Circular reasoning: Drawing on models of ring-shaped village spatial layouts to examine villages in Late Prehistoric Pennsylvania

Bernard K. Means
School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University
July, 2006


During the Late Prehistoric period (A.D. 1000 to 1600s) in the Eastern Woodlands, the inhabitants of the Upper Ohio Valley---assigned to the 'Monongahela' tradition--- lived in villages with a settlement layout characterized by a ring of houses around an open, central plaza. Although considered by some as a 'trait' of the Monongahela, their so-called typical ring-shaped village sites are actually a widespread, almost archetypal settlement form that arose repeatedly and independently in different times and places across the globe. Cross-cultural research demonstrates that ring-shaped settlements are designed by village inhabitants according to underlying geometric models. This work explores the nature of these models and how they order and influence social groups within a village. It is suggested that Monongahela social organization is reflected in the internal spatial arrangement of their village sites. Recently obtained accelerator mass spectroscopy dates from several Monongahela village sites are incorporated into a consideration of whether variation in village layouts represented directional change through time. It was found that the geometric models used to plan Monongahela villages clearly influenced the spatial distribution of village social groups, whatever their size or composition, but had less of an influence on the distribution of features and artifacts. Regardless of age, geometric models clearly were a major factor influencing the initial spatial layouts of Monongahela villages. However, most variation in community patterns could not be linked to directional change within a local developmental sequence. Monongahela villages that were more recent in the local developmental sequence did not necessarily have better designed layouts than older village components. The fact that Monongahela villagers did not exhibit the same rigidity in the application of geometric patterning seen at contemporary Fort Ancient villages tells us something about the comparative strength of village social organizations between the two regions. Notably, village social organizations were apparently stronger at Fort Ancient sites, because the organization of space at these sites was more regimented and more carefully maintained than evident in the Allegheny Mountains region. Extension of the modeling process beyond the Allegheny Mountains region should stimulate a broader understanding of the Late Prehistoric inhabitants of the Northeast.