Dr. Marisa Fontana: ethnological findings enlighten archaeological research
~ report by Anne Wilson-Dooley ~
Our January 26th lecturer, Dr. Marisa Fontana, has been interested in archaeology since taking anthropology-archaeology courses in high school and within a few years had participated in excavations in Colorado, Michigan, Utah, and Pennsylvania. Her power point presentation and many questions and additions from the audience made for an excellent afternoon!
In graduate school, Dr. Fontana began her focus on southeastern US, a ‘much less studied region of North America’ and specializes in indigenous warfare in the precontact period.
Studies of warfare in prehistoric/precontact societies/regions are complicated by the nature of archaeological remains or absence thereof and there is much more to warfare than just the immediate acts of violence. Today there is much concern and respect for the Native American communities and their holding the remains of their deceased and the burial location sacred. In the past, physical human remains have been a major indicator of violence and the types/mechanisms of warfare.
Dr. Fontana focused on three types of warfare evidenced in ethnological and historical studies: raids/ambushes; massacres; and battles. To recognize these in prehistoric and precontact societies, archaeologists have to rely on direct and indirect evidence.
For direct evidence, often skeletal evidence is best but, as noted, in deference to Native American communities, this is often not available for continuing studies. As an example of skeletal evidence for raids, the trauma is often to the back side of the victim – the surprise element. For massacres, the evidence is often the burning or other desecrations of an entire village or maybe of political-social-religious structures. An example cited was the burning of a charnel house at the Georgia site of Etowah, with the skeletal remains ending up spread down one side of the mound that had been located on. She defined battles as often large scale conflicts with rules; challenges are often issued to the enemy. Dr. Fontana said that battlefields have been harder to locate than might be expected. Scholars are still trying to locate a particular battle location in Georgia, for example, and an audience member offered that the sites of a couple of battles from the Blackhawk wars in northern Illinois have not been identified.
In the US, many sites are pre-writing but may have motifs – iconography on pottery, shell gorgets, or tablets that are indicative of warfare/weapons, a ‘squiggle’ line on a skull for scalping.
This was an excellent presentation on using ethnological studies to inform our developing understanding of prehistoric-precontact societies.