The Piedmont Village Tradition

Published on April 17, 2015 by Amy

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Piedmont Village Tradition Worked Bone
Piedmont Village Tradition Worked Bone

In the years between AD 1000 and 1200, Native life in the north and central Piedmont hadn’t changed much from prior Woodland times. People still made a style of pottery decorated with net impressions. People still lived in small hamlets whose houses strung out along river and stream banks. At times, the hamlets sat empty when people left to hunt and gather wild foods.

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Yet seeds of change were being sown. Archaeologist Trawick Ward quips the seeds were literal. Around AD 900, intense maize agriculture begins, and the practice has repercussions. Population grows; people start gathering in larger villages of clustered houses; conflict erupts for reasons archaeologists can only speculate about.

Two settlements archaeologists call Hogue and Wall document the switch Piedmont people made from their tendency to live in small hamlets to living in larger, compact villages. Separated by some 400 years, Hogue is the earlier of the two. Both sat on a bend of the Eno River near Hillsborough, North Carolina.

Hogue was a small hamlet occupied between AD 1000 and 1200. Today, the site sits on either side of a large, wooded ditch that was probably the bed of a road used in the 18th century. Cutting Hogue in two, the road destroyed a chunk of the old settlement. From what’s left, it seemsWoodland Hogue had only a few houses. Archaeologists aren’t sure how people built them. Dark stains (called postmolds or postholes) show where some of the structures’ wooden support posts decayed. But the traces don’t make clear house patterns. The best guess is the Hogue homes were round.

Throughout the hamlet, people dug round pits, each about 2 feet deep. Freshly made, each pit was apparently used first as an underground food cupboard. It was safe and hidden, not just from animals, but from any non-Hogue humans who might poke about the hamlet when everyone was off on hunts and collecting trips.

However, as happens, the pit eventually fell out of use. People then filled it by using it as a receptacle for trash. They swept in litter from cooking hearths and sweepings from village and house floors. Archaeologists find pieces of broken pottery, animal bones, nut hulls, broken stone tools, charcoal from fires, and any odd stone caught up in the sweepings.

Enough maize kernels and sunflower seeds turn up in the trash that archaeologists think Hogue’s people were farmers. Probably, their fields weren’t big. The quantities of charred acorns and hickory nuts, along with deer, squirrel, and rabbits that archaeologists found in the pits suggest people relied heavily on wild foods. Archaeologists call this blend of grown and wild foods for subsistence a mixed economy.

Hogue gives archaeologists a glimpse at how Piedmont people living then dealt with death. Hogue’s cemetery was small. Eight people lay buried there in round or oval graves. Hogue villagers arranged each body for burial by drawing the person’s knees up to the chest. They put no offerings in the graves. But in some, large rocks were placed at the feet of the deceased. Why? Archaeologists don’t know.

Small hamlets like Hogue were sprinkled through the north-central Piedmont between AD 1000 and 1200. Most sat along ridges and knolls bordering the narrow floodplains of secondary streams. But a few exceptions, like Hogue, sat along primary streams and rivers. Because all these hamlets have only scant traces of houses, artifacts, or other hints of daily life (like pits to store food), archaeologists think few people lived in them. What’s more, people seemed to change village locations every few years in a settlement-abandonment cycle. While they stayed put in each place, they blended agriculture with hunting and gathering. They looked to tradition to make pottery. They dealt with death according to custom.

Four hundred years after people left Hogue for the last time, another group settled in the same bend of the Eno River. Archaeologists call their village the Wall site. Unlike the sparsely populated, Hogue-like hamlets, the Wall site was a densely-settled village with a larger population. This kind of village had houses placed close together, arranged to form a tight circle around an open area used by community members.

Definitely, Wall was a bigger village than Hogue. It spread over more than an acre. So far, archaeologists have excavated about one-fourth of it. And, so far, they have traced seven round houses, each having a diameter of about 25 feet. Archaeologists found, too, outlines for a couple of smaller buildings, which may have been cribs or sheds for above-ground food storage. Wide, shallow cooking pits are sprinkled among the houses and cribs. From the charcoal and ash, along with their design and the plant and animal food remains found in them, these hearths were probably used to prepare feasts for community ceremonies. And surrounding the entire village was a stockade, a wall made of upright posts. Whether people constructed it for protection from enemies or to keep animals from pilfering food stocks is unknown.

Archaeologists’ best guess is about 100 to 150 people lived at Wall. Their stay was short-lived. Archaeologists think less than 20 years passed between the time people drove in house poles and then left for somewhere else. While they were there, they planted fields of corn, beans, and probably squash in the Eno River’s rich bottomlands. They gathered the wild fruits and berries that rooted and grew in the areas they churned up around the plots. Seasonal supplies of acorns, hickory nuts, and walnuts came from nearby forests. So, too, did their main source of meat, the white-tailed deer. Other small mammals, turtles, fish, wild turkeys, and passenger pigeons added variety. This evidence all tumbles out of their refuse deposits.

Comparing the two Eno River bend settlements, archaeologists note key differences between Hogue and Wall. In a few centuries, the kind of settlement went from a sparsely populated, scattered hamlet to a compact village, larger in size and population; from underground food storage to above-ground food storage; from open to stockaded village.

Burial customs were different, as well. Instead of using a cemetery like that at Hogue, people living at Wall buried their dead in graves located within or just outside their houses. They sealed the graves with timbers or large stones. Funeral offerings, not found among the Hogue villagers, were common. Wall’s people used shell beads to decorate burial garments. Sometimes, they strung the beads and put them on the deceased as jewelry. They also put small clay pots of food in graves, perhaps to sustain the person’s journey to the other world. And because food remains are found in the fill of some graves, archaeologists think feasting might have been part of their burial ceremony.

