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The following paper is a brief excerpt and summary of an over 500 pp. report on the Great Salt Spring site carried out with support from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, the National Science Foundation, and the Shawnee National Forest, U.S. Forest Service. Original ms, on file with the Shawnee National Forest, USFS and the Center for Archaeological Investigations at SIUC

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The Great Salt Spring

Jon Muller, Department of Anthropology

Southern Illinois University at Carbondale 62901-4502

Specialization in the Aboriginal Southeast

Specialization was probably more advanced in the East, although it is less often reported in the literature. The rich and variegated material culture of a tribe like the Iroquois is proof of craft specialization. The lively trade which occurred in pre-Columbian times and continued after Europeans settled America is further evidence of specialization. In the Southeast, salt was a common article of trade, and the persons connected with its making by evaporation in pottery saltpans were most certainly specialists.

[emphases added] Driver 1969:172


The concept of specialist production has played an important part in theories about the development of social stratification. Claims are still widely proposed for various kinds of specialization associated with developing hierarchies in general, and in the eastern United States specifically, (e.g., Yerkes 1983, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991; Prentice 1983, cf. Prentice 1985, Pauketat 1987, also 1993, 1994; Muller 1996). Traditionally, specialization has been proposed as developing in one of several contexts -- in production of staple commodities such as foodstuffs (e.g., Engels 1892, Service 1962,1975) or in production of display goods such as shell beads or shell gorgets (as per Earle 1987; see also Muller 1996). The Mississippian case of developing hierarchy is discussed here. It should be emphasized that the concept of specialization in anthropological discussions is most useful when it is (a) used in the same way as in economic theory and (b) defined in a precise, testable form.

Among other problems, there has been a confusion, especially in archaeology, of different levels of phenomena such as "site specialization" (or even "tool specialization") with "producer specialization" (Muller 1984a, also see Goody 1982:3-7 for a similar distinction). The mere presence of a tool kit defined for some particular task, for example, is not sufficient evidence of a particular social status for the person using the tools. Localization of production can be caused by many factors as well. Non-specialist production can be localized at concentrations of natural resources, so spatial concentration is by no means a sufficient indicator of the specialist character of production. In archaeological literature, unfortunately, terms referring to supposed specialization of various kinds have been very loosely applied, often in ways that are at odds with usage in other fields. Costin has provided a valuable catalogue of the current terms as redefined in archaeology (1991; also Costin and Hagstrum 1995), but has not undertaken the task of assessing whether these definitions are useful or merely idiosyncratic to our field. Craft specialization, especially, is one of those social phenomena that follows a version of Yoffee's Rule (originally put forth in the context of "states," Yoffee 1993:69) that may be generalized and paraphrased as: "If you can argue whether it is or isn't, then it isn't". Only divorcing of specialization from its social and economic context makes it seem merely different in degree from !Kung manufactures that Clark and Parry called "specialization" (1990; also see Clark 1995). On the contrary, specialization is not something can long be a property of merely a few workers in a larger mass of domestic producers, since the very presence of specialists requires a whole set of social interdependencies that fundamentally transform production as workers find themselves becoming producers, sellers, and purchasers in a market. I reiterate: specialization is a social, as much as an economic, transformation of the relations of production -- as everyone seems to acknowledge and then forget. There are certainly different kinds of "real" specialization such as the distinction of "attached specialists" made by Earle (1981). Nonetheless, specialization of any kind, in the strict sense, implies that production is the manufacture of commodities for exchange, that specialist producers no longer can autonomously provide sustenance to refresh and reproduce their own labor power, and that relationships of exchange replace those of kin, among many other alterations of relationships to people and things. Commoditization of product, in turn, makes it much, much easier for "non-producers" to extract surplus value from the producer. These are, I suggest, revolutionary, not incidental, changes in the organization of a society.

Craft specialization is also a key factor in the distinction between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Whole new sets of social distinctions and relationships come into play when survival of the producers depends upon their craft rather than their domestic context (see Meillassoux 1981, for examples of the interaction of domestic with non-domestic economies). This is not only a terminological quibble over how much time is spent at a craft before it is "specialized," but a fundamental theoretical problem concerning one basis of hierarchical development. Nor is the issue simply one of different philosophical schools. The research on this topic contributes to the debate over this important transition in social life. No primary examples of these developments have survived for examination, so the problem is fundamentally an archaeological problem.

