The following is an article excerpt from the Winter 2019 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By David Malakoff
In 1978, archaeologist Stephen Williams was touring ancient settlement sites around the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers when an intriguing “notion came to me,” he later recalled. Williams, a Harvard University professor who had worked in the Central and Southeastern United States for decades, knew that the archaeological evidence showed that many of the sites had hosted thriving communities, some with thousands of people, during the Mississippian Period, which lasted from roughly A. D. 800 to 1550. Some featured the huge earthen ceremonial mounds that were a hallmark of Mississippian peoples. But Williams was also aware of a growing number of studies suggesting that people had abandoned many of the sites at roughly the same time, beginning in the mid-1400s. And when he sketched a map of the abandoned settlements, he realized they formed a vast area that he called the “Vacant Quarter,” which covered some 50,000 square miles across eight states. It included some of the region’s largest and most studied Mississippian sites, including Cahokia in western Illinois and the Angel Mounds in Indiana, and also lesser-known sites far to the south in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
Chickasaw Explorer Alyson Chapman and University of Florida graduate student Catrina Cuadra take depth measurements in an excavation unit at the Butler Mound site. | Credit: Patrick Cravatt
The researchers are doing chemical and physical analyses of pottery fragments to determine where they were manufactured. This information can demonstrate the movement of pots, and presumably people, from one community to another. This pot sherd comes from the Lubbub Creek site, a small mound center in Alabama south of the Vacant Quarter that may have been a refuge for people fleeing from further north. | Credit: Charles Cobb
Catrina Cuadra makes a detailed map of the remains of a burned structure at the Butler Mound site. | Photo: Patrick Cravatt
When Williams, who died in 2017, first published his Vacant Quarter hypothesis in 1983, he was careful to note that he wasn’t proposing that the region became totally devoid of people. Some Native Americans likely still hunted and gathered food there. But the Vacant Quarter no longer had any “year-round settled villages,” he wrote, even as communities flourished around its perimeter. Indeed, the void appeared to represent the “burned out center” of the Late Mississippian period. And the abandonment could help explain why the first Europeans to visit the area, who arrived in the 1500s, reported finding derelict villages marked by an “echoing stillness.”