Such differences–and similarities, such as the mixed subsistence economy–are the stuff of archaeologists’ questions. Were the people at Wall cultural descendants of those at Hogue? If so, does Wall give us a look at how life in the north-central Piedmont typically evolved during the Mississippian period?

Most archaeologists would answer these questions “no” and “yes.” Current thinking is people who lived at Wall moved into the Eno River valley from somewhere else. Just from where is still up in the air. It turns out that not only was the Wall village layout different from that of most nearby and contemporary villages, but the pottery people living in Wall made was distinct.

Wall villagers decorated vessels with a design archaeologists call simple stamped. This design consists of a series of parallel lines running in one direction that people etched on a wooden paddle; the design was transferred on the wet clay by striking the paddle against it. The resulting vessels look very different from the net-impressed pottery found on earlier sites such as Hogue.

As for village layout, Wall’s compact, fortified settlement wasn’t standard in the central Piedmont either. Other contemporary people tended to live like those in the earlier Hogue–in sparsely populated hamlets.

Elsewhere in the Piedmont, archaeologists find that about the same time hamlets like Hogue were cropping up along the Eno and Haw river drainages, people were settling along the upper Dan River drainage of the northern Piedmont.

For reasons archaeologists aren’t sure of, more people lived in the Dan River valley around AD 1000 than in other Piedmont parts. The extensive bottomlands along the Dan and its tributaries might have drawn them due to greater amounts of and more easily reached agricultural soils. For the most part, everyday life there mirrored the Eno River’s Hogue settlement.

A site called Power Plant in Rockingham County, for instance, traces a community whose houses string out along the Dan River’s banks. Like Hogue, Power Plant was a hamlet. Residents dug pits they used first to store food and then to stash garbage. Recovered food remains suggest agriculture was part of life along the upper Dan River by AD 1000. But, like people living along the Eno did, folks at Power Plant balanced cultivated food with wild foods in their subsistence equation. They ate the white tailed deer, assorted smaller animals, and wild plant foods along with the corn, beans, and sunflower seeds.

As far as archaeologists can tell, people at Power Plant and elsewhere along the Dan River had the same burial ritual as their contemporaries along the Haw and Eno rivers. They, too, made pottery having clear style links to their local past. Most pots were big storage and cooking vessels, decorated with net impressions stamped on the surfaces. Sometimes, however, Dan River people added extra decorative touches. Their version could have brushed or etched lines around the pot’s neck. Occasionally, fingers and fingernails punched and pinched depressions along it.

But a fundamental change stalked the Dan River. Where central Piedmont people tended to keep living in hamlets, their northerly Dan River neighbors switched to Wall-like compact villages. Already boasting more people at the period’s start, the Dan River area saw a dramatic increase in population around AD 1250.

Presumably, this growing population relied more and more on corn agriculture, and archaeologists think this reliance affected the size and kind of villages people lived in. Some villages covered more than 2 acres and likely contained 15 to 20 round houses ringing a central plaza. Such villages were protected by stockades and had storage pits, cooking hearths, and graves scattered throughout.

Residents of these Dan River villages made a variety of striking ornaments and tools from animal bone, shell, and clay. Awls, pins, needles, fish hooks, and hide scraping tools archaeologists call beamers were crafted from bone. Bones from small mammals, like rabbits, were drilled and threaded into necklaces. Turtle shells became bowls and cups. People found beauty and usefulness in a variety of things. The serrated edges of freshwater mussel shells became scrapers. Marine whelk obtained through trade got carved into long or short beads and flat pendants. Clay, besides being coiled into pots, was molded into cups, spoons, dippers, beads, and smoking pipes.

When people died, relatives often put these bone, shell, and clay items in the graves. Some items may have been ones the deceased used during life; others may have been fashioned at the time of death, such as the burial garment decorated with shell beads.

By AD 1400, most northern Piedmont villages had made the transition from hamlet to compact village. Archaeologists generally agree the shift was one of necessary convenience. Yet they toss out two ideas about just what sparked it.

One is based on the notion of fragmentation. According to this idea, hamlet-living folks find themselves confronted with having to travel farther and farther to get to their fields. Eventually, family groups responsible for various fields get tired of the daily commute. So they settle next to the fields, clustering their homes nearby. Over time, they end up establishing a separate, independent village whose population then grows and stabilizes.

The other explanation flips the scenic coin. Instead of original villages splitting apart to create new ones, they come together. The reasoning goes that as agriculture becomes more important, people in small, dispersed hamlets start grouping. This way, they can work fields more efficiently, as well as find safety in numbers. Over time, their groupings create clustered villages that stabilize and grow.

Probably, both of these processes were responsible to some degree for the change.

Why Piedmont people put stockades around many of their villages is a question that musters other theories. One idea revolves around conflict. People may have begun fortifying their communities because raids from outsiders picked up. Other ideas about why village walls existed include the practical need to keep animals fenced from food stocks.

All in all, village life across most of the Piedmont was similar during the Mississippian period. Corn agriculture was important. Society seemed to be egalitarian. Whether in compact village or hamlet, no grand burials or other hints of people having special possessions and status have been uncovered. Houses were all about the same size. For the most part, customs emerged from deeply rooted local traditions. Archaeologists tell the same story again and again, embellishing it, of course, as they make more discoveries.

But in one southern Piedmont corner, a flash of something else shows up. It’s called the Pee Dee culture.

Source: rla.unc Unabridged
Based on the collective work of, © 2015 Native American Encyclopedia.
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