Posts Tagged ‘burial mounds’

More Thoughts on Mound Size Variability

June 29, 2013

This post begins to explore additional patterning in mound size, refining some of my earlier observations and offering some hypotheses for evaluation. Suppose mound-building groups occupied stable territories over the span of several generations or longer. Within the territory held by such groups, they built burial mounds. Many burial mounds within a given area may thus have been produced by the same group or lineage. Under these circumstances, burial mounds located in close proximity should be more likely to be the product of a single group or lineage. If the group traits that influenced mound volume were also relatively stable through time, burial mounds located near to each other should be similar in size. As an initial attempt to evaluate these claims, I looked at the relationship in mound size between mounds that were nearest neighbors and between randomly-paired mounds.

Recall that most mounds have been affected by modern plowing and other disturbances, but some mounds have been largely spared such damage. The museum records that I used characterized these undamaged mounds as “whole”. The museum records documented 287 whole mounds. To make sure that the comparisons were fair, I limited the sample of nearest neighbors to just those whole mounds that had another whole mound as its nearest neighbor. I eliminated duplicate pairings, so each pair of nearest neighbors was only considered once. The imposition of these constraints shrunk the nearest neighbor sample size to 49. Finally, I ran a simple linear regression to evaluate the relationship between the size of the mounds in these nearest neighbor pairings. Because the distribution of mound volume can be modeled as an exponential distribution, I used the log of mound volume in the regression analysis. Without this transformation, any relationship in
mound size between the nearest neighbors would be unlikely to be well approximated by a straight line.

I then sampled without replacement from the 287 whole mounds to obtain 49 randomly-selected pairs. As with the nearest neighbors, I performed a simple linear regression, using log volume. I repeated this procedure 500 times. The repeated sampling and analysis allowed me to develop a null hypothesis for the values of the regression coefficients.

I expected that the randomly-selected pairs would not have a meaningful relationship. The slope of the regression line should be close to zero for these samples. In contrast, the size of the nearest neighbor pairs should be positively correlated, so the slope of the regression line should be significantly larger than zero. The following two figures show the distribution of the regression coefficients, the intercept and slope, for the randomly-selected pairs.


Notice, in particular, that the distribution of the slope clusters near zero as predicted. This result indicates that the randomly-selected pairs do not have a meaningful relationship with each other, at least with respect to size.

These distributions contrast with the regression coefficients calculated for the nearest neighbors. The intercept is 0.90, and the slope is 0.75. These values are completely beyond the range of values estimated for the randomly-selected pairs. This experiment shows that the size of nearest neighbors is significantly and positively correlated. The results lend some support to the notion that stable groups produced these mounds. At the very least, the results provide encouragement to further explore the relationship between mound size and mound spatial distribution. Such work should probably make use of the spatial analysis tools available in GIS programs.

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

A Very Preliminary Interpretation of Mound Size Variability

May 11, 2013

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.