Middle Woodland Period Society As Represented Through Alabama Canal

Recent class discussions about the Native American city of Cahokia, including the different political, social, economic and physical conditions which allowed it to both thrive and fall as described by Timothy Pauketat, have highlighted exactly how advanced Native American societies were pre-contact with Europeans. Another example of early but advanced systems in the Americas, active in roughly the same period as Cahokia, is a 1,400 year old Native American canal in Alabama. 

Figure 1. Harry King, a local who encouraged archaeological study of the “Indian Ditch,” near a trench dug to study the canal. Photograph by Gregory Waselkov, retrieved through Smithsonian Magazine.

This canal, nearly a mile long, is located in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in between bodies of water Oyster Bay and Little Lagoon. While some have acknowledged it as a likely pre-white settler build since the 1820s, it has lacked academic research entirely since, and some anthropologists like Gregory Waselkov believed it was a structure from the nineteenth century, such as a ditch produced through slave labor (Gannon 2022). Local resident Harry King (Figure 1), however, encouraged archaeologists to investigate the site, which locals called “Indian Ditch,” in 2017 (Powell 2022). 

In their two cross section diggings, the excavation team found charcoal samples on a surviving berm, or ledge, of the canal (Powell 2022). They were then able to radiocarbon-date these samples, which displayed that “the construction [occurred] between 576 and 650 C.E., at the end of the Middle Woodland period” (Gannon 2022). Gannon goes on to state that a small village from that time called Plash Island, located nearby one end of the canal, was likely responsible for its construction. By using this canal, they would have been able to access better areas for fishing, as well as cooking and preserving the fish, which would have been “crucial” as they did not use agriculture in this area during the time period (Gannon 2022). 

In addition to allowing easier access of bodies of water for fishing, curator William Marquardt states that the canal would have acted as “basically the front door to the Southeast,” as this was a time of significant travel and trade in eastern North America (Gannon 2022). Gannon’s article discusses how due to its location between the Gulf of Mexico and Mobile Bay, the canal would have been vital for goods to enter Mobile Bay from the Gulf or Florida and then disperse through several different pathways from Mobile Bay. Gannon also discusses how this canal may bring more evidence subverting the previous theories of hierarchical societies being needed to create these waterworks during the Middle Woodland period, as this society seemed relatively egalitarian. 

Figure 2. A 2018 image of the canal’s south end, showing where it connects with Little Lagoon. Photograph by Gregory Waselkov, retrieved through Smithsonian Magazine.

It is noted that there is still much research to be done not only on the hydrological engineering that made this canal possible, but also the “possible spiritual and symbolic dimensions of the waterway” (Powell 2022) that could give more insight on how Middle Woodland period societies in this area functioned and interacted with each other. However, despite the seemingly small span of this site, the research done on it has clearly already changed how anthropologists view the people living further southeast from Cahokia, as well as further proved just how advanced Native American engineering was. 


Further Reading 

The Middle Woodland Period – NPS Fort Smith

Ancient Canal Systems in the Americas – Ancient Wisdom 


Gannon, Megan. 2022. “Archaeologists Dig Up 1,400-Year-Old Native American Canal in Alabama.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 6. (Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/archaeologists-dig-up-1400-year-old-native-american-canal-in-alabama-180980742/). 

Powell, Eric. 2022. “Opening the Alabama Canal.” Archaeology Magazine, November/December. (Retrieved from https://www.archaeology.org/issues/489-2211/digs/10896-digs-alabama-canal). 

Social Structures and Activities in Medieval England as Discovered by Burial Analysis

Human remains have been able to give archaeologists key clues as to how humans lived in the past. Studies performed around the conditions of human skeletons as well as where and with what these skeletons were buried have provided information used to discern what social structures, nutritional factors, causes of death, activities, and so many more factors of everyday life were like (Renfrew and Bahn 2018, 47, 51-60). A prime example of burial analysis giving context into the health and societal structures of times long past is a recent study performed by the University of Cambridge, England. 

In this study, scientists and archaeologists unearthed the burial grounds of a medieval friary located under the University of Cambridge, analyzing nineteen skeletons (Figure 1) dating mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries. From the late 13th century until the middle of the 16th century, the Augustinian friary was a place of academic study and living for clergymen, much more sanitary than the average Cambridge street crowded with peasants (Davis 2022). 

Figure 1. Archaeologists excavate and examine the skeletons of Cambridge monks, Cambridge, England. Photograph by University of Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

Many of the researchers originally believed that due to their drastically improved sanitation, those living within the friary’s walls would be much less likely to contract parasites, which were a frequently cited problem in medieval medical records and diaries due to (what we now know to be) poor living conditions (Figure 2). Out of the nineteen bodies analyzed, at least eleven had the remains of intestinal worms present, which would have been living in the monks’ systems as they were still living. Meanwhile, out of twenty five peasant bodies analyzed from a nearby cemetery, only eight contained parasites (Handwerk 2022). Thirty percent of medieval Cambridge citizens suffered from parasites (Handwerk 2022), a statistic which did not surprise the researchers. However, the evidence provided by the dig revealed that nearly twice as many monks died with parasites in their systems than peasants in the area (Davis 2022), puzzling scientists and archaeologists as to how this could have occurred. 

Figure 2. Reconstructive drawing of a medieval peasant house, highlighting lack of sanitation. Image by Pat Hughes, retrieved from Current Archaeology 2013.

After much study into the habits of these monks compared to the routines and diets outside of the private friary’s walls, researchers theorized that the monks often handled fertilizer they created from human waste to spread in their gardens, which we now know leads to a much higher risk of spreading parasites. Dr. Piers Mitchell, co-author of the study, summarized their findings by saying “What we learn about the past is that just because you’re wealthier doesn’t mean to say you’re healthier” (Davis 2022). 

This study brings into context how archaeology can reveal an amazing amount of information about the social structures and health habits of people living centuries ago. Through analyzing something as minute as whether these corpses contained parasites while they were living, archeologists and scientists were able to make new discoveries about possible practices within everyday life in different societal groups of medieval Cambridge. Archaeological study of burial sites truly is instrumental in discovering what humans’ lives in our planet’s past were really like.

Further Reading: 

Standards of Living in the Middle Ages – Ian Dawson 

The Daily Life of Medieval Monks – Mark Cartwright 


Current Archaeology. 2013. “Peasant Houses in Midland England: How the Black Death Prompted A Building Boom.” Current Archaeology, May 2. (Retrieved from https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/peasant-houses-in-midland-england-how-the-black-death-prompted-a-building-boom.htm

Davis, Nicola. 2022. “DIY Fertiliser May Be Behind Monks’ Parasite Torment, Say Archaeologists.” The Guardian, August 19. (Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/aug/19/diy-fertiliser-may-be-behind-monk-parasite-torment-say-archaeologists-cambridge). 

Handwerk, Brian. 2022. “Why Were Medieval Monks So Susceptible to Intestinal Worms?” Smithsonian Magazine, August 18. (Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-were-medieval-monks-so-susceptible-to-intestinal-worms-180980608/

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. 2018. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, and Practice. Fourth ed. London: Thames & Hudson. pp. 47, 51-60.