Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650)


The Late Woodland Period lasted from AD 900 until 1650. It was a time when Virginia Indian societies underwent important social and cultural transformations. It traditionally has been dated from the supposed widespread adoption of maize agriculture. During this period scattered populations consolidated into large villages and towns, occasionally fortified; they also built burial mounds or ossuaries (large burial pits) and developed into some of the most socially and politically complex groups on the Atlantic Coast. The period’s end date comes almost five decades after the establishment in 1607 of the English colony at Jamestown. The new settlement eventually upended Virginia Indian societies, including the once-powerful Powhatan Indians of Tsenacomoco. Written records by John Smith and other English colonists have helped modern historians reconstruct those early Indian cultures, especially those on Virginia’s Coastal Plain; however, because such records reflect the writers’ European biases, archaeological evidence is critical to a full understanding of Virginia Indians during this period. This is especially true for regions west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where earlier Indian cultures had vanished by the time English explorers and colonists had moved this far west.

Chronology and Material Culture

The Late Woodland Period is the third and most recent division of the Woodland Period, which also includes the Early Woodland (1000–400 BC) and Middle Woodland (400 BC–AD 900) periods. Archaeologists have created classifications of pottery types, or wares, to help them date Late Woodland sites based on differences in surface treatments or decoration; in pot size and shape; and on inclusions, or temper—the material added to the clay to prevent a pot from breaking under heat during manufacture or use. Common tempers added to Late Woodland ceramics included crushed stone (quartz, limestone), sand, and crushed shellfish. Although radiocarbon dating was first used in Virginia in 1957 to date the Kerns site in Clarke County, surprisingly few radiocarbon dates have been obtained on Late Woodland sites in Virginia. Current understanding of the variations across time and space for Virginia’s Late Woodland cultures still rests very much on observable differences in their pottery wares.

The range of pottery wares defined as being part of the Late Woodland Period across Virginia is bewildering, and the relationship between different wares is complex. At the Keyser Farm site along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, for example, archaeologists have found three major types of pottery wares: Shepard wares (crushed quartz–tempered), associated with the Montgomery Complex peoples; Page wares (limestone-tempered), associated with the Mason Island peoples, traditionally thought to have replaced the Montgomery Complex peoples; and Keyser wares (shell-tempered), associated with the Luray Complex peoples, who supposedly supplanted the Mason Island peoples. Recent archaeological investigations in Maryland, however, indicate that this cultural sequence may not be so straightforward. The initial inhabitants of Patawomeck, at the Potomac River fall line in Virginia, had Potomac Creek wares (crushed quartz–tempered) and some archaeologists trace the site’s origins to Montgomery Complex groups who were forced to move downstream.

Another important item of the Late Woodland peoples’ material culture was the triangular arrowhead. The bow and arrow were actually introduced to Virginia during the Middle Woodland Period but became increasingly important during the Late Woodland Period, when deer hunting increased dramatically—especially for presenting deerskins in tribute to chiefs or in trade with the first Europeans—and when hostilities increased between some Indian groups. Other important Late Woodland Period artifacts include bone tools (used to process deerskins), often made from the bones of butchered deer. Beads and other ornaments were made from bones, shell, or copper and, in some cases, were limited for use by elite members of society.

Environmental and Physical Setting

Virginia’s climate became essentially modern as early as 6,000 years ago, and Virginia Indians were well acquainted with their environment and its indigenous resources during the Late Woodland Period. One major global climatic event that occurred during that period was a phenomenon known as the Little Ice Age, which some researchers date from AD 1400 to 1800. The Little Ice Age caused multiyear droughts—including from 1607 to 1609, when the Jamestown colony was being established.

Geologically, Virginia can be divided into five regions, running from east to west: Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Appalachian Plateau. The Coastal Plain is basically an elevated sea floor with low topographic variation. The types of stones that are most suitable for making stone arrowheads are rare in the Coastal Plain and, as a result, better quality materials were traded from those living in the Piedmont or farther west. Saltwater and freshwater rivers, bays, and marshes provided coastal Indians with plentiful resources, including oysters and other shellfish. The rich natural resources of the Coastal Plain made this region one of the more densely populated in Virginia, even before maize agriculture became widespread here.

