Natural site formation processes

By Krister Efverström

First of all I would like to thank Joseph Latvis, Bill Gifford and David Webb for giving me the opportunity to participate in the ARPP. It has been, and will be, a big adventure for me to work with a culture that I had little knowledge about before this summer’s Clovis Underwater ’98 excavation in the Gulf of Mexico and the fall ARPP expedition at Sloth Hole on the Aucilla River. I also would like to thank Andy Hemmings for his time and trust with me concerning the scientific work. I hope that my analysis will contribute to a better understanding of the Paleoindian/Early Archaic cultures.

The climatic changes that have occurred in the northern temperate zone over the course of the past 20,000 years have been nothing short of dramatic. The climatic shift from a regime of arctic severity to one of relative warmth began around 15,000 BP. It led to the virtual disappearance of the continental ice sheets and to the replacement of barren tundra by mixed woodland over large areas of Europe and North America. A combination of climatic and vegetational changes exerted a major influence on a range of other landscape processes including fluvial activity, weathering rates and pedogenesis. Landscape, people and climate are three variables which are inextricably linked, and an understanding of the course of environmental change requires analysis not only of the elements themselves, but also of the way in which each influences the other.

In the commentary section of Anderson and Sassaman’s The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Southeast, Henry T. Wright celebrates the great variety of Paleoindian/Early Archaic stone artifacts and the importance of understanding and interpreting this variety. He also argues for the importance of knowing the local environment in the area of a site at the time of the site´s use. Between these two big issues I would interpose the importance of understanding the site-formation process because of its influence on cultural and environmental development. Archaeological sites are three dimensional mosaics consisting of natural sediments, vegetation, modern artifacts and settlement and archaeological remains. In order to understand how settlements functioned in regional systems, one must try to reconstruct changes in the landscape. Much of the archaeological variability within and between regions is a consequence, not only of past human behavior, but also of differences in the local environmental processes that form an archaeological site. Joel Gunn proposes on page 420 in the same 1996 volume cited above, “ that sites need to be seen in the context of the environment at the time of occupation, not in broad regional community syntheses “ and that “ Paleoindian/Early Archaic transition can be elaborated to include that the site-specific conditions are a part of the global ecological context”.

Understanding site-formation processes is, I believe, one important key to unravelling archaeological questions, especially for inundated archaeological sites like Sloth Hole, because of the depositional complexity. Because the site is producing so much cultural evidence, it is particularly important that we understand its environmental formation processes. In addressing site-level environmental processes, one asks three basic questions:

1. What noncultural processes contributed materials, as ecofacts, to the deposits?
2. What noncultural processes modified the deposits?
3. How did noncultural processes affect behaviour at a settlement?

The focus of my research will be to describe the process of site formation at Sloth Hole. A study of non-cultural site formation processes should be set in an environmental framework that includes spatial, temporal, physical and biotic parameters. A better understanding of site formation will give us a more complete “tool-box” to interpret inundated Paleoindian/Early Archaic sites.