In the eastern United States, the period from around 700 BCE to 1500 CE can be divided into two fairly distinct cultural traditions. The first, the Woodland Tradition, (sometimes referred to as the Burial Mound Builder Period), emerged from the Archaic tradition with the development of cultivation and ceramics. The second, the Mississippian Tradition, (also referred to as the Temple Mound Builder Period), developed out of the Woodland Tradition, but shows the influence of Mesoamerica in the near complete shifts in living patterns, agriculture and pottery types. Different parts of the East developed different forms of these traditions, but it is possible to discuss Woodland and Mississippian culture generally in terms of seven geographic areas, illustrated in the map below.
The Woodland Tradition is generally distinguished from the earlier Archaic Tradition by the construction of burial mounds, the advent of rudimentary cultivation, and by the presence of cord and fabric marked pottery types. This began around 700 BCE and reached its climax about 100 BCE. Remnants of the Woodland tradition lasted into the modern era.
The Woodland Tradition is divided into two periods. The first, Burial Mound I, dates from 700-300 BCE, and is best represented by the Adena culture of the Ohio Valley. Sites are marked by burial mounds and/or earthworks. A cult of the dead seems to have been a major part of Adena life. Away from the burial centers, small villages of three to five houses prevailed. Ceramics were simple in form, with cord or fabric marking and occasionally incised decoration.
The second period, Burial Mound II, spanned from around 300 BCE to 700 CE. This period saw the rise of the Hopewell culture, which was little more than an elaboration of the earlier Adena culture, and the dividing line between them is not very clear. Earthworks were larger and more complex, burial mounds were larger, and ceramics forms more sophisticated and varied. Specialty vessels were developed specifically for ceremonial use. Hopewell culture was carried throughout the Upper Mississippi and Missouri valleys.
The Hopewell culture began to fade near the end of the Burial Mound II period. Around 700 CE a new tradition known as the Mississippian was forming in the area of northeastern Arkansas and southeastern Missouri. For the purposes of this exhibition, this region will be referred to as the "core area". There were substantial differences between Mississippian sites and their Woodland predecessors. Sites were marked by flat-topped mounds upon which temples and important buildings were constructed. As such, the Mississippian Tradition is divided into Temple Mound I and Temple Mound II periods. In contrast to the Hopewell sites, burial mounds became far less significant. Agriculture intensified considerably with the introduction of better strains of maize, which resulted in a far more sedentary lifestyle. New vessel forms arose along with new types of decoration. Shell tempering became the norm. Many of these characteristic features clearly indicate Mesoamerican influence. The relatively smooth and slow transition from Woodland to Mississippian traditions indicates that this influence was not direct, but absorbed gradually over time.
The Mississippian tradition is best represented by the site at Cahokia, in southern Illinois. The Temple Mound I phase is not well understood, but it appears to have been the continuation of a trend towards nucleation into large centers, but now these centers took on a form more like their Mesoamerican counterparts. From Cahokia other sites were "colonized" in outlying areas, such as Aztalan in Wisconsin, Obion in western Tennessee and Hiwassee Island in eastern Tennessee, and Macon, Georgia. Contemporary developments were occuring in the Lower Mississippi Valley, with the Coles Creek cultures of Louisiana and Mississippi. These were similar to the Cahokia types, and exerted influences eastward into Florida and Georgia and westward up into the Caddoan regions along the Red River.
The Mississippian Tradition reached its zenith between 1200 and 1500 CE. Areas which had at one time been a mix of Mississippian and Woodland traditions now became predominantly Mississippian, yet they retained the differentiation created by their varying Woodland heritages. Cahokia continued to expand, and larger sites proliferated in the core area of southeastern Missouri and north- eastern Arkansas. In the Ohio Valley, Hopewell lifestyles gave way to a more sedentary, Fort Ancient variant of the Mississippian. The influence of Mississippian culture can also be found to the northwest, in the Oneota culture which fused earlier Woodland traditions with the new imports. Ceramics forms continued to expand and now included far more sophisticated forms, such as effigy vessels, and various types of painted decoration.