Overview of Hancock County Prehistory

 written for the Historical Society by Marco J. Giardino, PhD


Hancock County is an area of relatively high terrain, especially along the East Pearl River where Pleistocene period bluffs provide 20-30 feet of elevation. It is an also an area of diverse ecosystems, including riverine, wetlands, salt water marshes, open gulf and piney woods. Consequently, this region has been sought out by human occupants since the earliest arrival of people into the Western Hemisphere. The entire prehistoric sequence of cultures and periods as described for the general southeastern United States obtains in Hancock County. In addition, the county’s archaeological resources offer some very important and unique sites which will be discussed herein. These include: the Jackson Landing site, the Cedarland Plantation site, the Claiborne site and the Ancient Earthwork which is still the largest extant structure of its type along the northern Gulf of Mexico.

The Paleo-Indian Culture Period (~12,000-8,000 B.C.)

The major culture-periods defined by archaeologists to organize the prehistory of North America are all represented in Hancock County. The first culture, known as the Paleo-Indian covered a period spanning from the end of the last glacial age around 12,000 B.C. to about 8000 B.C. When the Paleo-Indian people lived in Hancock County, temperatures were on average five to ten degrees cooler and the climate was drier. Sea level had not reached its modern height, being anywhere between 10 and 30 meters below current levels. The coast of Mississippi would therefore have extended to the edge of the continental shelf. When sea level eventually rose to current heights, many coastal Paleo-Indian sites in Hancock County were probably drowned.

The flora and fauna of the region was significantly different than today’s. Large animals roamed the terraces, river valleys and coastal regions. Members of the Pleistocene fauna, all now extinct, included: the mastodon, saber-toothed tiger, giant beaver, and giant short-faced bear, the camel, giant armadillo, long-horned bison, mastodon, tapir, ground sloth, mammoth, dire wolf, and horse. The colder climate resulted in more open grasslands and the southern extension of temperate types of trees like spruce and fir. The newly arrived Paleo-Indians specialized in hunting large game. Their most diagnostic artifact was the long, fluted chipped stone projectile points most likely hafted and used as spears. People were organized in small bands and moved frequently to follow the large game. Hancock County with its proliferation of artesian wells and natural springs probably offered some great localities for stalking and killing large game.

Fluted points from this period have been discovered along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and in the Pearl River Basin. Most of these finds are isolated artifacts recovered from plowed fields and not in their original context. The author participated in the fortuitous recovery of one fluted projectile point characteristic of the Paleo-Indian tradition on the beach in front of St. Stanislaus during one of that schools archaeological field schools.

The Archaic Culture Period (~8,000-1,000 B.C.)

Prehistoric inhabitants in Hancock County like elsewhere in the United States, were forced to adapt to new life ways after the still mostly unexplained extinction of the Pleistocene mega-fauna. The change in subsistence ushered the start of what archaeologists define as the Archaic culture and period. Divided into three sub-periods, the Archaic is dated from about 8,000 B.C. to about 1,000 B.C. Dart points thrown with the aid of a spear-thrower weighed with an atl-atl became the preferred technology for hunting during the Early Archaic. The hunted game included mostly deer although other small mammals were also taken.

Over the course of the subsequent centuries, populations grew and appear to settled specific localities more frequently and for longer periods of time. Dog were domesticated and used either in hunting or as food, or both. The adaptation of human groups to a set of variable environments resulted in increased cultural variability as demonstrated by the projectile points and other lithic artifacts discovered from Archaic sites. The warming climate encouraged more exploitation of woodlands and river valleys, while along the coast, fishing and shellfish harvesting became increasingly common economic pursuits. Horticulture also may have had its beginnings in the Archaic period.

Based on the presence of specific artifacts, archaeologists have hypothesized that during this period people organized wide-ranging and effective regional exchanges and formal trade networks. Recent discoveries elsewhere in Mississippi and Louisiana have demonstrated that by the end of the Archaic and most likely for several centuries before, people began building earthen mounds. Also very significant is the evidence for the earliest manufacture of pottery that occurs in the Archaic period.

The Late Archaic especially is well represented in Hancock County. Like other Late Archaic cultures, those located along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in the lower reaches of the East Pearl River developed sedentary settlements based especially on the utilization of the saltwater oyster beds. Excavation of local sites from this period normally reveals oyster shell middens dating from the Archaic overlain by clam shell middens from later periods. Three Hancock County archaeological sites specifically, the Claiborne site, the Jackson Landing or Mulatto Bayou site and the Cedarland Plantation site were known to be sizable villages or settlements along the East Pearl River by at least 1,500 B.C. E. Between 1932 and 1935, Moreau B. Chambers, working on a state survey for the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, examined the southern half of Mississippi. He recorded three midden sites in the southern Pearl River area: Jackson Landing (22Ha500) on Mulatto Bayou; the Cedarland Plantation (22Ha506), a Late Archaic site; and 22Ha507, named the Weston Midden, located at the Logtown Landing.

