Ceramics and the political economy of Moundville: a compositional study using Neutron Activation Analysis

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Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) is used to determine the chemical composition of 80 stylistically local and nonlocal ceramics recovered from the Mississippian civic-ceremonial center of Moundville in west-central Alabama. The chemical data derived from NAA is compared to a previously analyzed ceramic chemical database produced for the Mississippian Southeast in order to: (i) independently confirm if pottery specimens are locally made or imports; (ii) evaluate the accuracy of traditional sourcing of pottery by style techniques as compared to NAA sourcing; and (iii) identify the sources of pottery, allowing for the mapping of the spatial extent of Moundville's trade and interaction network. These results are then used to critique our current model of Moundville's political economy, especially as it relates to the use of prestige goods as an ideological source of elite authority. The analysis demonstrates that NAA can successfully differentiate between locally produced and nonlocal pottery. NAA generally confirms the accuracy of stylistic analyses in identifying the foreign nature of archaeological ceramics, but the results also indicate the need for chemical compositional analysis in order to fully and accurately map the distribution and production sources of prehistoric ceramics at Moundville. Confirmation of nonlocal trade in ceramics leads to the conclusion that elites at Moundville maintained links with distant populations, providing some evidence to support the efficacy of the prestige goods model in describing the establishment and legitimization of chiefly power in the Mississippian world.

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