Fishing for Clues on the Smith Creek Archaeological Project

June 16, 2017

Photo og Ashley Terry
Ashley Terry at work on the Smith Creek Archaeological Project in 2015.

In addition to this Sunday, June 18 being Father’s Day, it’s also something called “Go Fishing Day”—at least, according to the Internet, it is. To me, it’s a leisure activity; to others throughout the history of the Americas, it’s been a necessity for subsistence. For those of us who don’t have time to drive out to the lake this weekend, I felt this would be a nice opportunity to talk to someone here at the Museum who can speak to the topic in a unique way.

Enter Ashley Terry, an Instructional Support Assistant in the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) at the Museum, who recently earned her Master’s degree in Anthropology here at the University of Pennsylvania. For her thesis, titled “Zooarchaeological Analysis of a Coles Creek Flank Midden at Smith Creek, Wilkinson County, Mississippi,” Ashley studied findings from the Smith Creek Archaeological Project—a Penn Museum project directed by Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Weingarten Assistant Curator in our American Section, and Curator of an upcoming special exhibition here at the Museum, titled Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America. Ashley’s research is based on fieldwork on site at Smith Creek, and in the lab at the Museum; her analysis was completed in the CAAM Zooarchaeology Laboratory under Dr. Kate Moore, the Mainwaring Teaching Specialist in CAAM. I asked Ashley a few questions about her thesis, and the process through which it came together.

Q: Can you tell me a little about your thesis?

Ashley Terry: My Master’s thesis was based upon fieldwork conducted at the Smith Creek site in Wilkinson County, Mississippi in 2015. The site is home to a mound-and-plaza complex typical of the Coles Creek time period (ca. AD 700 to AD 1200)—during the field season, we excavated parts of two of the mounds as well as a section of the plaza. My thesis focused on the animal remains recovered from our unit on Mound A, Smith Creek’s tallest mound. We believe that these remains (along with the ceramics and other materials from this unit) constitute refuse from mound-top activities.

A map showing the location of the Smith Creek Archaeological Site within the state of Mississippi. Image courtesy of Megan Kassabaum.
A map showing the location of the Smith Creek Archaeological Site within the state of Mississippi. Image courtesy of Megan Kassabaum.

Q: How did you conduct the research for your paper?

AT: Following the recovery of all of our materials from the field, we washed them and separated them into categories based on material type. Following this, I began to try to identify as many of the bones as possible based on size, shape, and particular landmarks. In order to do this, I made use of the Penn Museum’s comparative zooarchaeological collection. Though I would have liked to identify each fragment to species, it was often only possible to call them “mammal,” “fish,” “bird,” etc. (and some couldn’t be identified at all). I also measured fish vertebrae in order to get an idea of how big the fish being exploited at the site were.

I analyzed materials falling into three size categories: 1/2″, 1/4″, and 1/16″. The latter category, which had to be sorted under a microscope, was mostly too small to identify.

Q: What can you tell me about the Smith Creek site, and your experience working there?

AT: Working in Mississippi in the dead of summer is just like you might expect—hot, humid, and more than a little buggy. Aside from that, it was a great experience. We recovered a huge volume of artifacts and made some friends along the way. It was also really gratifying to be gathering information about a site that has a lot of potential to tell us more about the societal changes occurring in the Southeast ca. AD 1000.

Q: How did your work change from working in the field to working in the lab?

Ashley Terry sifts dirt through a 1/2-inch screen, during the Smith Creek Archaeological Project's 2015 season.
Ashley Terry sifts dirt through a 1/2-inch screen, during the Smith Creek Archaeological Project’s 2015 season.

AT: The lab’s significantly cleaner than the field for sure! In the field, your main priority is to move dirt, recover artifacts, and keep track of context. The latter is particularly important. We keep detailed records of the provenience (finding place) of each bag of artifacts, and we also document the stratigraphy of each unit in order to (hopefully) identify patterns of construction and object deposition. In the lab, you’re always working to keep the context of your artifacts intact. But you’re also extracting as much information as possible from each object.

Q: What did your findings tell you about the role of fish in the life of a Smith Creek resident?

AT: I found that fish remains vastly outnumbered mammal remains (the second most numerous category) in this unit.

By identifying fish bones to species (where possible), I was able to hypothesize about the kinds of bodies of water in which the inhabitants of Smith Creek were fishing. Favored species included catfish, gar, and bowfin, which all favor sluggish and slow-moving waters. Other species, like drums and suckers, were significantly less well-represented in this sample. These species live in fast-moving waters, like the channels of rivers. So it seems to be the case that Smith Creek’s residents preferentially fished in oxbow lakes/seasonal pools rather than the main channel of the Mississippi.

In sorting the smallest materials we collect (down to 1/16″), I noted that fish remains were as numerous as in the larger samples. The presence of tiny fish remains in high quantities likely indicates that their inclusion in this assemblage is not due to chance. I propose that non-selective fishing techniques (i.e. ones that capture fish of all sizes) were being used here. Some possibilities are nets and fish poison.

(Ashley also wanted to send a shout out to Stacey Espenlaub, NAGPRA Coordinator at the Penn Museum, who assisted with object sorting and initial identifications in the lab before Ashley took over the project.)

You can find out much more about the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, and the people who created and inhabited the Smith Creek site, by visiting our upcoming special exhibition, Moundbuilders: Ancient Architects of North America, which opens June 24—where you can see actual fish vertebrae from Smith Creek on display among dozens of other objects. You can also read more about the mounds of native North America in this article by Dr. Megan Kassabaum from the Museum’s Expedition magazine.

Photos by Tom Stanley.