The Claiborne and Cedarland sites were mostly destroyed by construction in the 1960s. During that time, a large number of Late Archaic artifacts, mostly affiliated with the Poverty Point culture, were uncovered and variously collected by amateurs, tourists and weekend visitors. From Claiborne, a very large number of baked clay balls, known as Poverty Point objects or PPOs were collected by local citizens, as well steatite bowls and vessels. Unregulated excavations at both of these sites have destroyed over 90% of the in situ deposits.

The Claiborne site is listed in the State Historic site files as 22Ha501 and has been included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was partly excavated during the summers of 1969 and 1970 by Mississippi State University. A large collection of artifacts was obtained, and a shell midden was identified. The site, together with Cedarland Plantation, was the focus of several reports by Coastal Environments, Inc. and especially its president Dr. Woody Gagliano and the late Dr. Clarence Webb of Shreveport, Louisiana.USM under the direction of Dr. Ed Jackson excavated at Cedarland, but the destruction was so pervasive and on-going that little meaningful information could be recovered.

Current thinking is that the Claiborne and the Cedarland sites represent the remains of coastal villages occupied during the Late Archaic (circa 3000-1500 B.C.) and the Poverty Point periods (1500 B.C. - 500 B.C. ) respectively. Cedarland is the type site (an archaeological reference point) for the Pearl River phase of the Late Archaic. Claiborne was described by Dr. Webb in 1977 as a regional center “that maintained close contact with Poverty Point [site] and participated fully in the trade network and cultural organization.” Claiborne’s inhabitants, according to Webb, maintained trade contacts along the Gulf of Mexico to Florida acting virtually as a Poverty Point colony.

Both Claiborne and Cedarland were described as early as 1852, by Benjamin Wailes, State Geologist and later the first president of the Mississippi Historical Society. Wailes writes in his journal that a shell “hummock” was situated on Colonel Claiborne’s land [this was the famous Mississippian historian John F. H.] and “consist[s] almost exclusively of oysters: it has been greatly spread and leveled by cultivation. This shell deposit is at some distance from the present channel of Mulatto Bayou, but it is on the verge of a broad, deep ravine, in which there is but little water at present; but as it connects with the present bayou, there can be little doubt that it was once a navigable channel”. When relocated by Gagliano in 1957, Cedarland consisted of a large stratified oyster shell and earth midden, semicircular in plan. Cedarland is directly across a ravine from Claiborne. Occupation at Cedarland was carbon dated by Gagliano to 1240+/-130 BC.

Benjamin Wailes also described the Claiborne site as another walled enclosure “distant about 1/4 of a mile to the NW from the center of the embankment or wall in the rear”. This “wall” is the Boisdore or Ancient Earthwork which will be discussed presently. Wailes described the Claiborne earthwork as “less hight [sic] [compared to the Earthwork] and more obliterated by cultivation over it”. Associated with the embankment at Claiborne was a mound originally about 10 feet high and 50 feet in diameter. When “rediscovered” in modern times by Gagliano and Webb, Claiborne consisted of a large stratified horseshoe midden composed of black earth and Rangia shells. Associated with this midden and at a distance of 344 meters was a small conical sand mound which was 24 feet in diameter at the base and 1.3 meters high. It was destroyed before it could be tested.

The Claiborne site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 due to its perceived importance as a regional center of the Poverty Point Interaction Sphere as defined by Gagliano and Webb. Numerous artifacts dating to the Poverty Point period were recovered, including the largest number of fiber tempered sherds in the coastal area. Carbon dates indicate that the site was occupied around 1150 BC +/- 110 years. Some researchers postulated, based on the carbon dates and the artifact assemblages that the Cedarland population moved to Claiborne around 1200 BC. Bruseth sets the starting occupation date for Claiborne to 2,000 BC which would throw doubt on the original interpretation of people moving from one site to the other. The same author believed that the Claiborne site may have acted as a gateway community, strategically located to control the trade along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River.

Archaeologists have sought to determine what, if any, prehistoric deposits are still preserved at Claiborne. Surface collection conducted at Claiborne in the 1970s by Howell discovered three areas that may still contain undisturbed cultural deposits despite the extensive destruction of the site. In 1989, the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission funded further investigation of the Claiborne site in advance of additional industrial growth. Dr. Ed Jackson of USM led the testing, that included the excavation of several trenches. These revealed, as expected, that the site was extensively destroyed, although a few areas of intact midden and a large pit (possibly the mound’s borrow pit) were still extant and possibly filled with undisturbed midden deposits.

