Excavations at the Pharr Mounds and the Bear Creek Site
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Bear Creek


The primary physical features of the Bear Creek Site are a modest temple mound and the remains of a small village which were occupied during late prehistoric times by a Middle Mississippi people. However, the projectile point and pottery types found here indicate that they were only the last in a long line of inhabitants of the site.

The earliest occupation of the site occurred during Paleo Indian and Early Archaic times, from approximately 8000 to 3000 B.C. The early people were the makers of the Cumberland Fluted, Morrow Mountain, Lost Lake, and Big Sandy I points. As these artifacts suggest, they were hunters. Small bands, probably no more than a few families in each, wandered constantly in search of game and wild plant foods. They may have made a kill and stayed only long enough to butcher it. Some bands doubtless camped for short periods, but none tarried long.

The presence of pottery tempered with sand, clay, or limestone indicates that peoples of the Woodland cultural pattern succeeded the early hunters. Their visits were also transitory and took place from about the beginning of the Christian era until A.D 1000. The Woodland peoples were also hunters and gatherers but evidence from other sites suggests that they had become more proficient in the harvest and use of wild vegetal foods. Agriculture was introduced into the Southeast during this period and, though it was probably never a primary source of food, it constituted an important supplement. The more efficient exploitation of the natural environment and the beginnings of agriculture provided food in greater, if not munificent, abundance. This allowed some groups to have at least a seminomadic existence.

The 10,000 years or so of history sketched above poses an interesting question: Why was the site visited again and again by so many different peoples? Its location provides the clue for what is perhaps the most likely answer (fig. 1). The prehistoric inhabitants of this area relied on many sources of food. One of these sources was the extensive mussel shoals of the nearby Tennessee River. They were harvested for thousands of years, as the huge shell heaps which once lined the river bank testify. Game, nuts, berries, and other wild foods were also important and were sought far and wide throughout the surrounding hills. The relatively flat valley of Bear Creek would have been the easiest route between the Tennessee River Valley and the hill country to the south--certainly easier than a route across the hills themselves. Furthermore, the terrace on which the site lies is high and dry, and during aboriginal times probably supported a relatively open forest of oak and hickory. To the east and west, however, on the far sides of Bear Creek and Cedar Creek, is low bottomland, often marshy and densely forested. Thus the wanderings of prehistoric bands would have funneled across these few acres of traversable ground.

The Middle Mississippians came for a different reason, and they came to stay. They were farmers who were attracted by soil which was not only fertile but light textured and easy to cultivate with the crude implements at their disposal. Hunting was also pursued. Most of the faunal remains recovered were probably left by these people, but agriculture was by far their most important source of food. Intensive cultivation wrought important changes, for it was no longer necessary to roam about. Assured of a plentiful supply of food, they led a settled life.

Who were the Middle Mississippians and what were they like? The term refers to a way of life or cultural pattern, rather than a single nation. Many Southeastern tribes shared in it. Archeologically, the pattern is manifested by flat-topped mounds and, usually, shell tempered pottery. Remnants of Middle Mississippians persisted into historic times, and the accounts of early explorers supply many other details on this culture.

Intensive agriculture, permanent villages, and temple mounds are only the surviving evidences of the complex, well developed culture which was the Middle Mississippian way of life. They were a populous people, for their villages were often large and were frequently accompanied by several temple mounds. Religion was no longer the casual, personal experience of the preceding Woodland folk. It was well organized and probably in the hands of a professional priesthood. Political control was likewise centralized and hereditary leadership was widespread. In some portions of the Southeast there were even embryonic confederacies bound by treaty or conquest. In short, the Middle Mississippians were far from being simple folk.

The picture that emerges of the Bear Creek Site during this occupation is one of a small religious and/or political center. The temple mound, diminutive by Middle Mississippian standards, probably supported a wattle-and-daub structure to protect the sacred objects of the villagers or, perhaps, was the house of the "priest-king." Unfortunately, the mound had been so badly damaged that we were able to determine nothing about the size and shape of the building on top of it. Temple mounds customarily fronted on a plaza, an open area where communal ceremonies were held It was impossible to determine whether or not there was a plaza here, but the area on the south side of the mound with the village features clustered at one side (fig. 2) is suggestive.

The village, too, was quite small. Only two houses were located, representing one dwelling superimposed on the remains of an earlier house. It is possible that additional houses are represented by the numerous scattered postholes in this area, but certainly no more than eight or ten such structures could have been accommodated here.

There is some question, in the author's mind at least, that the small population of the village would have been capable of building the mound. For, though small as temple mounds go, there is still a great amount of earth in it. The Bear Creek Site may have been the ceremonial center for other hamlets or farmsteads nearby. Parkway survey records disclose the presence of two sites with Mississippian pottery in the vicinity. Site MTo2 is located on Cedar Creek, about 2-1/2 air miles south of the Bear Creek Site. The other, Site MTo8, is upstream on Bear Creek and approximately 7 air miles southwest. The possibility exists that people from these or other settlements helped build the mound and participated in the ceremonies which took place here.

The motif of a series of arches encirling vessels is apparently quite late and suggest the Middle Mississippian occupation occurred sometime during the time span A.D. 1400-1600. The lack of abundant cultural debris and the small size of the village indicate that this occupation was of short duration, perhaps no longer than a generation or two.

Since the Middle Mississippian pattern of the Mississippi-Alabama-Tennessee area has not been subdivided into cultural units, no specific relationships of the Bear Creek occupation can be drawn.

The black filming and encircling arch motif appear rather commonly on sites in the Tennessee River Valley of north Alabama, and these features suggest relationships in this direction.

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Last Updated: 15-May-2008