Archaeology >  Overview of Pennsylvania Archaeology  > Native American Archaeology > Early and Middle Woodland Periods
Early and Middle Woodland Periods – 3,000 to 1,000 years ago

Early and Middle Woodland peoples

By 3,000 years ago, the climate had changed and was very similar to that of today.  Trade and many of the characteristics of the Transitional Period tool kit continued for a short time into the Woodland Period but were no longer in evidence by 2,400 years ago.  The steatite bowls used during Transitional times were replaced by fired clay pottery.  Stone tools were again made mostly from locally available material, rather than from rhyolite or jasper.  However, the hunting and gathering way of life continued into the Early and Middle Woodland Periods.

The first pottery made in Pennsylvania was hand molded, with small handles, flat bottoms, and plain surfaces, except where the bottoms show impressions from being shaped on some kind of woven mat.  These earliest pots seem to be crude, ceramic copies of soapstone bowls.  Slightly later vessels were built up of slabs or coils of clay.  They were welded together with a wooden paddle wrapped with cord or string, which left impressions of the cordage on the outside and sometimes the inside of the pot.  Although seemingly fragile, pottery vessels probably represent a significant change in the processing and storage of food resources. 

Early Woodland pottery
Early Woodland pottery

The use and production of pottery, which is difficult to transport, suggests fewer base camp movements and more permanent settlements.  Early Woodland groups probably continued to move on a seasonal basis, but base camps in favorable environments may have been occupied for longer periods of the year.  From these base camps, work groups may have been sent out to harvest wild plant foods such as seeds or nuts, and to hunt deer, water fowl, and other game. 

Early Woodland roasting pit with heat reddened soil,
Early Woodland roasting pit with heat reddened soil,
charcoal, and fire-cracked rock

In the Ohio Valley of western Pennsylvania, more dramatic developments took place, including the use of burial mounds and elaborate burial ceremonies. Archaeologists call this the Adena culture, which is part of a regional development that extended from the Upper Mississippi Valley. Adena people lived in round houses clustered in small hamlets.  They continued to hunt and fish but they intensified their use of wild plant foods.  There is good evidence that they gathered seeds from sunflower and chenopodium (lamb's quarters) and ground them into a flour. There is also some evidence for the use of squash, which was domesticated in Mexico and was gradually transported to Northeastern North American.

An Early Woodland burial mound, many of which have been destroyed by modern development.
An Early Woodland burial mound, many of which have been destroyed by modern development.  (Photograph courtesy of the Section of Anthropology, Carnegie Museum of Natural History.)

By 2,400 years ago, the beginning of the Middle Woodland period, there seems to have been a significant drop in population based on the number of archaeological sites in Pennsylvania and throughout the Middle Atlantic region.  However, this apparent drop in population may have more to do with our inability to identify Middle Woodland artifacts than the actual decrease in human population.  Based on carbon 14 dates, people lived in Pennsylvania during this period, but they did not use a distinctive assemblage of artifacts that could be distinguished from Early Woodland or Late Woodland artifacts. The artifacts of the Middle Woodland are rather nondescript in appearance, and even their pottery is usually not distinctive.  The few sites that have been excavated are small, and fire-cracked rock features are no longer common.  Trash pits, suggesting more permanent occupations, have been found, but they are rare. The fired clay pottery is generally undecorated and covered with net impressions or cord marking.  The spear points are notched or stemmed and generally not distinctive in their shape.  Although little is known about the Middle Woodland period, this was probably a very interesting time in Pennsylvania prehistory, during which people became more settled and may have begun planting wild seed plants such as sunflower. 

A Middle Woodland cordmarked pot
A Middle Woodland cordmarked pot

In the Ohio Valley of Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio, an expansive trade network developed in the Middle Woodland, which archaeologists call the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. The network extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Yellowstone National Park to the Delaware Bay. Trade items included marine shells, ocean turtle shells, shark and alligator teeth from the Atlantic and Florida coasts; copper and silver from the Great Lakes region; and obsidian, a volcanic glass from the western United States. Ceremonial artifacts, especially those from long distance trade, were placed in the burials of high-ranking individuals. The trade network was associated with a pattern of burial ceremonialism and mound complexes that existed throughout the Upper Ohio Valley.  Hopewell people were true horticulturists, growing corn and squash and living in settled hamlets.

Hopewell pottery, hamlets, and burial mounds have been found in western Pennsylvania, but these characteristics are less common than in the region to the west.  Hopewell in western Pennsylvania likely ended at approximately AD 400.  Small horticultural groups continued in the area, but without the Hopewellian pottery styles and trade connections.

The Early and Middle Woodland periods were probably very dynamic, with significant technological, social, and religious developments.  However, our understanding of these developments is very poor.  The answer to these questions will require a great deal more excavation, especially at buried sites that have been protected from modern development. 

For more information on ceremonial earthworks and burial mounds, visit the Hopewell Culture National Historic Park website.