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Unfinished stone beads

A cache of beads from a mound group in what is now downtown Pascagoula. One of the beads, the specimen in the upper right,
is a classic effigy bead. Photo courtesy John M. Connaway, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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Pendants show turtle, bird, duck, owl and kingfisher elements, but no human elements. Photo courtesy John M. Connaway, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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effigy beads

The purpose of effigy beads has also been debated. Were they merely jewelry or did they represent something else? Photo courtesy John M. Connaway, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

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Feature Story

Prehistoric Mississippi: Some New Perspectives

In recent years scientists have begun to reconsider some old assumptions about the earliest people in the New World. Once it was believed that they came from Asia across the Bering Strait land bridge and down an ice free corridor into what is now North America. Recent evidence suggests this might not have been the case. Several scholars now argue that these early people possibly came from Europe, or perhaps Africa. Equally intriguing is the great extinction of large mammals at this time. Previously it had been assumed that this was due to hunting by these early folk, but that no longer appears to have been the case. Climate and/or disease are now thought to be among the most probable causes for the extinction.

Perhaps the biggest revolution in archaeology has occurred because of work done in Louisiana. It is now known the earliest mounds and mound groups in the world were built in Louisiana and Mississippi around 4500 B.C. This period of time, 5000 – 3000 B.C., is called the Middle Archaic period by archaeologists. These mounds predate the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids by over a thousand years. In addition to the mounds, beautiful stone beads were manufactured in Mississippi and traded over a wide area. The dating of the early mounds has caused archaeologists to rethink how people lived during this early time period. Previously it had been assumed that, because of the hunting and gathering lifestyle of these early people (agriculture had not yet been discovered), they did not have time for such activities as mound building or artistic expression. But recent work by several archaeologists has begun to shed light on these early people and has shown that they were far more complex and developed than previously believed.

Mound building

While most of the early mounds were built in Louisiana, some were also constructed in Mississippi. Archaeologists who had previously assumed that mounds were characteristic of a later era probably misdated some of these early mounds, partly because the costs of excavations meant that very few mounds were ever tested by such techniques as radio carbon dating. Evidence from Louisiana has demonstrated that not only mounds, but also mound groups, were built in this early period. One such group of mounds, found in what is now downtown Pascagoula, were demolished around the turn of the century. A group of fourteen stone beads were found inside the mounds, one of which was a classic Middle Archaic style effigy bead. This artifact securely dated the mounds to the Middle Archaic period of 4500–3000 B.C. A second mound, in Lincoln County, Mississippi, which has been tested by radiocarbon dating, was built between 3600 B.C. and 3300 B.C., also during the Archaic period. Some excavations and tests are still being run on this mound. A third Archaic mound was discovered in Lowndes County, Mississippi. This Vaughan mound dates to 4600–3800 B.C. and is believed to be a burial mound. These three sites, two single mounds and one group of three mounds, prove beyond a doubt that at least some Middle Archaic peoples in Mississippi were building mounds at this early time period.

Manufacture of stone beads

The stone beads found in Mississippi have long drawn the attention of researchers. In 1878, some 449 unfinished stone beads, the so-called Keenan cache, were discovered in Jefferson Davis County. They were donated to the Smithsonian Institution. I had the pleasure of borrowing this collection in 1979 and returning it to Mississippi where it could be studied by archaeologist John Connaway. His report on this find is one of the most important documents dealing with the Archaic period. He noted that the cache of beads had been carefully placed in the ground, but did not appear to have been part of a burial offering. He also found that although none of the beads were finished, no tools used to manufacture the beads had been placed in the ground with them. One large effigy bead had been placed flat on the bottom of the pit. The long tubular beads were placed standing on end on top of this bead and then all the other beads were placed on top of these specimens. This ritual placement of artifacts suggested that possibly a ceremony occurred as the beads were placed in the ground. Connaway also made a great discovery while examining the long tubular beads. Looking through a microscope he discovered striations caused by grinding encircled the beads. This meant that they had been hafted and turned on a lathe. Interestingly, Connaway found that one bead had been partially drilled and in the hole he discovered the stone drill bit. The drill had become wedged in the bead and had broken. The bit, about the size of a grain of rice, was made of the local Citronelle gravel. By carefully studying the Keenan cache Connaway was able to deduce the steps of manufacture employed by the bead maker. Additionally, the fact that so many beads were found together in an unfinished state strongly suggested a specialist at work. Previously, such craftsmanship had not been thought to exist in this period. Further data from Louisiana, at a site across the river south of Vicksburg, also suggests that specialists were making beads there. In summary, some bead makers were at least part-time craft specialists. The tools employed in the manufacture of stone beads were rather sophisticated. A lathe and a form of drill press were used, and possibly also a bow drill, even though the bow and arrow was unknown in America at this time period. All these technologies were previously not thought to have existed in this early period.

