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.
Our excavation team has wrapped up its fieldwork for the summer after four weeks of working hard every weekday on the site. But there was more to their time in Mississippi than just excavating. In their spare time, they were able to go on some pretty terrific little road trips to a variety of nearby museums and sites of historical (or sometimes prehistoric) significance—as a nice opportunity to expand on the cultural relevance of their fieldwork, and to explore different approaches to presenting stories and artifacts of the past in public settings.
During the team’s first weekend in Mississippi, they took a ride up to highway 61 to the beautiful city of Natchez. These were old stomping grounds for Meg, our project director, and David, one of our project supervisors, who stayed in Natchez in the past during field seasons at the Feltus site, which is located about 25 miles north of here.
Natchez is an old city with a very long history, named for the Natchez Indians who inhabited this land at the point of European contact; that tribe was massacred by colonists from France during the mid-18th century, with some of its few survivors abandoning the land and joining with other tribes like the Creek and the Chickasaw. Leading up to the Civil War (1861-1865), it was a wealthy American port city, making fortunes in the cotton trade. While many Southern cities were partially or completely destroyed during the war, Natchez was left largely unscathed. As such, it’s home to many magnificent examples of antebellum architecture. The town proper sits atop the 150-foot-tall Natchez Bluffs, overlooking the Mississippi River.
Natchez is located at the southwestern end of the Natchez Trace—once a trail used by Native people for centuries as a trade route and then by European settlers traveling back north after selling their wares down river. The Trace stretches as far as Nashville, Tennessee, and is now home to the Natchez Trace Parkway, a 444-mile drive maintained by the National Park Service. On the Trace, near the town of Stanton (still very close to Natchez), awaits the Emerald Mound Site. Emerald Mound was created and used between 1300 and 1600 CE by the Plaquemine Culture, predecessors of the Natchez Indians and the group that immediately follows the Coles Creek Culture that we’re investigating at Smith Creek.
This tremendous temple mound is the second largest in the United States, outsized only by Monk’s Mound at Cahokia in Illinois. It has been excavated numerous times, and is known to have once supported temples, ceremonial structures, and elite burials—as well as eight smaller mounds that were built on the mound’s surface. The site is a National Historic Landmark, open to the public with no fee for visitors.
The following weekend (by which time I’d arrived with the team), the group spent a Saturday piling into the van and taking a trip west to Louisiana State University’s campus, stopping first at the Rural Life Museum. This museum focuses largely on elements of everyday life in 18th- and 19th-century Louisiana, addressing issues like slavery, industrialization, medicine, transportation, and much more.
The main hall of the museum was tall and spacious, while various corners of the building were packed with thousands of items of interesting and curious origin. Hearses, spinning wheels, mounted game animals, old cameras, frightening dental tools… I felt like I was in a Southern version of the Mercer Museum.
Then I got to the back of the main building and realized I’d just gotten started. The back door opened into essentially a small ghost town—a sprawling site dotted with buildings of various uses that would have been fairly commonplace in eras past, all of which were open for exploration. We could have spent a whole day wandering this place.
As long as we were already at LSU, it made sense to pay their mounds a visit, too. LSU is home to two of the oldest known earthen mounds in the country; sitting side by side, these two mounds were built roughly 5,000 years ago—close to 4,000 years older than the Smith Creek Mounds. These mounds are testaments to the longevity of the practice of moundbuilding in the Lower Mississippi Valley.
On the way back from LSU, a stop in St. Francisville, Louisiana, was not too far out of the way. This small town in West Feliciana Parish is home to Grace Church, one of the oldest Protestant churches in the state, tracing its history back to 1827; it was the site of one unusual occurrence during the Civil War known as “The Day the War Stopped,” an event that is today reenacted on an annual basis. The church itself was closed for repairs during our visit, but we spent a good portion of time wandering its vast and beautiful cemetery.
The following week, the team cut off work early on Thursday to make a trip back up to Natchez, to the Grand Village of the Natchez Indians, where David was scheduled to give an evening lecture about his research on the Catawba Indians of North Carolina; the Catawba were one of the Native groups who took in some refugees of the massacred Natchez tribe.
The Grand Village is also a National Historic Landmark, a site occupied by the Natchez during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, maintained today by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The site is home to three mounds across a vast plaza; some early French colonists bore witness to the site’s use by the Natchez, which included the residence of a chief called “the Great Sun” atop the centrally located Mound B. This was ultimately the stage from which the French would eventually wipe out the tribe.
After dodging raindrops and exploring the plaza, we went inside and joined a packed house to listen in on David’s lecture. You can watch his full talk in the video below.
The team took the following day as a weekend day in lieu of Sunday, and we started with a trip back into Louisiana, to the Marksville Prehistoric Indian Site. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964, this site was used by the Marksville Culture of Native Americans from about 100 BCE to about 400 CE. Today it’s also home to an underutilized museum, which houses artifacts from this site and others nearby—as well as some very classic signage.
After touring the museum, we roamed through the rest of the site, home to its mound complex consisting of seven mounds of various sizes around (you guessed it) an open plaza. The site featured a convenient “Mythic Mounds Quest” walking trail that brought us around the perimeter, with signs indicating discoveries from the mounds and marking appearances of various flora.
This was another place where we could have stayed longer, but this time the rain, not the time, chased us back to the van.
From there we continued to the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Museum, owned and operated by the Tunica-Biloxi Indian Tribe. Inside we learned about the Tunica people’s long history in the region, marred by forced movement due to conflict with European settlers, and by the unsanctioned excavation of tribal relics and grave goods known as the “Tunica treasure.” A long but eventually successful lawsuit brought the “treasure” back to the tribe in 1989, less than a decade after the tribe was recognized by the federal government; today, the treasure is housed inside this museum, as is an impressive suite of conservation labs that we were lucky enough to view through the glass.
Our next stops came in fairly rapid succession along the Louisiana Mound Trail. This driving trail of Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana was organized by the state of Louisiana’s Division of Archaeology as a way to inform the public of the existence of, and history behind, some of the hundreds of mound sites throughout the state. The trail is divided into four sections; the segment we toured brought us past a half dozen mound sites scattered among plots of both public and private land. The mounds are identified by prehistoric markers, very similar to the historic markers you see all over the place in memory of this founding father or that famous musician, or what have you. Some were hardly visible, while others couldn’t be missed. Meg has spent the previous two years working on developing a similar driving trail for Mississippi, on which Smith Creek will be one stop.
These experiences during the field season came as quite a surprise to me; I was not expecting our extra-curricular activities to be so wide-reaching, educational, and very importantly, fun. But Meg did a marvelous job this season of weaving disciplined fieldwork together with thought-provoking cultural excursions, in a way that brought the team’s fieldwork and its true meaning into much better focus.
All photos by Tom Stanley, except where otherwise attributed.