Environmental data suggest that the Middle Woodland was a period of increased precipitation in the Tennessee Valley associated with an interval of global warming. The accompanying amplified stream levels presumably inundated the Widows Bar shoals to a point that exploitation of the adjacent shallow water resources, such as shellfish beds that were heavily exploited during earlier and later Widows Creek occupations, was no longer a feasible pursuit during the Middle Woodland period. These climate-driven environmental changes seem to offer the most reasonable explanation for the lack of a Middle Woodland occupation at the site.

Although there were some seashell and copper beads in Late Woodland burials at Widows Creek, there appears to have been a substantial overall reduction in artifacts made of exotic materials in the Late and Terminal Woodland assemblages in the Guntersville Basin, especially in comparison to Middle Woodland burial accompaniments. Platform mound construction has been noted for Terminal Woodland contexts in the western Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama, but neither platform mounds nor burial mounds have been documented for Late or Terminal Woodland contexts in the Guntersville Basin. Late and Terminal Woodland ceramic assemblages in northern Alabama are often predominated by specimens exhibiting undecorated surfaces. In the western portion of the middle Tennessee Valley, the dominance of grog-tempered ceramics (i.e., pottery in which crushed pottery was added to clay before firing) distinguishes Late and Terminal Woodland assemblages from those in the eastern portion of the valley (i.e., the Guntersville Basin), which were predominantly limestone tempered. Ceramics and radiocarbon dates indicate that Widows Creek was visited repeatedly by Late Woodland and Terminal Woodland populations.

Many, if not most, current researchers concur that populations associated with the Mississippian stage throughout southeastern North America were set aside from earlier ones by the development of privileged elite groups. Maize agriculture appears to have been an important subsistence component for most Mississippian societies. Public and domestic structures were often rectangular (sometimes circular) and employed wattle-and-daub construction techniques. A central plaza surrounded by mounds and public and domestic structures characterized some of the larger Mississippian communities. Some Mississippian sites also were fortified with palisade walls and bastions and sometimes defensive ditches or moats, as well. Regional settlement studies typically reflect a site hierarchy consisting of mound centers and outlying non-mound sites. Specially crafted artifacts often made of nonlocal materials furnish evidence of widespread interregional exchange. The existence of widespread Mississippian alliances in the interior Southeast was documented at the time of initial European contact.

A relatively confined area of the Widows Creek site produced Early Mississippian pottery types. Interestingly, radiocarbon dates suggest that the Guntersville Basin might have been occupied by both Terminal Woodland and Early Mississippian populations at the same time. One study also found dental and cranial traits indicative of possible genetic differences between Woodland burials at the Widows Creek site and Early Mississippian burials at the nearby Williams Landing site. Although this evidence is not considered indisputable, it at least lends support to the notion that Mississippian populations migrated into the region that was already occupied by Terminal Woodland populations.

In retrospect, previous studies of Widows Creek animal remains, human burials, bone tools, and freshwater shellfish gathering and use already have contributed to our knowledge of the prehistory of the Tennessee Valley in northern Alabama. The recently completed TVAR project has added to those contributions with new data relating to climate change and some of the affects of climate fluctuations upon prehistoric human populations. The recent research also furnished refinements to existing prehistoric pottery chronology and provided important foundations for furthering chronological studies through future archaeological investigations in the region.

For further reading into the Woodland pottery making practices at the Widows Creek Site (1JA305), please click here.

Suggested Reading

Walthall, John A., Prehistoric Indians of the Southeast: Archaeology of Alabama and the Middle South

Widows Creek Bibliography

Calabrese, F.A.
1974 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Widows Creek Archaeological Project: Interim Report. File copy with collections at The University of Alabama, Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Calabrese, F.A., and Vic Hood
ca. 1972 Preliminary Survey of the Widow’s Creek Power Plant Area, Alabama. Prepared for Tennessee Valley Authority Contract TV 37375A. File copy with collections at The University of Alabama, Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Compton, Laura A., and Robin L. Smith
1987 A Sample Inventory of the Widows Creek Collection. University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Provost Student Research Awards, Research Report.
Coughlin, Sean Patrick
1996 A Technical Analysis of Modified Bone from the Widows Creek Site (1JA305), Alabama. Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Cyr, Howard J.
2011 Geoarchaeological Analysis of the Widows Creek Site (1JA305), Jackson County, Alabama. In The Widows Creek Site: A Contextual Study of Site Chronology, Formation, and Use, by Keith J. Little, Hunter B. Johnson, and Russell Holloway. Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Special Investigation 2.
Krause, Richard A.
2011 Toward an Archaeoethnography of Widows Creek Potting Practices. Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Special Investigation 1.
Little, Keith J., Hunter B. Johnson, and Russell Holloway
2011 The Widows Creek Site: A Contextual Study of Site Chronology, Formation, and Use. Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Special Investigation 2.
Morey, Darcy F.
1996 Vertebrate Resource Utilization at the Widows Creek Site (1JA305), Jackson County, Alabama. Submitted by the Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville to the Tennessee Valley Authority in accordance with Contract TV-86419V.
Norton, Dale Clayton
2004 Relationship of the Widows Creek (1JA305) and Williams Landing (1JA306) Sites from the Guntersville Basin, Alabama: A Holistic Evaluation Utilizing Demographic, Health, Diet, Genetic and Cultural Data, Masters thesis, The University of Southern Mississippi.
Olinger, Danny E.
1975 Widows Creek Archaeological Project: Progress Report. File copy with collections at The University of Alabama, Alabama Museum of Natural History.
Warren, Robert E.
1975 Prehistoric Unionacean (Freshwater Mussel) Utilization at the Widows Creek Site (1JA305), Northeast Alabama. Masters thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.
1991 Freshwater Mussels as Paleoenvironmental Indicators: A Quantitative Approach to Assemblage Analysis. In Beamers, Bobwhites, and Blue-Points: Tributes to the Career of Paul W. Parmalee, edited by James R. Purdue, Walter E. Klippel, and Bonnie W. Styles, pp. 23-66. Illinois State Museum Scientific Papers XXIII, Springfield.
Windham, Jeannine
2011 Between the Lines: Widows Creek (1JA305) Taphonomic Study, Jackson County, Alabama. In The Widows Creek Site: A Contextual Study of Site Chronology, Formation, and Use, by Keith J. Little, Hunter B. Johnson, and Russell Holloway. Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Special Investigation 2.