Exchange networks

Mississippi is generally a rock poor state. Most gravel in Mississippi is small and large tools cannot be fashioned from it. Often, when larger chipped stone specimens are found, they are discovered to have been made from rock imported to Mississippi, sometimes from quite distant sources. Archaeologists studying the stone beads soon noticed that many were made from non-native stone. A number of specimens are made from a distinctive green material with white inclusions, identified by the Mississippi Geological Survey as trachyte. Trachyte outcrops in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Several beads were made of other types of material from this same area, suggesting that there was a trade route between Mississippi and Arkansas. Such a long distance exchange network further challenged earlier ideas about primitive hunter gatherers. Also of interest was the fact that what was being exchanged was not a necessity, such as a large good quality chert for tool manufacture, but rather material used to manufacture stone beads. The evidence also indicates that the beads were made in a small area of southwest Mississippi, near Brookhaven, and were exchanged with groups in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama.


It had long been presumed that the artifacts of this time period were almost entirely functional, but the new evidence challenges this view. The stone beads, especially the effigies, are finely wrought specimens, many of which were made of rock imported from great distances. Elaborate knives, made of Fort Payne chert, have also been found in sites in Northeast Mississippi. This chert, the finest such material found in the state, made it possible to manufacture knives more than one foot in length. Most of these long knives were exceptionally thin, which made them unsuitable for heavy duty cutting and raised a question as to their purpose. Modern day American Indians use what they call Atassa, oversized effigy knives carved from wood, which are carried in dance rituals rather than being used for cutting. Thus, the oversized knives probably served religious purposes.

The purpose of the beads has also been debated. Were they merely jewelry or did they represent something else? The effigy beads show mammal, bird and horned owl elements but no human elements. Pendants show turtle, bird, duck, owl and kingfisher elements, but again no human elements. Often these elements are combined on beads. So, one bead might have horned owl, bird and mammal elements. We have such creatures in our culture: we all know what a dragon looks like, even though we know there is no such creature. John Connaway has convincingly argued that these beads are fetishes; powerful symbols that evoke the powers believed to be carried by these creatures. American Indians believed that when one made these items, the spirit of the animal depicted entered the artifact. This would explain why there were no human elements. It was believed the maker’s spirit would enter the artifact and then, if others acquired it, the maker would be under their control.


We see evidence of a tremendous religious upheaval in the Middle Archaic period. The mounds provide evidence of social control not previously thought to have existed at this time. Persuading people to stop their quest for food to build large structures for religious purposes required considerable control over people within the group. The beads also show that shamans, religious leaders, held considerable power within the society. The raw material coming from long distance sources indicates that some people were moving over great distances and crossing into the territory of different societies. The fact that people could move across these territories suggests that warfare was not a problem at this time period. The oversized dance knives suggest that religious ceremonies held today go back in time over 6000 years. The mounds, mound groups, and large settlements suggest that people were more sedentary than previously believed. Archaeological thought about the Middle Archaic period has undergone a revolution as archaeologists try to understand what was happening then and why.

Samuel Brookes is heritage program manager, National Forests in Mississippi.

Posted October 2007


Atkinson, James R. 1974 Appendix A: Test Excavations at the Vaughan Mound Site. In Archaeological Survey and Test Excavations in the Upper-Central Tombigbee River Valley, compiled by Marc Rucker. Report submitted to the Southeast Archaeological Center, National Park Service. Contract CX – 5000-3-1589.

Connaway, John M. 1981 The Keenan Bead Cache. Louisiana Archaeology 8:57-71.

Crawford, Jessica F. 2003 Archaic Effigy Beads: A New Look at Some Old Beads. Unpublished MA Thesis, University of Mississippi.

Rau, Charles 1878 The Stock-in-trade of an Aboriginal Lapidary. Smithsonian Institution, Annual Report for 1877, pp. 1-4, Washington, D.C.

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