Finally, not the least of the problems in dealing with specialization is a tendency to treat the specialist (or not) character of production as a "type" of organization that can be identified by some trait list of criteria. While we do need to look at the conditions or criteria that mark different production systems, it is critical that these be considered in the context of a political economy, as parts of modes of production, rather than isolated types of behavior (as also noted forcefully by Cobb 1993d). As one of the best known non-state systems, clarifying the issues of Mississippian specialist production has broad significance in the study of political economy in non-state, non-class, but hierarchically organized societies.

To treat craft specialization, a priori, as a gradualistic development through a continuum begs the whole question of its role -- whether as cause, effect, or insignificance -- in the major social, political, and economic transformation of society that occurs sometime and somewhere between "tribes" and "states." The simple observation that once there were only small non-hierarchically organized societies, and today there are almost only large-scale, class societies may be sneered at as "neoevolutionary." Nonetheless, it seems to me that this is one of the more important questions that we deal with as archaeologists, and we need to deal with it better than we have done so far.

In the rest of this paper I shall specifically discuss the Lower Ohio Valley contexts of salt production and how it fits into a general view of Mississippian production in general.

A discussion of claims for varying degrees of specialization of various kinds at Cahokia, Moundville, or elsewhere is outside the topic of this symposium, but I have discussed these cases in a forthcoming work on Mississippian political economy (Muller 1996). For now it is enough to point out that salt production -- not least because of human response to salt consumption -- is a reasonable place to look for central controlled production, and to note, as in Driver's assertion quoted above, that it has commonly been assumed to be a focus of specialized production, or at the least, production for exchange.

Context of Lower Ohio Mississippian

Figure 1. Southern Illinois and the Great Salt Spring.

The Great Salt Spring site is located on the Saline River, a tributary of the Ohio River (Figure 1). The springs are less than 80 km from the Angel site in Indiana, and just over 80 km from the Kincaid site at the confluence of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Cumberland Rivers.

Kincaid and Angel are the central sites of one or two political entities that developed in the Lower Ohio in the 9th century and persisted until the late 14th or early 15th century. In comparison to Cahokia, the scale of these societies was relatively small but both Kincaid and Angel individually rank among the largest Mississippian mound sites (ranking roughly 5th and 7th largest in total volume of mound construction, respectively).

In work going back to the mid-1960s, we had identified a form of economy that did not fit the then-prevailing notions of chiefly economies based on redistribution of specialized production (see Muller 1986b). Instead, Mississippian economies in this region, at least, proved to be profoundly domestic. In this situation, the supposed specialist production of either salt or chert seemed extraordinary.

The Great Salt Spring Case


With a view to testing for possible specialist production, we went to the Great Salt Spring, near Shawneetown, Illinois. This is one of two large salt production areas in this locality, and was one of the first Mississippian salt production areas to be identified archaeologically (Cramer 1814; Sellers 1877).

Historical Salt Production

The site was utilized for salt production during historic times from the French occupation through the early Federalist period. During the Federalist period, slave labor was contracted from Kentucky to work the springs in large-scale salt production. In the historic well dug to increase flow of the spring, Mississippian materials were found some 3-4 meters below surface, which suggests that Mississippian producers may also have dug out the well for the same reason.

Mississippian Salt Production

Figure 2. The Great Salt Spring Locality.

The entire Great Salt Spring "site" consists of two major areas (Figure 2): (1) a bottomland salt production zone around the saline springs (typically running near a 7% solution by volume), and (2) an area atop an escarpment 30 m above the floodplain that was described as a "residential" zone by Sellers (1877). All areas of the site are forested and understory growth is largely poison ivy, especially in the low areas (see Muller 1984a or 1986b for maps and more detail on the earlier work at the site). The lowland salt production site extends for over 500 m along the south bank of the Saline River. Evidence of prehistoric use of the escarpment-top site consists of debris -- including saltpan sherds and thin "utilitarian" Mississippian pottery, looted stone-box graves, and a few structure depressions. Altogether the total zone of the "site" is over 1 million square m in area with about 54,200 square m of that area showing intensive production activities (see Muller 1992).

Our work at the site began in 1981 and 1982 with an augering and testing program in the floodplain site areas. The site proved to be a difficult place to work, since virtually all of the understory vegetation in the floodplain area was poison ivy. The site areas in the first terrace around the springs proved to have as much as 2.3 m of cultural deposits. Later augering and test excavations in the blufftop site areas indicated less depth of deposit, but in some areas, even denser artifact concentrations. In the excavations, however, the actual density of materials was typically higher in the low areas near the springs than on the blufftop.

Figure 3. Densities of artifacts in the Blufftop and Floodplain site zones auger tests.

Virtually everything found in the site related directly or indirectly to salt production. The primary class of artifacts -- outnumbering even burnt clay and broken rock -- was that of Mississippian pottery -- almost all of it large, thick sherds from the vessel form commonly known as saltpans. Figure 4 shows the normal conception of these vessels as large shallow bowls used to evaporate brine into salt.