In the 1980s, Dr. Marco Giardino in collaboration with both the Mississippi Archaeological Association (MAA) and the Louisiana Archaeology Society (LAS) conducted limited scientific excavations at the Mulatto Bayou or Jackson Landing site, inside the perimeter of the Earthwork. The Jackson Landing site contained artifacts dating from the Late Archaic through the Woodland and Mississippian periods. This fascinating site, which includes flat top and conical mounds, burials and prehistoric living areas, in addition to the Earthwork, also figures prominently in the history of Hancock County. The Jackson Landing site was where Judge Daniells of Bay St. Louis built Clifton Plantation to grow sea-island cotton. Clifton was later owned briefly by Andrew Jackson Jr. the adopted son of the 7th President of the United States.

In sum, the Archaic inhabitants of Hancock County probably participated in the regional culture typical elsewhere in the Southeastern United States characterized by a more settled life, rich with trading opportunities, and by exciting technological innovations such as the beginnings of pottery making, agriculture, and mound building.

The Woodland Culture Period (~1,000 B.C. - A.D. 700)

Archaeologists have defined the Woodland culture and period as following the Archaic starting around 1,000 B.C and ending around A.D. 700. Among the perceived changes that are hallmarks of the Woodland is the increasing importance of corn agriculture, the advent of tribal organization replacing multi-family or clan organizations, larger, more permanent villages, an increased use of conical burial mounds, and especially many new forms and decorations of pottery. Another major technological innovation was the bow and arrow which, based on the appearance of small projectile points in the archaeological deposits, is thought to have been invented during the early Woodland period.

Sites dating from this period and the subsequent Mississippian Period are the most numerous types found in Hancock County. Again, the Jackson Landing site stands out as a rich and informative example of Woodland culture in the region. The large earthwork preserved at the Jackson Landing site was initially constructed during the Tchula (DATE) and Marksville (DATE) periods based on carbon dates recovered in the 1990s by Mr. Robert Jones III of Gulfport and Dr. Giardino. During the Woodland period, elsewhere in the southeastern US, the mound sites became the centers of commerce and politics. Eventually, evidence of an upper or elite class begins to appear in the archaeological record in the form of mound burials with exotic artifacts. Massive platform mounds which served later on as the foundations for chiefs’ houses and Native temples, replace conical burial mounds. Villages from this time were fortified and skeletons are frequently found with embedded projectile points indicating a time of conflict and turbulence.

During these times the people living along Mulatto Bayou erected a large D-shaped earthwork which enclosed a small peninsula facing Mulatto Bayou. Within this enclosure they eventually built a large pyramidal mound. Outside the enclosure, Benjamin Wailes noted 3-4 conical mounds or tumuli. We can’t be sure if the construction of the earthwork was to isolate a sacred area or to defend a settlement, or both. A similar situation obtains at the famous Marksville site located in Avoyelles Parish, Louisiana. Here a large D-shaped ring encloses a series of mounds and leaves the site accessible from the nearby river.

The Marksville culture dated between 100 B.C.E and C.E. 300 or so, is represented by very finely made and uniquely decorated pottery that are found throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley and eastward along the Gulf Coast toward the Mobile Bay area, where they “merge” with contemporary and similar styles coming from Florida. In turn, Marksville culture shares many cultural traits with the Hopewell culture of the Illinois River Valley also dating from this time. Both Marksville and Hopewellian cultures emphasized earthworks often enclosing burial mounds which contained exotic trade goods such as earspools, bracelets, stone platform pipes, mica figurines, galena, marine shells, freshwater pearls, and green stone celts.

Woodland period artifacts and buried deposits are found along Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis, and in other localities throughout Hancock County. One of the more remarkable sites for studying this culture is again the Jackson Landing site. Not only is the Earthwork present at the site, but deep in situ deposits dating from the Woodland period were discovered along the Mulatto Bayou by the author in the 1980s. Finely decorated pottery from this period was found in a dark black shell midden deposit, associated with well preserved bones of animals which provided analyst with clear indications of prehistoric diet and procurement strategies.

The large earthwork that encloses the platform mound and shoreline midden is, known historically as the Ancient Earthwork or the Boisdore Fortification. It is the largest surviving prehistoric earthwork known in Mississippi and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Again, the first written description of this site that I could locate is found in the journal of Benjamin Wailes. Wailes sketched a map of the site, and described the earthwork as 15 feet high and 20 feet wide, with a base of at least 69 feet, containing a good deal of shell, three old wells on the interior and four small tumuli “barely obliterated by the plow” outside the earthwork. Historic and prehistoric artifacts were recovered from the site. He also describes possible “gateways” and a moat. These features are still visible today.

