A Very Preliminary Interpretation of Mound Size Variability

Monumental architecture, by virtue of its scale, implies something about the organizational capabilities of the groups that produced it. The previous analysis of burial mound size further implies something about the variation in those capabilities. I explore some of those implications at greater length here.


The following thoughts should be considered preliminary. The original goal of this particular analysis was very modest, concerned with establishing a reliable measure of monument scale or prominence. My hope was that mound volume had stayed reasonably constant despite the effects of weathering and other processes. The analysis was being done as part of a project regarding monument function and social organization. While the analysis showed that many mounds lost volume as a result of modern plowing, it also showed that the volume of plowed mounds and whole mounds varied in very similar fashion. Variation in mound volume can be modeled with the exponential distribution. I did not expect this result at the outset.

I have often regarded mounds as potentially reflecting the “strength” of the groups that built them. Group strength might be a function of many different factors, such as group size, the productivity of the territory that the group occupies, the group’s organizational capabilities and the size of the social network upon which the group could call. Groups that scored higher on these variables should have been capable of building larger mounds. Groups that scored lower on these variables should have been limited to building smaller mounds. A large list of qualities could thus contribute to group strength and to burial mound size. I assumed that each factor would have a small additive effect on strength. Consequently, I supposed that variation in group strength and mound size should take the form of a normal distribution.

Clearly, this intuition was wrong. Upon further reflection, I think that I’ve underestimated the contribution of social networks. Their contribution is probably not minor. Ethnographic studies of leadership in small-scale societies illustrate the hard work and emphasis that group leaders often put on the maintenance of their networks. The effect of each additional ally is probably not merely additive, since each ally that gets incorporated has the potential to contribute their own unique allies to the network. Modern studies of social networks indicate that variability among individuals in network size has a heavy-tailed distribution, where most individuals have a relatively small network and a few individuals have very large networks. The mound data is suggestive of similar processes at play.

Before getting too carried away, let me emphasize again that this interpretation is very preliminary. It is, nevertheless, consistent with other archeological evidence for the operation of long-distance exchange networks at the time. The results also illustrate the potential value of this form of statistical modeling. The type of probability model which can be fit to the data — whether normal, exponential, or some other model — reflect the type of processes which operated in the past. The modeling thus constrains the set of possible interpretations that should be considered.

© Scott Pletka and Mathematical Tools, Archaeological Problems, 2013.

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