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Mysteries of the Archaic’s Guilford People

by Peter G. Murphy and Alice J. Murphy, St. Johns, Michigan

Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.56, No.4, pg.200

Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.57, No.2, pg.84


Ever since a Southeastern assemblage of pre­historic stone tools known as the Guilford Focus was described in the published literature some 60 years ago, there has been confusion about who the people who made those tools were. We will call them the Guilford People. Joffre L. Coe, the preeminent archaeologist who spent more than 50 years of his long career excavating and deciphering North Carolina’s archaeological record, first iden­tified the recurring Guilford stone tool assemblage in the 1940s. Initially, however, the assemblage was defined based largely on surface collections which, we now know, actually contained a mix­ture of different stone tool traditions or “cultures”. Consequently, Morrow Mountain and other arti­facts were included as part of the Guilford Focus (Coe 1949, 1952). Ward (1983) has referred to more recent misguided assemblages of this sort as “archaeological Frankensteins”.Not until Coe (1964) found Guilford artifacts in stratigraphic context did their true physical characteristics – and chronological fit relative to other traditions – be­come more clear. Further, Coe’s research revealed that the Guildford People were hunter-gatherers who had camps and habitation sites on ridges and knolls throughout the North Carolina Piedmont and adjacent regions some 6,000 years ago, in an era known as Middle Archaic (8,000-5,000 B.P.). Before considering the intriguing mysteries that re­main about this culture, a review of what is known about the Guilford Focus is in order.

Typical Guilford points (Figure 1) are lanceo­late in form and are most commonly 50-120 mm in length and 20-35 mm in width (Coe 1964). They tend to be thick, lenticular or diamond-shaped in cross section, with a base that can be either con­cave (56 percent), convex (29 percent), or straight (15 percent). Most often Guilford points are made from rhyolite, andesite, quartz, quartzite and varieties of Carolina slate, materials that are thought to have limited the fineness of the knap­per ‘s workmanship. In spite of their considerable age, the distinctive projectile points and chipped stone axes (Figure 2) left by the Guilford People are among the more common Archaic artifacts to be found throughout the Carolina Piedmont. They are often collected on the surface of agricultural fields and other sites where erosion or other soil disturbance has left them exposed (Murphy and Murphy 2009). But when the artifacts are found in situ, in undisturbed stratified soil profiles of archaeological excavations, they usually occur at depths of 1.0 to 1.7 meters (Coe 1964). At one site they were found as deep as 4 meters (Coe 1952) — making it easier to appreciate their true antiquity. It was the charcoal found in associa­tion with hearths in the Halifax soil stratum, just above the Guilford stratum, at Coe’s Gaston site excavations on the Roanoke River in northern North Carolina that enabled Guilford points to be radiocarbon dated to at least 6,000 B.P. Although the Guilford stratum showed evidence of hearths, there was insufficient charcoal for dating the Guil­ford artifacts directly.

Guilford artifacts occur commonly within a relatively limited geographic region. They are found in greatest numbers in the Carolinas, par­ticularly that region between the low-lying coastal plain to the east and the Appalachian Mountains to the west known as the Piedmont. Indeed, the name Guilford is derived from the North Carolina Piedmont county by that name.

At top: Figure 1. Four main types of Guilford projectile points or knives. (point on left is 2 inches in length )Left to right: concave base, convex base, straight base, weak shoulders and rudimentary stem. Found in Orange County (on extreme left) and Chatham County (the other three), North Carolina.

Their relative commonness and simple geom­etry keep Guilford points from being among the most valued or sought-after by collectors. But in the far more important context of archaeological value, Guilford points are very interesting indeed because of the questions they raise. From where did the Guilford people come and with what other regions, if any, do they appear to have an affinity based on similarity of artifacts? Why do the lan­ceolate points differ so fundamentally from both earlier and later points in the Carolina Piedmont?

Did the Guilford people eventually die out or move to a different region some 5,000-6,000 years ago, or did they transform into a later cul­tural group? We will likely never have definitive answers to these questions but we can at least con­sider the clues left by the artifacts.