Figure 4. Saltpan (as normally conceived).

These vessels were made on the site and basin molds or mixing basins were found, along with caches of clay, pottery trowels, and burnt shell. Substantial burned areas were found over most of the site that are almost certainly open kilns for pottery firing.

One of our discoveries was that in well-dated contexts, surface treatment of these reduction vessels has little or no chronological significance, but was simply a result of the size of the vessels -- larger vessels required lining the mold with fabric, presumably to facilitate lifting the completed vessel from the mold. Fabric-marking on saltpans should not be taken as having chronological significance except insofar as there may have been changes in average vessel size through time at a particular location (Muller and Renken 1989).

At the same time, we need to remember that these vessels are clearly used for many kinds of purposes beyond salt production.

Figure 5. Large reduction vessel from a southern Illinois rockshelter.

They occur in sites well removed from any potential sources of salt, such as this large vessel from a rock shelter (Figure 5). It would be very difficult to tell the difference between even large sherds from this kind of reduction vessel and sherds from the sort of vessel shown in Figure 4.

Figure 6. "Basic food groups" pyramid.

In fact, there is clear evidence of boiling of crushed bone at the Great Salt Spring which indicates that reduction of fluids could be involved in processes such as the production of fats. Although there are few maples in the area of the Great Salt Spring today, it is possible that sugar production could have taken place in these vessels as well. Thus producing all of the "basic food groups" that made otherwise tasteless food more palatable, as is well known to fast food marketers today (Figure 6).

Heat was apparently employed in all kinds of reduction activities at this enormous site, and 19th-century suggestions of solar evaporation on the blufftop areas are made less likely by the ubiquity of special salt production hearths in that area as well as in the floodplain.

A very distinctive kind of hearth was used at this site that is very different from most hearths found in ordinary Mississippian household sites. These hearths differ very widely in size, and form a palimpsest of features across nearly all of the site (Figure 7)

Figure 7. Plan of a small salt hearth.

In 19th century accounts of the site, the blufftop area was characterized as being residential with perhaps solar evaporation of salt. In part, speculation about solar production seems to have been motivated by the difficulty in obtaining sufficient firewood for salt production in historic salt production in this locality. Brine was often pumped and piped for several kilometers away from the springs in order to access firewood. Thus it was natural to assume that large-scale Mississippian salt production might have encountered the same difficulties. However, studies of charcoal from the site by Neal Lopinot have surprisingly revealed that much of the Mississippian firewood was deadwood that had been lying on the forest floor for some time before being burnt in salt production. Other botanical evidence suggests that while much of the year was represented in the remains, individual assemblages were typically restricted to a single season. Moreover, while maize was present at the site, cob fragments were much rarer than at ordinary Mississippian domestic sites, suggesting that shelled maize was being brought into the site. Zoological evidence studied by Emanuel Breitburg and Jon Bloom showed similar, if somewhat more general features. It was clear that the Mississippian faunal assemblage at the Great Salt Spring, however, was more like Upper Mississippian or Late Woodland assemblages than like the cornfield-predator mix commonly found in domestic sites. This is consistent with historic descriptions like those of du Pratz that suggest combined salt production and hunting:


The Indians come a great way off to this place to hunt in winter and make salt. Before the French trucked coppers with them, they made upon the spot pots of earth for this operation: and they returned home with salt and dry provisions.

(Le Page du Pratz 1972 [1758]:153)


As indicated, the blufftop areas showed greater artifact density in some locations than in the floodplain (Figure 8), but excavation samples show much less midden accumulation than in the floodplain. In general, the artifact profiles were similar, but with generally smaller reduction vessels (especially if the bowls are included). The size of reduction vessels varies in part as a factor of distance from the springs, although the blufftop area seems to have been utilized for a shorter period of time than was the case in the floodplain.

Excavations in the blufftop area of the site did reveal the presence of "habitation." Some "habitation" areas were characterized by what seem to have been brush shelters of a temporary kind, but a few more substantial structures were detected. One of these was excavated. To our surprise, the interior of the structure proved to be almost exactly like the normal debris of salt production areas. In fact, the interior remains from the structure were even more like those from the areas on the floodplain near the springs than was the normal debris from other areas on the blufftop. It seems clear that the well-constructed excavated structure was used as a shelter for salt production rather than for people.

Figure 8. Blufftop artifact distributions.