The fall line, which separates the Coastal Plain from the Piedmont region, represents the area where rivers could generally be crossed easily. The Potomac River, for example, is 100 feet wide at the fall line but more than 10 miles wide where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Many modern cities (Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg) are located here partly for this reason. Important Virginia Indian sites were located on the fall line, including Patawomeck and Powhatan Town. The latter was near or at Powhatan‘s birthplace long before he moved to the town of Werowocomoco, which became the capital of Tsenacomoco.

The Piedmont area extends westward from the fall line to the slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Rivers flowing from east to west in the Piedmont separated Virginia Indian societies more than was the case for Coastal Plain or Ridge and Valley societies. The Blue Ridge Mountains vary in width from five to fifty miles and are structurally related to the Ridge and Valley region. The Ridge and Valley consists of long, narrow ridges with valleys between them. Notable is the Great Valley, which runs from Alabama to Quebec. The section of the Great Valley that runs north-south in Virginia is called the Valley of Virginia, or the Shenandoah Valley. Archaeologists divide the Great Valley into northern and southern areas at the headwaters of the James River. Limestone is a common rock in this area and was used by some Indians as pottery temper. Farthest to the west is the Appalachian Plateau region, only a small portion of which exists in Virginia.

Settlement Patterns

Indian families living in the Late Woodland Period built two major house types using a framework of saplings. Single families built and lived in dome-shaped houses with circular floor plans throughout the Piedmont and Ridge and Valley regions. Houses with oval to rectangular floor plans but rounded ends were built on the Coastal Plain and were occupied by multiple families, probably related along the maternal line. The rounded ends of these longhouses and their orientation minimized the destructive effects of fierce winter winds. The Jordan’s Point site, located in Prince George County on the Coastal Plain, had houses with both circular floor plans and more rectangular floor plans.

At the beginning of the Late Woodland Period, Indian people lived in small family groups that archaeologists refer to as hamlets. Along the north and south forks of the Shenandoah River and the Potomac River, as well as in southwestern Virginia, Indian families joined together to live in compact, planned communities that often consisted of dome-shaped houses placed in a larger circle around a common plaza. These ring-shaped settlements were often surrounded by a palisade—a wall of upright wooden posts. The palisade protected villagers from their enemies and from wild animal predators such as bears, but also helped give villagers a sense of identity as a community. Palisaded settlements in Virginia include the Keyser Farm site along the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, the Patawomeck site at the fall line of the Potomac River, and the Crab Orchard site in southwestern Virginia. Palisaded villages seem to date largely after AD 1200 and many date after AD 1400.

Other villages and towns were not compact or as clearly planned but rather were “internally dispersed.” In these settlements, extended families of six to twenty people placed their rectangular longhouses near their fields, rather than in close proximity to one another. The internally dispersed village is typical of Late Woodland sites in the Coastal Plain, such as at the Jordan’s Point site, and this type of settlement was well documented by early English colonists. Although their houses were spread out across a fairly broad area, these villagers still recognized that they were part of a single community.


A defining element of the Late Woodland economy in Virginia was the introduction of maize, supposedly around AD 900. The fact that this plant might have been associated with important religious ceremonies may have eased its adoption and gave people time to adapt the plant to their local environments in Virginia. Archaeologists who study plant remains—called archaeobotanists—have recently found that the earliest direct evidence for maize is at around AD 1000 from a radiocarbon date at the Arrington site in southwestern Virginia, a century after the beginning of the Late Woodland Period. Most radiocarbon dates on maize in Virginia actually fall around AD 1200. Analyses of human skeletal remains indicate that people living in the Ridge and Valley and the Piedmont regions ate more maize than those living on the Coastal Plain. Maize agriculture may not have become important until after AD 1200 or later in Virginia, but maize was a staple by the time the Europeans first began documenting Virginia Indians—and was an important part of the tribute paid to such chiefs as Powhatan.