From where did the Guilford People come? If the Guilford tradition developed in place from an earlier Southeastern culture, such as Morrow Mountain which first appears just below Guilford stratigraphically, we might expect a transition or overlapping in the occurrence and characteristics of the respective artifacts. And, in fact, what Coe (1964) found at excavated sites such as Doerschuk in North Carolina’s Yadkin River Basin is that although Morrow Mountain Types I and II were both represented in lower (earlier) strata than was Guilford, both Morrow Mountain types were also found in the strata containing Guilford points. Although both Morrow Mountain types were found at the Hardaway site in stratified context, the two types commingled and it was less clear that Type-I was in fact older than Type-II. At the Gaston Site near the border with Virginia, Guil­ford points were the earliest found. Both Morrow Mountain types were entirely absent in the exca­vations but they do occur in surface collections from the local area (Murphy and Murphy 2009).

Although typical Morrow Mountain points are quite different in form from typical Guilford points, it is perhaps the atypical examples that are of most interest when it comes to looking for possible developmental relationships and trends. When one arrays the points found on the surface at sites containing both Morrow Mountain and Guil­ford, without preconceived (subjective) notions of their defining characteristic, forms that could be construed as transitional are not uncommon espe­cially when the sample is relatively large. Such an array — but with only five points represented for illustrative purposes — can be seen in Figure 3.

In this figure, the point at the left represents a Morrow Mountain Type-II. The stylistic changes that would be required to transform the point into a Guilford, like the two to the immediate right of the Morrow Mountain, would not be great. In addition to some resemblance in form, the chip­ping technique, stone type, and even patina are similar. In analyzing the projectile points from the Lowder’s Ferry site, Drye (1998) commented on the similarity of some Morrow Mountain Type-II points to Guilfords with convex or rounded bas­es. To consider that there may be some relation­ship between the Morrow Mountain and Guilford points does not require a great deal of imagination. It is notable that 71 percent of all sites on which we found Guilford artifacts also yielded Mor­row Mountain points. The points to the extreme right in Figure 3 will be discussed below in the context of possible later Guilford developments.

Above: Figure 3. Five Middle to Late Archaic point types demonstrating possible developmental relationships. From left to right: Mor­row Mountain Type-II (early phase of Middle Archaic), Guilford convex base (middle phase of Middle Archaic), Guilford with weak shoulders and rudimentary stem (middle phase of Middle Archaic), possible Guilford-Savannah River transitional type (late phase of Middle Archaic or Late Archaic), Savannah River (Late Archaic). The Morrow Mountain point is from Durham County; the others are from Chatham County, North Carolina. The point in the middle is 2 1/2 inches in length.

Guilford points do differ more distinctly from other, earlier, Piedmont point types predating Mor­row Mountain. Most of the Early Archaic points differ significantly in having some design feature to facilitate hafting on a spear shaft or knife handle. The earlier points may have notches, or a stem, or even fluting, all of which would make it easier to secure the point to a shaft or handle. Guilford points considered most typical of the type have none of that. In fact, Claggett and Cable (1982) pointed out that Guilford points interrupt the Ar­chaic development trend from notched to stemmed points and even described Guilford points as enig­matic. The thickness of Guilford-point blade and base must have required a relatively stout shaft. Presumably, the points were secured with sinew and according to Coe (1964) about a third of the points show grinding at the base and along the lower third of the blade edges in the hafting area. Whereas one can imagine that a concave base would confer some hafting stability, it is harder to understand why many of the Guilford points (29 percent of the 342 Guilford points in our collec­tion) had convex (or rounded) bases unless the points were placed into a socket of some sort in the end of the spear shaft or knife handle. The same question would apply to most Morrow Moun­tain points which tend to have a relatively short, rounded stem. All considered, the fundamental differences in point design, as well as stratigraphic separation in the excavations of Coe (1964), argue against a direct relationship of Guilford to earlier Piedmont point traditions except for the immedi­ate predecessor, Morrow Mountain, which did indeed co-occur stratigraphically with Guilford.

