Date Awarded

Fall 2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Martin D. Gallivan

Committee Member

Brad Weiss

Committee Member

Danielle Moretti-Langholtz

Committee Member

Neil Norman

Committee Member

Christopher Stevenson


This dissertation investigates the emergence, development, and transformation of centralized political authority within Algonquian societies of the Late Woodland and early Colonial period (A.D. 900 – 1680) southern Middle Atlantic. Sixteenth and 17th century European accounts describe coastal Algonquian-speaking societies of modern day Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina as organized into multi-community polities structured by hierarchical political authority, centralized decision-making and pervasive inequality. However, the hallmarks typically associated with chiefly political organization—monumental architecture, settlement hierarchies, and widespread differentiation in mortuary symbolism—are almost non-existent in the region’s archaeological record. Colonial chroniclers, however, were adamant that the objects most highly valued by the indigenous population, shell and copper adornment, flowed through chiefly lineages—a relationship largely neglected within the regional archaeological scholarship. Ultimately, this dissertation explores sovereignty and the material processes that mitigated relationships of authority and subjection. Drawing on archaeological, ethnohistorical, and ethnographic evidence, three key avenues of inquiry are pursued. First, the organization of the pre- and post-colonial economy and the ways that the consumption, movement, and enactment of social practices associated with ornamentation influenced the construction of a region-wide political system. Second, the materiality of wealth objects, and the extent to which they could act as social agents in defining and reorienting sociopolitical roles. and finally, the regional organization of production and the potential of new technology (Inductive Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry) to identify shell ornament production locales. The results of these analyses suggest that although individuals and communities consumed and deployed shell and copper ornamentation in a variety of ways, these materials and their association with the human body directed the flow of power across the coastal Algonquian political geography. Through various engagements with shell and copper ornaments, social actors created historical infrastructures that channeled Manitou, or animacies that could inhabit humans and objects, in an effort to bring prosperity and balance to the lived world. This study concludes that pre-colonial notions of sovereignty within the region hinged on the differential ability of individuals to socialize unpredictable, and often dangerous foreign objects. Shell and copper were central to the emergence of the regional political system as burial offerings that differentiated and defined the chiefly lineages from which powerful political actors would emerge. However, this form of sovereignty proved to be unstable and easily subverted. The emergence of new exchange networks and the development of a localized craft industry, both of which occurred within the region during the 17th century, fundamentally redefined relationships of authority and subjection, as sovereignty became distributed across increasingly localized political entities. This is not to say that the violence and large-scale dispossession of Native people were not significant factors in the reordering of sovereign relationships in the wake of colonialism, but that new economic circumstances provided new venues upon which political relationships were negotiated and contested.




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