While Indians also grew other crops, such as beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflower, they continued to rely heavily on locally available wild plants. Wild rice, wild grapes, an edible root called tuckahoe, the roots of cattails, and various nuts (acorn, hickory, walnut, and hazelnut) are among the variety of plants identified at Late Woodland sites. Hunting was also a critical component of Late Woodland lifestyles. Deer were by far the most widely hunted animals, and were valued for their meat, skins, bone, antlers, and sinews. Deerskins were traded widely, given as tribute to chiefs, and were used to make buckskin clothing and to cover houses. Deer bones and antlers were shaped into tools, while sinew, or tendon, was used for fastenings and to make glue. Other animals hunted, trapped, or fished varied by region, but included rabbits, raccoons, black bears, American elk, beaver, turkey, geese, eagles, hawks, squirrels, sturgeon, catfish, garfish, yellow perch, and even mountain lions. Coastal Plain groups collected tremendous quantities of shellfish, such as oysters, from shallow waters. After removing the meat and drying it for storage, shells were piled in large mounds, called shell middens, along coastal waterways.

Trade in non-local, sometimes exotic, goods helped link Late Woodland communities together, spurred competition among different groups that sometimes led to conflict, and helped chiefs such as Powhatan expand their political reach. Coastal Plain groups, for example, undoubtedly traded on occasion with groups in the Piedmont or further west for the hard, high quality stones needed to make arrowheads. Marine shells were traded from the Atlantic Coast into interior Virginia and beyond, to be made into beads and pendants. Marine shell beads have been found in Virginia Indian graves located west of the Blue Ridge.

Deerskins were produced in large quantities for trade at sites like Keyser Farm. Both Virginia Indians and early European settlers valued deerskins, leading the Iroquois-speaking Susquehannock to establish a presence on the upper Potomac River—perhaps forcing the original inhabitants of the North and South Forks of the Shenandoah River to abandon the area.

Copper was also a prized and rare natural resource during much of the Late Woodland Period, especially valued by elite members of Virginia’s chiefdoms. Before European traders and colonists arrived in the area, the Monacans may have closely guarded copper sources west of the Piedmont. Some archaeologists suggest that Powhatan may have tolerated the English settlement at Jamestown in part because he could obtain copper from the colonists instead of the Monacans, who were his political enemies.

Social and Political Patterns

When Europeans first landed on the shores of Virginia, they encountered chiefdom-level societies on the Coastal Plain, whose leaders could command people in war and who collected goods in tribute, including large quantities of maize and deerskins. The Powhatan chiefdom was the largest, covering more than 6,000 square miles in 1607. Powhatan received allegiance and tribute from more than 15,000 people living in more than 150 villages. The roots of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom probably date to about a century before Jamestown was established, but the exact origins of this and other chiefdom-level societies during the Late Woodland Period are still not well understood. While historical records clearly indicate the presence of Indian chiefdoms on the Coastal Plain, it is very difficult to find any archaeological traces of these chiefdoms. This is partly because the elite members of Virginia’s chiefdoms were buried on scaffolds above ground in special buildings, and such structures often disintegrate over time, leaving few or no archaeological traces.

Some archaeologists suggest that chiefdoms in Virginia also practiced collective burials in large pits, called ossuaries, to reduce social tensions among the living. The deceased person or persons were first placed in a temporary burial area on a raised scaffold or on the ground, and then, after their flesh decayed, the remains were brought to the ossuary during a communal ceremony that reaffirmed social ties. Differences in social status during life were diminished by burial in communal ossuaries, because the secondary burials revealed no clear social distinctions. Ossuaries are found on the Coastal Plain and along the Potomac River, especially after AD 1450. The Patawomeck site contained five ossuaries, one of which contained the remains of 287 individuals.

Mortuary customs tend to be one of the greatest resources by which archaeologists can better understand past social groups. The Late Woodland peoples who lived in the ring-shaped villages of western Virginia were part of largely independent communities that recognized differences in status based primarily on an individual’s achievements during life, rather than on an inherited social stature. In these ring-shaped villages, the deceased was usually placed in an individual grave near the village houses or close to the wall that surrounded the community.

