Tracing Galena Artifacts at Poverty Point Back to their Source

The Poverty Point archaeological site in northeastern Louisiana is most widely known for its massive earthen mounds measuring up to 72 feet tall and forming six concentric semicircles. At its height from 1200 BCE to 700 BCE, the Poverty Point Native American site had an estimated population of around 5,000 and its advanced architecture and tools indicate a thriving society.  Not only is Poverty Point an architectural wonder, it also serves as an indicator of a widespread trading network throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Stones and artifacts from as far as 1000 miles have been found by archeologists at Poverty Point.

When archeologists first began observing large amounts of stone artifacts at Poverty Point, they were able to identify the key element in many of the artifacts as galena, a shiny silver form of lead (II) sulfide. By 1970, over 700 artifacts containing galena had been identified at Poverty Point and four smaller surrounding settlements. The most common galena artifacts are bird effigy pendants, oval pendants, beads, and polished rectangles.

Galena has been found in a wide range of artifacts at Poverty Point including pendants, beads, polished rectangles and stones. Archeologists believe that these artifacts were often used for ceremonial and decorative purposes at Poverty Point as well as other Native American sites throughout the Southeast.

Archeologists used trace element analysis, the process of identifying elements present in small amounts, in order to trace a material back to its source of origin. Trace element analysis of galena artifacts at Poverty Point indicated that the majority of the rocks originated from the Potosi deposit in Missouri while others were from the upper Mississippi valley. Archeologists also conducted trace element analysis of galena artifacts at seven other Native American sites and found that 55% of the artifacts could be traced to the Potosi deposit and 34% to the upper Mississippi valley while the other 11% was inconclusive. Because of this evidence, archeologists were able to identify a trading pattern that used the Mississippi River, the Ohio River and the Arkansas River as well as the Ouachita stream and stopped at sites including Yazoo Basin and a Native American settlement at Calion.

Galena was by no means the only material traded at Poverty Point. This map shows the source areas for other minerals found at Poverty Point in addition to the two main galena source points which are marked as A and C on this map.

Archeologists have also noted a highly similar style of bird pendants made from galena in four different locations along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers indicate that galena was traded both as a raw material and as a finished product. This exhibits the shared cultural importance of galena while also indicating variations in cultural traditions.

Additionally, this trade is especially interesting to archeologists as it does not follow the theory of fall off analysis which states that the quantity of a material will decrease with the distance from the source of that material. There are many more galena artifacts at the Poverty Point site in Louisiana than there are at sites closer to the Potosi deposit. This indicates that the trade was not simply a reciprocal exchange, but rather a more complicated directional trading pattern. The Poverty Point trading network is one of the first instances of large scale long distance trade in the Americas that can be fully shown by archeologists. It represents an extremely important development in society as well as social organization.

Additional Readings:

Feasting at Poverty Point

http://pu6xa6xs3q.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=Feasting+at+Poverty+Point+with+Poverty+Point+Objects&rft.jtitle=Southeastern+Archaeology&rft.au=Hays%2C+Christopher+T&rft.date=2018-07-17&rft.issn=0734-578X&rft.eissn=2168-4723&rft.spage=1&rft.epage=15&rft_id=info:doi/10.1080%2F0734578X.2018.1496315&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=10_1080_0734578X_2018_1496315&paramdict=en-US

Trace Element Analysis on Pottery from Oaxaca

https://www.amnh.org/our-research/anthropology/research/meso-american-archaeology/projects/10.-trace-element-analysis

References

Hays, Christopher T, Richard A Weinstein, and James B Stoltman

2016 Poverty Point Objects Reconsidered. Southeastern Archeology

Hill, Mark A, Diana M Greenlee, and Hector Neff
2016 Assessing the provenance of Poverty Point copper. Journal of Archaeological Science 6: 351–360

Louisiana Division of Archaeology

2014 Discover Archaeology. Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism

Walthall, John A, Clarence H Webb, Stephen H Stow, and Sharon I Goad

1982 Galena Analysis and Poverty Point Trade. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 7: 133–148

 

Image Citations:

Material Source Map. Louisiana Archaeology Project

https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/virtualbooks/POVERPOI/trade.htm

 

Galena Artifacts. Louisiana Division of Archaeology

https://www.crt.state.la.us/dataprojects/archaeology/povertypoint/ceremonial-life.html