In his classic monograph, The Formative Cultures of the Carolina Piedmont, Coe (1964) arranged approximately 16 cultural groups (or projectile point traditions) along a temporal gradi­ent spanning some 10,000 years.The factors that caused the sequential displacement or transforma­tion of each of the cultures are unknown. Undoubt­edly there was actually a complex of factors that varied over time. Around 7,000 B.P. Conditions became several degrees warmer and, especially on sandy sites, drier. This caused oak-hickory to be replaced by oak-pine, but extensive swamps also developed along some river systems It was during this span of time that the Early Archaic Kirk and Middle Archaic Stanly traditions were apparently replaced by Morrow Mountain and, at some point prior to 6,000 B.P., by Guilford. By 6,000 B.P. (Guilford times) . Certainly environmental swings caused responsive shifts in the distribution and abundance of key food-source wildlife and plant species. Such shifts may in turn have required dif­ferent hunting techniques and tools, and various changes in life style as well, forcing adaptation and cultural changes. Morrow Mountain may possibly have been the precursor of Guilford, or perhaps Morrow Mountain and Guilford converged as the two cultures commingled. But if in fact the rather distinctive lanceolate points of Guilford represent influences from an entirely different geographic region, if they were an “intrusive” tradition as sug­gested by Phelps (1964, 1983) and Oliver (1985), what was that region from which they came?

In the 1950s, Guilford points were thought by at least one prominent archaeologist (Griffin 1952) to be Late Paleo-Indian in age and directly related to early cultures in the Southwestern and West Coast areas known as Gypsum Cave and Pinto Basin. We now know that Guilford points are about 5,000-6,000 years younger than Griffin had believed. Guilford affinities with other cul­tural groups in other regions remain unclear. Coe (1964) mentions that Guilford points have been described as being similar to Eden, Angostura and other western forms but “without a great deal of satisfaction” due, in part, to fundamental differ­ences in chipping technique. Robert Overstreet in his identification guide, lists various points (as many as 10 or more) with similarities to Guilford. All the various similarities in point form are inter­esting but of course not necessarily indicative of true cultural relationships. Most of the similari­ties are in overall form — not in the details of chip­ping technique. And even the form similarities are relatively superficial. Only further evidence gathered from controlled excavations is likely to point with some authority toward the most likely source of the influences that molded the charac­teristics of Guilford stone tools if, in fact, they did not arise predominately from a preexisting Piedmont culture, such as Morrow Mountain.

Consistent with earlier comments about the Guilford culture being widespread in the Pied­mont, about 69 percent of our 83 North Carolina Piedmont sites (Murphy and Murphy 2009) had some evidence of Guilford occupation. Guil­ford points were among the most common we found: 27 percent of the 1,279 identifiable points of about 20 types collected; 58 percent of the 585 that were of the Middle Archaic Period.

Finally, we ask, what became of the Guil­ford people at some point after 6,000 B.P. when their characteristic artifacts no longer appear in the archaeological record? Did they disappear from the Southeastern landscape, perhaps out-competed or forcefully run off by a later culture? We are unaware of any evidence to suggest that the Guilford People moved to a different region. They may have been eliminated in-place by a lat­er culture but based on trends in projectile point characteristics we feel it is also possible that they were absorbed by, or transformed into, a Late Archaic culture, such as Savannah River (rough­ly 5,000 — 2,000 B.P. according to Coe 1964).

Coe (1964) pointed out that there did indeed appear to be developmental relationships among some Archaic cultures of the Piedmont. We feel that the question posed by Purrington (1983), “Is Guilford basically a continuation of the Morrow Mountain way of life?” is one well worth consider­ing. And we would also ask, what are the origins of Morrow Mountain? Is that tradition, like Guilford intrusive? We believe that the chain of traditions or cultures that Joffre L. Coe described back in 1964 for the Carolina Piedmont largely reflects a sequence of cultural modifications in response to innumerable environmental and social pressures, rather than the sequential arrival and departure of entirely different cultural traditions.

What was it that caused a people whom we have chosen to call Guilford to use such distinc­tive lanceolate projectile points over a substantial period of time — choosing to ignore the notches and stems and flutes of earlier cultures? Was there a reason based on the prey being hunted, or on social influences, or on ease of tool manufac­ture, or was it simply the style of some other group who found their way into the Southeast? And in what ways were the Guilford people influenced by their Morrow Mountain predecessors, and ul­timately by their Savannah River successors? To what extent may they have been a force in alter­ing those other cultures? It is mysteries such as these that help to bring to life the people behind the artifacts. The lanceolate-point makers of the Middle Archaic never could have imagined that more than six thousand years beyond their days the latest residents of their camp sites and hunting grounds would be thinking about them – and refer­ring to them as “Guilford People”. How sad it is that we will never know how they actually referred to themselves. Just one more mystery.”Used by Permission of the Author”
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