University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Digging In


June 5, 2015

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project is a new Penn Museum research project, conducting its first season in the field during the late spring of 2015. The Penn Museum’s Social Media Coordinator, Tom Stanley, is blogging about the project.


By the time I arrived down here in Mississippi, the team had already been at work for just over a week. Meg came out to pick me up from the airport in Baton Rouge, and updated me on some of their progress during our hour-long drive to the site. We got there right at the end of the work day, so I got just a peek around the landscape. The next morning, Meg walked me around and gave me a good tour of the full site.

IMG_1625
A westward view of the central plaza.

At a first look, the land didn’t exactly jump out at me as a place of any archaeological significance. It’s a big, beautiful property with a sizeable field next to a home, with a driveway cutting between them, and thick woods encircling the property. Highway 24 West cuts through the property and an occasional car (typically a pickup truck) speeds down the two-lane highway every five or ten minutes at often breakneck speeds.

The largest mound on the site is called Mound A, located on the west side of the landscape, on the far side of the highway from the house. It rises gradually from the north and south sides, and dramatically from its east end next to the road (where the highway construction actually destroyed one corner of the mound).  Mound A’s summit is nearly 30 feet high, and from below bluff it looks even taller. Like the other two mounds on the site, it’s been completely swallowed up by the woods, making it quite difficult to identify as a manmade land feature unless you really know what you’re looking for.

The east side of Mound A, with Highway 24 West at the bottom.
The east side of Mound A, with Highway 24 West at the bottom.

We walked up the side of the mound to the first excavation unit, where one of our project supervisors, Kyle, was working about halfway to the summit. He was digging about five feet down in a perfectly rectangular pit, measuring two meters long and one meter wide. A ladder sat aside to help him out when the time came.

Kyle Olsen standing in the excavation unit on Mound A.
Kyle Olsen standing in the excavation unit on Mound A.

On the north end of the site is Mound B, a roughly 12.5-foot-tall mound that was excavated decades ago by J. Ashley Sibley and the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. The scar in the mound, left unfilled after their excavations, was quite visible, and the area around it had eroded significantly. As I’ve mentioned before, leaving an open excavation unit is not something our team will be doing this year; all of the holes they dig will be refilled at the conclusion of the field season. As Mound B is known to be a burial mound, our team is not digging there.

Mound B and its gaping scar.
Mound B and its gaping scar.

To the east, Mound C stands at about the same height as Mound B; its own eastern edge plummets downward into the creek which gives the site its name. A good deal of the mound has already eroded away, so it is important to excavate here in order to understand what’s left. Here at Mound C was a second excavation unit, also measuring one by two meters, but not quite as deep as the unit on Mound A.

Our excavation unit at the base of Mound C.
Our excavation unit at the base of Mound C.

There is no mound at the south end of the landscape. However, another small excavation project in that area was carried out in the 1970s by a fellow named Joe Collins, revealing significant signs of human activity including pottery sherds, animal bones, stone plummets, and the remnants of prehistoric postholes and hearths. So the team has dug another excavation unit here, this one measuring two meters by four to try to uncover more prehistoric features.

Our unit in the south plaza.
Our unit in the south plaza.

At the center of the site is the plaza. Meg’s research and work at Feltus and other similar Coles Creek sites have shown their central plazas to be generally bereft of significant amounts of artifacts. However, the plaza is very flat…almost too flat. It’s a distinct possibility that the landscape was originally much bumpier than it appears today, and that its current smoothness was also a result of prehistoric landscaping by the Native people. To that end, Meg instructed Sheridan and Zhenia on how to use an Oakfield Apparatus; this tool allows narrow tubular samples of earth to be removed and analyzed, in hopes that the samples will reveal where the fill layer ends and the original landscape beneath it begins.

Meg shows Zhenia and Sheridan how to use an Oakfield Apparatus.
Meg shows Zhenia and Sheridan how to use an Oakfield Apparatus.

I spent a large portion of my first day on site running around and snapping photos for posterity. Meg shot some photos at times as well, documenting the progress at the individual units and making note of the changes in soil color as the holes got deeper. Jordi and Kyle are shown holding a sheet to shade the unit, in order to create an accurate representation of those soil colors in the photographic record.

Jordi and Kyle working the lighting on Mound A.
Jordi and Kyle working the lighting on Mound A.

Part of that color identification process necessitates the use of something called the Munsell Color Chart, sort of a definitive book for describing the various shades of grayish, brownish, darkish layers of earth that appear as the hole gets deeper. Each color is assigned both a numeric value and a name.

Meg and the Munsell
Meg and the Munsell Color Chart.

Back at David’s unit in the south plaza, the team was also recording soil colors. Here you can see David spraying a small amount of water into the unit; he’s using a fine mist sprayer to add a small amount of moisture mainly to the walls of the unit. This is because after being open to the air for a period of time, the exposed walls begin to dry out, which causes the colors of the walls to become somewhat muted. Spraying them very gently helps to bring those colors back to their original state for the team to record. The floor gets a little spray as well, as small bits of dirt can dry and slightly obfuscate the photographic record; spraying them down helps them to disappear somewhat.

David gives the south plaza unit a little mist.
David gives the south plaza unit a little mist.

Besides taking color measurements, the team also measured the lay of the land and mapped in important cultural features using a total station – the same kind you see being used in construction projects. These highly accurate measurements indicate exactly where a point is in space (both east-west and north-south, as well as elevation above sea level) and will allow Meg to enter her data into various software programs and create detailed maps of the excavation features and site topography.

David at the total station.
David at the total station.

I know what you might be asking at this point – what is the team finding? Well, hold that thought. We’ll explore exactly that in our next post, and take a look at the methods being employed to make those discoveries.

All photos by Tom Stanley.


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