What do the production levels seen at the Great Salt Spring imply in terms of consumption and demand? We know that wide areas of high fertility floodplain localities were settled by roughly contemporaneous communities in the 13th century (Muller 1986b:212ff). Because of the widespread settlement at this time, the maximum figures of circa 1200 to 1500 persons for the Black Bottom and 300 to 500 for the Upper Bottom may also be close to peak population. If Angel is taken to be of similar size (and I believe it should be for reasons outlined in Muller 1986b), the total Lower Ohio Mississippian town population would be around 2500 to 3000, and bottomland population for the entire region would have been something less than 10,000 total. This would suggest something on the order of 500 to 2000 households at any one time. If every other household made an expedition to the Great Salt Spring or the Half Moon Lick in a given year, this would imply some 250 to 1000 salt production visits per annum! At 3 to 5 vessels per visit, some 750 vessels to 5000 vessels might be in use in a year. These estimates are consistent with those from sherd counts (see Muller 1992: Chapter 10), where I estimated that, for 150 years of use, the average number of vessels in use would be more than 2,800 vessels per annum. If the full 550 year range of use is taken instead, then the average number of vessels in use in an entire year would be 776 vessels. As "iffy" as such estimates are, they are consistent with a reasonable annual salt consumption for such a population. Populations of the known sizes of Lower Ohio Mississippian settlements could easily have consumed all of such salt production at the Great Salt Spring and the Half Moon Lick without producing a single gram for external exchange. If a modest level of exchange of salt is factored in, the apparent hugeness of the salt production scale shrinks to levels that are consistent with domestic production and becomes easily understood. And understood, I might add, without any hint of either commodity production or specialization in the proper sense of either term.

The site as a whole had an artifact profile that was both distinctive and revealing. Out of the great mass of materials recovered in augering and in excavations, less than 2000 chert flakes were found. Only just over of a hundred so-called "utilized" flakes were found. Only a tiny percentage of the burned clay was actually "daub" showing impressions of structural members, and most of the burned clay was from the linings of the special hearths already described. Virtually none of the ceramics were ordinary domestic jars. Even the bulk of the thinwares found at the site were bowls, and most were probably used as reduction vessels.


Table 1. Selected artifact categories and counts.

Broken Rock



Unworked Flakes

'Utilized' Flakes

Bifacial Knives






















Small Triang.Pnts

Hoe Chips



Unworked Coal























Unworked Shell

Burnt Clay (g)

Daub (g)

Late Woodland Pottery

Shell-temp. Pottery

MP Thin Wares






















MP Thick = 'Saltpans'

MP Thick Plain

MP Thk Fabric-marked

MP Unidentified

MP Decorated Wares
























The extent of the site and its various assemblages indicate long-term use of the site for salt production and for little else except for other activities auxiliary to salt production such as hunting and production of animal fats. Although the size of the site is enormous, auger testing and excavation showed extraordinarily low variation from one site area to another. Despite the presence of burial areas at the site, no indications of permanent residential areas were found in over 10 years of work at the site.

The strong evidence for transience -- from the combination of a general lack of permanent shelter, the burning of fallen timber in salt production, the purity of the floral assemblages by season, the lack of domestic production, and so on -- is inconsistent with normal perceptions of full-time specialization as it has commonly been defined. It is very consistent with the kind of use of salt sources described for historical Native Americans. Historic sources on salt production largely presented a picture of individual families or groups coming to salt sources on a transient, often seasonal, basis (see Muller 1992 of discussion of these).

It would be nice to have more detailed chronological data to examine the question of absolute contemporaneity of use of the blufftop and floodplain site areas. However, the overlapping radiocarbon dates make it difficult to argue for any significant chronological factor in the use of these two areas. On both artifactual and chronometric grounds, the most likely situation is that the various site zones were in use at the same times. The important points about the dating of salt production at this site are that


(1) it begins early in Mississippian times and continues up to historic times,

(2) the dates from the excavated samples are predominantly from the 13th century and are thus coeval with the best known Mississippian assemblages from the rest of the Ohio Valley,

so that

(3) the differences between Mississippian exploitation of the Great Salt Spring and other sites must be attributed to something other than temporal differences.


There is no sense in which a significant domestic Mississippian context is "buried" within the wide-spread salt production milieu. All of the areas at this extensive site were used for salt production. A few areas also had transient occupation, as reflected in light shelters and seasonally restricted, consumption-oriented food assemblages. It was not that the site had specialist residents who did not engage in ordinary domestic production, but rather that no "domestic" household activities of the normal kind took place here. These were happy campers, not specialist salt producers.


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I especially wish to thank the National Science Foundation, the United States Forest Service, Shawnee National Forest, and Southern Illinois University for support of this research.


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