Archaic Period - 3,200 to 11,450 Years Ago

Tool Shapers

As the ice receded and the megafauna (large Pleistocene mammals) became extinct, a new tradition began to take shape. Adapted from the declining Paleo-Indian culture, the Archaic culture was both diversified and became more efficient. They relied less on hunting large mammals and more on gathering vegetable foods, fishing, hunting, and trapping small woodland animals. They also made more elaborate tools such as bone fishhooks and spear-throwers.
atlatl handle, bannerstone, and tip (top row), recreation of an atlatl (2nd row), illustration of an atlatl loaded with a spear (3rd row), and various stone points (last row).
Components of an Archaic atlatl found at Russell Cave (top row), a recreation of an atlatl (2nd row), an illustration of an atlatl loaded with a spear (3rd row), and various Archaic projectile and spear points (bottom row).

NPS Photo, NGS (bone atlatl tip)

With the population of large Ice Age mammals in decline, the Archaic people adapted their hunting methods to cater to the smaller, more agile woodland animals. The deer was by far the most important game animal, ranging from 60 to 90 percent of all the kills. To match the speed of this smaller game, hunters began hurling specialized spears using a short stick that had a hook at one end. This new weapon would later be dubbed the atlatl, or the spear-thrower. These specialized spears or darts, often resembling large arrows, were fletched and tipped with barbed stone points that had side notches and stemmed bases. Both the handle of the atlatl and the dart would be held in the throwing hand with the end of the dart placed on the hook of the atlatl. The spear-thrower effectively increased the length of the hunter's arm, greatly increasing the force at which the spear could be thrown. Modifications such as a bannerstone, carved handle, and carved tip were later added. Although the carved handle and tip were mainly for aesthetic purposes, archeologists still debate over the main purpose of the bannerstone. Many believe that the stone acted like a counterweight, enhancing the velocity and accuracy of the spears. While others theorize that the stone enabled the atlatl to be used as a club. There are also those who believe the stones were also just there for aesthetic.
bow drill, wooden spindles, and wooden handles
The Archaic people would have used wooden bow drill and spindles (recreation shown) to start fire.

NPS Photo

Throughout time, people were able to develop various methods of harnessing fire, such as "stealing" fire from a wildfire or striking pieces of flints together to create a spark. However, methods like the ones mentioned above were often unreliable. This inconsistency gave rise to the spindle and base method. By rotating a wooden spindle on a wooden base at an adequate speed, the friction between the two can result in an ember, which can then be kindled to start a fire. Initially, the spindle was manually spun by hand, which can be difficult and labor intensive. Later, the Archaic people were able to perfect this method with the use of a bow-drill. By winding the string of the bow around the spindle, users were able to rotate the spindle much faster, resulting in a quicker ember while conserving energy. Bow-drills were also used for drilling holes in denser materials such as wood, antler, and even rock. To do so, a stone drill bit would be fitted at the tip of the spindle and secured with sinew, tree resin, cordage, or a mixture of the three.
bone awls and bone fishhooks
The Archaic people made tools such as fishhooks (left) and awls (right) out of various types of bone, all of which were found at Russell Cave.

NPS Photo

Softer than most stones and harder than wood, the resilience and malleability of bone made it especially useful to the Archaic people. Fresh bone can be broken, split, and/or splintered into smaller pieces and further modified to create the tool desired. The inhabitants were especially skillful at creating bone tools. Bone awls were by far the most common type of bone tool, simply because they were easy to craft. Used for punching holes in leather for sewing hides, bone awls were created by breaking large bones on an anvil with a large hammerstone. This method usually yielded many sharp splinters that could be immediately used or further polished. Smaller bones could also be cut and then ground and polished to form a sharp tip. Bones such as deer ulnae and ribs were often made into awls. Much more complicated and intricate than awls, fishhooks required considerable labor to reach their desired form. There were two methods to create a bone fishhook, depending on the bone used. Toe bones of deer were cut and split lengthwise. The exterior surface of the bone was then removed by grinding, leaving only the hook-shaped ridge of bone inside. Larger fishhooks were made by grooving and grinding oval-shaped pieces of a split rib.
The Archaic people in the Southeast were successful in adapting to the warming weather and the declining megafauna population by maximizing the usage of their environment, developing more effective hunting and gathering techniques, as well as crafting an abundance of practical tools. This increasingly efficient way of living allowed the inhabitants time for other pursuits. Personal adornment objects such as beads and necklaces were made from bird bones, perforated canine teeth from various animals, and polished stones. In the late Archaic period, tubular stone pipes were presumably crafted for smoking various types of barks, leaves, and flowers. Pottery in the form of open bowls were also made. Fibers from grass, roots, Spanish moss, and other fibrous materials were placed into the clay before firing in order strengthen the vessel. These bowls were often decorated with incised lines and impressed indentations made by pressing textured material into the wet clay before firing. Proper burial of the dead also became an important practice. The inhabitants would tightly bound the remains, wrap them in some sort of covering, then place them in small pits. Inside some of the pits, personal belongings such as weapons, tools, and even bodies of their dogs were also found.

Russell Cave National Monument

Last updated: January 25, 2022