Into the Field: The Smith Creek Archaeological Project

May 13, 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.

For more than 125 years, researchers from the Penn Museum have been digging on excavations throughout the world, and this year is no different. A variety of Museum-sponsored excavations are in progress during 2015, and one project will be in its first season this year: the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, led by Dr. Megan Kassabaum.

This particular project focuses on a site known as Smith Creek, situated along the eastern banks of the Mississippi River—specifically, near a town called Woodville in southwest Mississippi. The site is significant due to the presence of three large, earthen mounds made completely of soil and created by hand more than a millennium ago.  The largest mound is a flat-topped platform about 10 meters tall.

One of three earthen mounds at Smith Creek. Photo by Megan Kassabaum.
Mound A, one of three earthen mounds at Smith Creek. Photo by Megan Kassabaum.

Smith Creek was occupied as early as about 600 CE and the mounds were created by a group known as the Coles Creek Culture. This culture flourished in the Lower Mississippi River Valley between about 700 and 1200 CE and many mound sites were constructed throughout the region during this time. Most of these sites show an architectural pattern consisting of two to four platform mounds arranged around an open plaza.

Today, our knowledge about the people who created the mounds is limited. The connection between Coles Creek people and contemporary Native tribes is complicated, and few Coles Creek sites have undergone extensive excavation.

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.
Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Photo by Penn Museum.

But the director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project, Dr. Kassabaum—who goes by Meg—is well qualified to head up this expedition. Meg has been conducting fieldwork at Coles Creek sites since 2006, the majority of which took place at a site about 45 miles north of Smith Creek, called Feltus; this site has much in common with Smith Creek, from its physical layout to the types of artifacts discovered therein. Aside from directing this new project, Meg also serves as the Weingarten Assistant Curator in the American Section here at the Penn Museum, and Assistant Professor of Anthropology for the University of Pennsylvania.

The first season of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project kicks off on Sunday, May 24. The main goals of the project will be to survey the landscape to gain a broad view of the site overall and determine just how much of the site was modified by its ancient designers; and to excavate at various points across the site with the intention of uncovering artifacts like ceramics, lithics, and plant and animal remains that may represent evidence of ancient food consumption, and unique features that can speak to a very big, underlying question: why was this mound center created in the first place?

The project will be assisted by an excavation team of a dozen undergraduate and graduate students, most of whom are enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. Also tagging along will be the Penn Museum’s Social Media Coordinator, Tom Stanley (that’s me!)—I’ll be on site for close to two weeks in the middle of the excavation season, snapping photos, taking notes, getting my hands a little dirty, and documenting the adventure right here on the Penn Museum blog.

Stay tuned for much more on this fascinating project in the weeks and months to come! For now, if you’d like to learn more about the monumental grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, I highly recommend this video of Meg’s lecture of the same name.

To learn more about the Coles Creek Culture, see this article authored by Meg and Dr. Vincas Steponaitis, Director of the Research Laboratories of Archaeology at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and John O’Hear, another Mississippi archaeologist.