Some Indians were buried in mounds. The Mississippian chiefdoms, located along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, extended their influence into such remote regions as far southwestern Virginia. Hundreds of Mississippian burial mounds were once present throughout the southeastern United States, but most of these mounds have since been destroyed. One of the few Mississippian mounds still remaining in Virginia is the Ely Mound in Lee County, which was recently preserved by the Archaeological Conservancy. The Ely Mound stands almost 20 feet high, measures 300 feet in circumference, and bears traces of what may have been a council chamber on its top. Excavations in 1877 uncovered the remains of four individuals buried with shell beads and pins, and a shell mask or gorget (an ornamental collar) with a weeping-eye motif.

More than a dozen burial mounds dated between AD 950 and 1450 are recorded in central Virginia, although they were apparently little used after AD 1350. These mounds increased in height with each new interment. Some mounds were about twenty feet high and would have been readily visible on the landscape, perhaps uniting the different communities that buried their dead there. These mounds held the remains of anywhere from 100 to 1,000 individuals. They largely represented secondary bundle burials, but also included cremations and fully articulated skeletal remains. Archaeologists differ as to the nature of the communities that buried their dead in these mounds. Some argue that people living in hamlets located at varying distances from the mounds buried their dead in these structures, while others argue that the mounds were created by groups living in villages along major rivers, where the land was more fertile.

Ongoing Research

There is a long history of Late Woodland site excavations in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson famously excavated a mound near Charlottesville in the 1700s, concluding that Virginia Indians were responsible for its construction—a view contrary to what many people believed at that time. Most excavations have taken place during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, usually as a partnership between professionally trained archaeologists, amateur archaeologists, and others with a passion for Virginia’s past.

A team of professional and volunteer archaeologists recently conducted investigations at the Keyser Farm site, which was first excavated in 1940. The 2003 to 2007 investigations—under the direction of the U.S. Forest Service, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Archeological Society of Virginia—brought new archaeological techniques to the site, recovering large quantities of plant and animal remains and obtaining new radiocarbon dates. A significant find was large quantities of small shell disk beads, some of which had been heated to turn from white to gray, that may have been worn as necklaces or sewn into clothing as status symbols. Other recent Late Woodland investigations have taken place at the Patawomeck site, with the goal of clarifying the origins of the people who built this palisaded village, and at Werowocomoco, Powhatan’s capital when Jamestown was founded.

Scholars have also turned to items that were recovered from previously excavated Late Woodland sites but are now stored in museums, in order to study them with new technologies. One form of radiocarbon dating, accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), can date very small burned items, such as plant remains, now found in museum collections. AMS dates have been applied to individual maize kernels and beans, helping us better understand when Native Americans actually first began to grow these crops. Archaeologists have also used AMS dating to expand on the very small number of radiocarbon dates from Late Woodland sites in Virginia, including the Keyser Farm site. Additional excavations throughout Virginia and further analyses of collections will help clarify the rich social, political, and economic diversity that characterized American Indians living in the state during the Late Woodland Period.

Around this date, maize (corn) is introduced to Virginia and possibly becomes associated with Virginia Indian religious ceremonies. Archaeologists use this occasion to mark the beginning of the Late Woodland Period.
The earliest direct evidence for maize (corn) in Virginia dates to around this year at the Arrington site in Washington County.
From about this year, during the Late Woodland Period, Virginia Indians begin to live in planned villages, some of which are palisaded. Most towns and villages are located along rivers.
The earliest direct evidence in Virginia for the purposeful farming of beans dates to around this year at the Bessemer site in Botetourt County.
The Little Ice Age begins to cause extreme temperature swings, including especially cold winters, hot summers, and extended droughts.
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APA Citation:
Means, Bernard. Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/late-woodland-period-ad-900-1650.
MLA Citation:
Means, Bernard. "Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 13 Apr. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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