Pisgah Phase

The Pisgah Phase (1000 to 1450/1500 CE) is an archaeological phase of the South Appalachian Mississippian culture (a regional variation of the Mississippian culture)[1] in parts of northeastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina.


The phase covered a 14,000 square miles (36,000 km2) region in the South Appalachian geologic province. On the rim of the region during an earlier phase, the sites were occupied for rather short periods, with the interior of the region having sites occupied throughout the phase. Between about 1000 and 1250 CE, the region of northeastern Tennessee, western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina was a subregional development[2] of a local Woodland period population who incorporated characteristics from the larger Mississippian culture.[3] The villages ranged from about a quarter of an acre to 6 acres (24,000 m2) which complexity and cultural pattern does not compare in size to the Mississippian in the south and west.[4] However, the Mississippian cultural pattern influence was as far north as Lee County, Virginia, and south to Oconee County, South Carolina.[5] Pee Dee culture expresses Pisgah cultural traits.[6]



Pisgah Phase peoples, like other Mississippian culture peoples, consumed a variety of wild animal and plant foods. They hunted the wooded uplands for white-tailed deer, bear, and wild turkey. But unlike their predecessors in the region, they were also heavily dependent on maize agriculture, with as much as half of their food being derived from agriculture. The rich bottomlands near their villages were planted with many staples of indigenous agriculture, including the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash/pumpkin), and sumpweed (Iva annua).[7]


Pisgah Phase sites ranged from individual farmsteads to large nucleated villages with platform mounds and palisades, usually with the smaller sites clustering around the larger mound centers. They were invariably located within floodplains; the exceptions being temporary hunting camps. The majority of the sites are located in the Eastern and Central Appalachian Summit area, around the Asheville, Pigeon, and Hendersonville basins.[8] Some Pisgah Phase sites, such as the Garden Creek Mound site, have been found to have earth lodges during early phases of their occupation. At times these earth lodges either collapsed or were destroyed, and a platform mound constructed over them. This is interpreted by archaeologists as a shift in sociopolitical organization and community hierarchy. It is believed the earth lodges were used as egalitarian council houses and that the superimposition of substructure mounds for temples, chiefly residences and mortuary structures signaled a shift to a more stratified society with hereditary elites.[9]

The houses of the Pisgah Phase were about 20 feet (6.1 m) square and tended to be rectangular. Walls were of single set post construction with wattle and daub as a finishing material. Structures had interior support posts and interior partitions. Trenches were dug for an entry way, with rows of saplings arched over them and covered in wattle and daub for a tunnel like effect.[8] The floors had a raised hearth in the center. Around the houses within the palisade were common burials, fire pits and clay deposits used for storage pits and some as fire pits. There is evidence of smaller structures near the houses which are thought to be storage cribs for maize and sweat houses. A larger council house fronted the homes surrounding the central plaza opposite the village entrance. The palisades had off-set entrances.[10]


There are three types of burials associated with the Pisgah Phase. These are side-chamber pits, central-chamber pits and simple pits. High ranking adults and infants were placed within the side-chamber location in a loose flexed position with their head towards the west. The burials have produced adult skulls showing artificial cranial deformation. The adult graves also had shell ear pins, turtle-shell rattles, shell bowls and perforated animal bones. The infant's grave objects included calumella shell beads, shell gorgets and perforated marginella shells. Included within certain graves in some sites show a social ranking having stone, clay, bone, shell and wood artifacts.[10]


While William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution first identified Pisgah ceramics in 1884, Patricia Holden was the first to publish a detailed analysis of Pisgah pottery in 1966.[8] Pisgah Phase pottery, unlike the vast majority of Mississippian culture pottery, used sand as a tempering agent instead of ground mussel shell.[11] The pottery is typified by collared rims and rectilinear, complicated stamp decoration.[12] The designs are similar to northern Iroquois ceramics. The complicated stamping designs was found to be like Etowah of the Piedmont region and Hiwassee Island designs of the Ridge and Valley province.[13] Bolder check stamping becomes a minority style and some having rectilinear motifs, some curvilinear towards the end of the phase. For the most part, these became more common on the Blue Ridge basins of western North Carolina and northwestern South Carolina after 1250 CE.[14] The following Qualla Phase pottery is thought to be the result of the merging of Lamar and Pisgah Phases lifestyles about 1450 CE.[15]

Chronological position

The Pisgah Phase is a part of the Southern Appalachian Summit Archaeology which includes the following chronology:[16]

  • Archaic Period, ca. 7500–4300 BCE
  • Morrow Mountain Phase, ca. 4300–2500 BCE
  • Savannah River Phase, ca. 2500–750 BCE
  • Swannanoa Phase, ca. 750~150 BCE
  • Pigeon Phase, ca. 200 BCE–100 CE
  • Connestee Phase, 150–1000 CE
  • Pisgah Phase, 1000-1500 CE
  • Qualla Phase, ca. 1500 CE–1850 CE


Most Pisgah sites are found along the Catawba, French Broad, Hiwassee, Little Tennessee, and Pigeon rivers in North Carolina.[17] Specific sites include the following:


  1. "Southeastern Prehistory:Mississippian and Late Prehistoric Period". National Park Service. Retrieved 2012-04-11.
  2. Keel, a "Paper"
  3. Geier (1992),284–285
  4. Dickens; also Purrington (1983), 145–147
  5. Dickens (1976), 211
  6. Ward and Davis, 99
  7. "The South Appalachian Mississippian Tradition:Pisgah Phase (A.D. 1000 - 1450)". Retrieved 2011-02-21.
  8. Ward, H. Trawick; Davis, R. P. Stephen (1999-09-30). Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 160–163. ISBN 978-0-8078-4780-0.
  9. Ward, H. Trawick; Davis, R. P. Stephen (1999-09-30). Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. pp. 175–176. ISBN 978-0-8078-4780-0.
  10. Mails, Thomas E. (1992). The Cherokee People: The Story of the Cherokees from Earliest Origins. Council Oak Books. pp. 35–36. ISBN 0-933031-45-9.
  11. Sullivan, Lynne P.; Prezzano, Susan C. (2001-12-12). Archaeology of the Appalachian highlands (1 ed.). University of Tennessee Press. p. 203. ISBN 978-1-57233-142-6.
  12. Ward, H. Trawick; Davis, R. P. Stephen (1999-09-30). Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-8078-4780-0.
  13. King
  14. King, Duane (1979). The Cherokee Nation, A Troubled History. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. ISBN 978-0-87049-227-3. It was at about this same time that rectilinear complicated stamping was first applied to ceramics in the South Appalachians. This style of surface finish is common on Napier and Woodstock ceramics of northern Georgia, but is only occasionally present on Hamilton ceramics of eastern Tennessee and Connestee ceramics of western North Carolina...
  15. Keel (1976), 312
  16. Kerr, Jonathan P. (1996–2001). Tennessee "Prehistory of the Upper Cumberland River Drainage in the Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee Border Region" Check |url= value (help). Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc. Retrieved 20110-2022. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  17. Dickens (1974), Figure 2
  18. Ward, H. Trawick; Davis, R. P. Stephen (1999-09-30). Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 192. ISBN 978-0-8078-4780-0.
  19. Ward, H. Trawick; Davis, R. P. Stephen (1999-09-30). Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-8078-4780-0.


  • Dickens, Roy S. Cherokee Prehistory, The Pisgah Phase in the Appalachian Summit Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0-87049-193-1.
  • Keel, Bennie C. Cherokee Archaeology, A Study of the Appalachian Summit. 1976. ISBN 0-87049-546-1.
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