The first controlled excavations and surveys of the Earthwork and adjacent localities were conducted in 1971 and 1972 by the Gulf Coast Chapter of the Mississippi Archaeological Association. The Earthwork, at that time, was described as a slightly curved structure approximately 1,500 feet long, up to 12-13 feet high and a hundred feet thick at the base. It was described by Mark Williams who published the results of the excavations, as containing two intentional “gaps”, one of which is located 420 feet from the west end; whereas the other is 120 feet from the east end. A ditch or borrow pit is situated immediately north of the earthwork. The Earthwork was almost leveled by industrial “development” in the 1970s but thanks to the heroic effort of MAA members this destruction was avoided when Association members literally stood in front of the heavy equipment to stop the work.

The MAA investigations suggest that the Earthwork was constructed in three stage, beginning around 400 B.C.E during the Tchula Period, and completed with the addition of stages two and three during mid-late Marksville times (carbon dates for Stage 2, 1,735 + 1-31 5 BP [A.D. 215], and stage 3 1660+180 [A.D. 290]). A Rangia midden dating to the Late Marksville was located very near the western terminus of the earthwork but its relationship to the people who constructed the later stages of the Earthwork is unclear.

During the early 1990s, Robert Jones Ill completed detailed profiles of the earthwork, and collected artifacts and charcoal samples from a large trench dug through the southwestern end of the Earthwork for industrial purposes. Three more carbon dates from the Earthwork were analyzed confirming the Marksville dates for construction and a three-stage construction process.

The best illustration of Marksville occupation along the lower reaches of the Pearl River is the midden along Mulatto Bayou. Excavated by the author in the 1980s, the test units revealed a large quantity of Woodland sherds associated with numerous faunal remains. The Woodland inhabitants of the Pearl River lived during very dynamic times. Bow-and-arrow technology became widespread increasing hunting efficiency; new varieties of maize, beans, and squash were introduced or gained economic importance at this time and finally there was a marked increase in the numbers of sites probably signaling increased populations. The Woodland period locally is subdivided into several temporal and cultural segments: the Tchefuncte, or Tchula, (750 B.C.-A.D. 250); the Marksville (100 B.C.-A.D. 300); the Baytown (A.D. 300-A.D. 700); and the Coles Creek (A.D. 700-A.D. 1000).

Above the Marksville strata at Mulatto Bayou, were those belonging to the Plaquemine/Mississippian. Curiously, the Coles Creek period, which in neighboring Louisiana is seen as a period of significant population growth, is not very well represented in Hancock County. This Late Woodland culture in Louisiana was characterized by mound building and the manufacture of characteristic paddle impressed check stamped pottery. Why the Coles Creek is so poorly represented in our county still remains a puzzle. Certainly, cultural influences from Late Woodland Florida are evident in the local archaeological remains, but apparently the people living west of Hancock County during the Late Woodland did not inhabit or conduct extensive trade with the Mississippi coast.

The Plaquemine and Mississippian Culture Periods (A.D. 1000- A.D. 1500)

This period of prehistory is characterized in our region, like elsewhere in the Southeastern United States by the construction of large temple mounds that served as platforms for the houses of chiefs and for temples. These types of sites were noted by the De Soto chroniclers and were still in evidence during the early 18th century when French colonists and explorers visited tribes like the Natchez. The people in most cases were ruled by chiefs, who controlled allied communities and who inherited or achieved their title.

Populations grew significantly during this period and evidence of warfare such as embedded arrow points in skeletons and palisaded villages becomes commonplace. Ceramic vessels are manufactured in a variety of styles and characteristically include shells as tempering. This type of ceramic is found in the upper archaeological levels at the Mulatto Bayou site dating from as early as AD 970. The inhabitants of Hancock County during the Plaquemine/Mississippian most likely participated in the cultivation of corn, beans and squash although no evidence of such plants were found in the excavations of Mulatto Bayou. What we did discover in our excavations was an enormous amount of fish remains, and other animals that live in riverine and wetland environments. This diet apparently had not changed since Late Archaic times, underlining the bounty of local resources available to early inhabitants for nearly 3,000 years.

One unique category of archaeological finds in the Mississippi Coastal region is artifacts associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Although not found during excavations, several pottery fragments decorated by typical Southeastern Ceremonial Complex designs have been collected from localities in Hancock County. These include the depiction of a human eye in the palm of an open hand, a “weeping eye” motif, and a “forked eye” design. These decorative styles were widespread throughout the Southeastern United States and probably signal a wide spread set of religious and spiritual beliefs during this time.

By the later 1400s, it appears that chiefs began to lose their control over the population. Mound building becomes infrequent and populations seem to diminish well before the arrival of the European explorers. The European invasion further contributed to the depopulation of the region through the spread of disease and through violence. Still Choctaws and affiliated groups like the Bayougoulas, Acolapissa, Pascagoula and the Siouan-speaking Biloxi Indians continued to live in the area, interacting with Euro-American peoples and adjusting as best they could to the dramatic change brought about by their arrival and settlement.

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