Steere book addresses archaeology of Native American households

Ben Steere, director of Cherokee Studies Programs and an assistant professor of anthropology at Western Carolina University, will hold a book launch for his recent publication of “The Archaeology of Houses and Households in the Native Southeast” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva on Friday, May 12, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

The timing of the book’s release coincides with the new WCU campus learning theme for 2017-18, which will be “Cherokee: Community. Culture. Connections.” WCU sits on traditional Cherokee land and is surrounded by Native American landmarks, such as Judaculla Rock, the largest petroglyph in the southeastern U.S.

Steere was recognized by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians with the Principal Chief Leon D. Jones Award for Archaeological Excellence in 2016. He recently presented a program in neighboring Swain County on mounds, towns and sacred fires in Cherokee culture.

The book, published by University of Alabama Press, explores the evolution of houses and households in the southeast from the Woodland to the Historic Indian period (200 B.C. to 1800 A.D.). It documents and compares more than 1,000 houses and other structures built by the original inhabitants of North America, with data compiled from 65 archaeological sites in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, as well as the southern parts of Missouri, Indiana and Illinois. Steere uses domestic architecture to reconstruct daily life at Native American communities and identify social, cultural and economic changes in native societies.

“For decades, archaeologists have done an excellent job of excavating and recording Native American houses in the Southeast, but there have been fewer attempts to step back and look at bigger patterns of change and what they mean,” said Steere. “For a comparison, think about big changes in American architecture, like the decreasing popularity of wing-and-gable farmhouses and the rapid spread of the ranch house in the middle of the 20th century. What does that change in architecture tell us about American culture?

“When you examine hundreds and hundreds of Native American houses from across the Southeast, and carefully compare how the size, shape and layout of houses are changing over time, you can start to identify important, societywide changes in households, such as increasing and decreasing family sizes or increasing investment in houses when communities become more invested in farming,” he said. “You can also track the development of important architectural symbols, like the sacred central fire and the use of four central support posts as a reference to the four cardinal directions.”

The book is certain to become an essential reference for anyone doing native archaeology in the Southeast, according to a review by Robin A. Beck, associate professor and associate curator of North American archaeology in the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology at the University of Michigan, while Ramie A. Gougeon, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida, said it is “a critically important work that moves beyond mere synthesis and summary, and includes interpretations of southeastern Indian lifeways only possible through an appropriate matching of methodology, scale of analysis, and an incredible amount of data.”

The author said he will donate all royalties from book sales to the Society for American Archaeology Native American Scholarship Fund. This program is designed to help Native American students pursue advanced studies in archaeology.