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King Site (Georgia)

Mississippian Polities Meet Spanish Explorers

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Map of Mississippian Polities in Mid-16th Century North America

A map of the probable route of Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernan de Soto, as described by Hudson et al. in 1985.

Heironymous Rowe

The King Site (9FL5) is the name of the archaeological remnants of a palisaded Native American Mississippian village located in the floodplain of the Coosa River in northwest Georgia near the modern day town of Rome. The ancient village lies within an area of approximately 810 hectares (~2,000 acres) of fertile bottomland known as the Foster Bend meander loop.

Archaeologists believe the main occupation at the King site represents the Barnett phase, associated in the American southeast with the polity of Tuscaluza. Tuscaluza was an important Mississippian political body, one of a handful of which we know about because they were visited by Spanish explorers. During the mid-16th century, the Tuscaluza polity was centered in central Alabama. Occupied between 1535 and 1570, the King village was likely visited by Spanish expeditions three times. If archaeologists are correct, the King site represents the remains of what de Soto's group called Piachi.

Living at King

The King site covers an area of approximately 2.3 hectares (5.6 acres). The village was surrounded by a defensive ditch and a wooden palisade on three sides, and by the Coosa River to the north. In its heyday, it included a population of about 300 people, based on the archaeological identification of about 25 residential structures, many of which show signs of rebuilding. The houses surrounded a central plaza. The plaza included two communal structures, one interpreted as a large ceremonial structure or men's "hot house" (Structure 17); the other is possibly a chiefly residence or ceremonial townhouse. Two large posts, believed to have been used for chunky games and the display and torture of war captives.

Burials

A total of 249 burials have been found at King, interred within the public plaza, the ceremonial structures, and in and around private dwellings. The village burials represent individuals of all ages and both sexes. Ten burials located within Structure 17 in the plaza were most likely adults, but due to poor preservation, only three could be osteologically sexed as males. The remaining residential burials contained no funerary objects and could not be sexed.

Eleven burials were placed within the plaza cemetery, representing both adults and subadults, although only one could be biologically sexed. Graves here were more likely to contain funerary objects (82%) compared to the village interments (43%). Men were more likely to be buried with grave goods, which included projectile points, bifacial blades, red ochre, spatulate celts, pottery vessels, shell cups, flintknapper kits and copper.

Eight burials contained iron implements dated to the mid-sixteenth century. Grave goods buried with females are almost exclusively shell ornaments and pottery, although two females contained bifacial blade, flintknapper kits and pipes usually associated with male interments.

Evidence for Violence

Researchers Blakely and Mathews investigating the King site burials found what appeared to be a heavy mortality rate, but no evidence of severe protein-calorie malnutrition to account for it. What they did find was what they believed were healed and fatal wounds in the bones of 37 individuals. Fifteen females and 10 males were among those who had died of their injuries: most were under 25 or over 40. The wounds were often wedge-shaped gashes, they said, of the type known to have been produced by battle casualities in medieval Europe.

However, a decade later, Milner and colleagues reopened the King site assemblages, and reanalyzed the skeletal material. They dispute the evidence for violence at the King site, pointing out that there is no historical documentation for the de Soto expedition killing anything like the dozens of people at King supposedly killed in this manner. Although they do not disagree with Blakely and Mathews that King probably represents Piachi (or that the Spanish were not capable of such violence), they believe the damage to the bones from King is not from metal objects, but rather from gnawing by animals and overall poor preservation.

Burials in both sectors contained European artifacts attesting to contact with Spanish explorers, including iron chisels, celts and knives. A swept-hilt sword was reported by area collectors, which was manufactured in Germany or northern Italy between AD 1500 and 1550; also found by local collectors was a middle sixteenth century European rapier.

Archaeology

The King site was first excavated by a team led by Pat Garrow in 1971, by Garrow and David Hally in 1973-1974, and by Hally in 1992-1993.

Sources

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to the Mississippian Civilization, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

Blakely RL, and Mathews DS. 1990. Bioarchaeological evidence for a Spanish-Native American conflict in the Sixteenth century southeast. American Antiquity 55(4):718-744.

Harle MS. 2010. Biological Affinities and the Construction of Cultural Identity for the Proposed Coosa Chiefdom. Knoxville: University of Tennessee.

Hudson C, Smith MT, Hally DJ, Polhemus RR, and DePratter CB. 1985. Coosa: A chiefdom in the sixteenth century southeastern United States. American Antiquity 50(4):723-737.

Milner GR, Larsen CS, Hutchinson DL, Williamson MA, and Humpf DA. 2000. Conquistadors, excavators, or rodents: What damaged the King site skeleton? American Antiquity 65(2):355-363.

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