The Woodland Period of Georgia prehistory is broadly dated from around 1000 B.C. to A.D. 900. This period witnessed the development of many trends that began during the preceding Late Archaic Period (3000–1000 B.C.) and reached a climax during the subsequent Mississippian Period (A.D. 800–1600). These trends included increases in sedentariness and social stratification, an elaboration of ritual and ceremony, and an intensification of horticulture. The period is divided into Early, Middle, and Late subperiods.
The Early Woodland subperiod, 1000–300 B.C., is marked by a continuation of many of the innovations that began during the preceding Late Archaic. Ceramic cooking vessels, which were invented during the Late Archaic, became sturdier with the substitution of sand and grit temper for the vegetable fiber that had been used previously. Pots were also more elaborately decorated, with surfaces bearing the impressions of fabric-wrapped or simple carved wooden paddles.
Settlements may have become somewhat more permanent during the Early Woodland subperiod. Excavations at a few sites have revealed evidence of relatively substantial structures that were generally circular to oval in form. However, settlements from this time were generally small and may have been inhabited only on a seasonal basis. The largest villages probably housed no more than fifty people.
The reliance on horticulture probably increased during the Early Woodland, although the archaeological evidence for this in Georgia is currently lacking. Archaeological excavations elsewhere in the Southeast indicate that sumpweed was added to the repertoire of domesticated plants, which included goosefoot, maygrass, knotweed, and sunflower, that developed during the Late Archaic. Nuts and other wild foods, however, continued to form the bulk of the diet.
The Middle Woodland subperiod, 300 B.C.–A.D. 600, was a time of significant social change, as evidenced by a number of distinguishable features in the archaeological record.
Settlements appear to have become larger and more permanent. Excavations at a few sites have revealed planned villages, sometimes consisting of a circular arrangement of as many as twenty houses surrounding an open plaza area. Like those from the Early Woodland, houses from this time were typically circular.
Corn was introduced to the southeastern United States during the Middle Woodland subperiod, although it appears sparingly in the archaeological record for Georgia and was evidently not an important dietary staple. Horticulture, however, appears to have become more important during this time. Archaeological evidence suggests that people began to grow more of the seed crops that became established during the Early Woodland and that they also began clearing forests for fields.
The Middle Woodland subperiod witnessed an increase in ritual and ceremonialism. The earliest earthen and rock mounds in Georgia date to the Middle Woodland. Most of these are small, dome-shaped structures that served as burial repositories. A few earthen platform mounds were also constructed during this time in Georgia. These platforms probably functioned as stages for ceremonies. In some cases platform mounds may have been capped with a dome-shaped layer, presumably to ritually mark the end of their period of use. The Kolomoki site in southwestern Georgia was the largest Woodland settlement in the state and contained at least eight mounds, seven of which have been preserved.
Excavations at a few Middle Woodland sites in Georgia have revealed evidence for participation in a loosely knit but wide-ranging trading network that has been termed the Hopewellian Interaction Sphere. Marine shell from the Gulf Coast may have been traded among Middle Woodland communities in Georgia and ultimately to the Midwest. In return, exotic stones and copper from the Midwest appear to have been traded south. In addition to shell and copper, trade items included such rocks and minerals as greenstone, chert, crystalline quartz, galena, and mica.
Ceramic vessels also became more elaborate during the Middle Woodland subperiod. These peoples began producing a wider range of vessel forms, and their decorations became more complex. Many pots were stamped with elaborately carved wooden paddles before firing, leaving the impression of the paddle in the wet clay. The designs ranged from geometric forms to abstract representations of animals, insects, and plants.
The Late Woodland subperiod, A.D. 600–900, is perhaps the most poorly understood portion of Georgia prehistory. The available evidence suggests that some of the trends of the Early and Middle Woodland subperiods may have been reversed during this interval, while other trends may have continued or even intensified.
One of the trends that diminished was mound construction. Earthen mounds were constructed during the Late Woodland subperiod in Georgia, but the pace of construction appears to have diminished greatly from the preceding Middle Woodland. Along with this came a decrease in the trade of exotic items. Although the exchange of marine shell may have increased during the Late Woodland in some parts of the Southeast, there is little evidence of this in Georgia. The extensive regional trade in copper, rocks, and minerals that developed during the Middle Woodland subperiod declined precipitously in Georgia and throughout most of the Southeast during the Late Woodland.
Corn agriculture became important in many parts of the Southeast during the Late Woodland. Until recently, the archaeological evidence for this in Georgia was equivocal. Recent excavations have revealed, however, that the growing of corn may also have become prevalent in Georgia during the Late Woodland, particularly in the northern part of the state and near the end of the period.
The appearance in the archaeological record of small triangular stone projectiles suggests that the bow and arrow may have been adopted during the Late Woodland. Previously, stone points had been hafted on spears or small darts. The use of the bow and arrow no doubt facilitated the hunting of deer and other animals.
The bow and arrow also may have made warfare more deadly. Perhaps not by coincidence, the first fortified settlements appeared during the Late Woodland at about the same time as arrow points. Fortifications included ditches and palisades of wooden posts. With the exception of these few fortified settlements, however, Late Woodland subperiod sites are generally small, and probably included no more than twenty dwellings. Excavations have revealed both circular and square or rectangular houses.
The increases in warfare and corn agriculture during the Late Woodland subperiod set the stage for the final period in Georgia prehistory. The Mississippian Period would be marked by a continuation and elaboration of these trends.