Recently I remembered being an archaeology student, and how the words that archaeologists use for periods, cultures, or traditions often sounded familiar yet unfamiliar: names like the Archaic and the Woodland, Laurentian and Point Peninsula. These are words which sound strange in some ways to everyone who doesn’t deal with them routinely: words sometimes self-evident in meaning (like Archaic), but representing keys into specialized knowledge— arbitrary-sounding word selections that are loaded with unfathomed meanings.
Archaic literally means old, and that is the primary reason that archaeologists have chosen to use it. The Archaic period predates many archaeological cultures as well as the European-Indian contact period by thousands of years. So it really stands for: extra old.
So what does it mean for a tradition (or group of regional traditions) to be so old? That is one of the things that archaeologists in eastern North America continue to study. As Archaic specialists learn more, they consider this question further (sometimes not explicitly, but often in the flow of their research and thoughts). For example, over the last several years, archaeologists have become aware that something extraordinary may have happened at the end of the Archaic, about 3,000 years ago. In many regions, the frequency of large sites that may have been large settlements decreased. Perhaps more accurately, these sites were largely abandoned, at least for a long time. In addition, the frequency of all archaeological sites declined, suggesting that regional populations decreased; or perhaps that communities splintered and occupied much smaller sites not so visible to archaeologists. Communities may have become smaller, more mobile, and more flexible. Interregional exchange relationships also seem to have changed, possibly signaling events of societal reorganization, such as the lapse of old alliances and the creation of new ones. Archaeologists also have begun to consider whether a widespread climatic cooling trend affecting eastern North America about 3,000 years ago may have been a catalyst in these changes.
University of Florida archaeologist Kenneth Sassaman (2010) has recently given significant attention to these issues and other changes that occurred at the end of the Archaic period. To me, one of the implications of post-Archaic changes is that the long Archaic period, ca. 3,000-10,000 years before present (BP) may represent a cycle of history, a cycle encompassing growth, innovation, florescence, and decline, resulting in movement to a new starting point. In this sense the Archaic was much more than a foundation for more recent cultures. It may not have been an effective foundation at all, but a grand process that eventually reached a tipping point.
So this is one take on what it means for a cultural tradition to be as old as the Archaic: it is old enough to be formed through a long history of major events; to be repeatedly reformed until local traditions themselves are both ancient and intertwined; it means for societies to become historical in this largest sense, and then however distinctive, however prominent, however influential, to change so drastically that they were buried in obscurity, awaiting discovery. The Archaic concept distinguishes the very ancient and remote in the way that the Woodland (the next great period) evokes the close precursors of the Eastern Woodlands Indian cultures of the European contact period.
The historical meaning of the Archaic may emerge to archaeologists through study, but it has aspects that were known to native people long ago. For example, 400 years ago, Iroquois (Seneca) people in western New York State found Archaic period projectile points and gave them as grave offerings, as William Ritchie (1969:322) has illustrated. Ritchie referred to the Archaic points placed in a grave from a much later period as probable “hunting charms”. We can only guess whether he was right about that, but may prefer to think of it differently, taking an interest in Iroquois concerns with history more than hunting. People the world over have been keenly aware of ancient artifacts on their lands and in their soils, and stories of the old ones have been offered in explanation, whether stories of ancestors, or of more primal predecessors who occupied the land before the ancestors. For example, European peasants once referred to stone artifacts on their lands as “elf-shot”, while traditional, ancient Irish history is a cycle of peoples, with the Irish being the last to occupy the Emerald Isle, and their predecessors— Bronze Age people to archaeologists— faded beyond memory to a mythic fairy existence that can be evoked by the ancient monuments on the Irish landscape.
In central New York State during the Archaic period, it seems to me that ancient history (as it was known about 4,000-5,000 years ago) may have been a consideration when Archaic people chose Frontenac Island in Cayuga Lake, and two sites at Brewerton ( Robinson and Oberlander No. 1) near Oneida Lake as significant places to bury their dead. These sites were occupied first in much earlier periods such as the Early Archaic (8000-10,000 BP; Frontenac Island) or late Paleoindian (9000-10,000 BP; Brewerton). The burial of the dead at these sites seems to have begun about 5000-6000 BP. It would be surprising if these sites did not have long histories of important events; of repeated visits, the forging of alliances, landscape associations with myths (or the actual ritual performance of myths), and remembrance of the ancestors as their lives resonated with these sites. Eventually, connections to history— and genealogy in particular— were made stronger through the interment of the dead. The Late Archaic period settlements established here 4000-5000 BP may well have been significant as especially meaningful returns to places that had been important in the past.
Ritchie, William A.
1969 The Archaeology of New York State, second edition. Natural History Press, Garden City, New York.
Sassaman, Kenneth E.
2010 The Eastern Archaic, Historicized. AltaMira Press, Lanham, Maryland.