Notes from Mississippi – Alexandria Mitchem

June 9, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

Location map USA Mississippi” is licensed under CC BY SA 3.0

When thinking about archaeology, the first thing that I imagine comes to your mind is the grand adventures of Indiana Jones. While I can probably recite the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark on the spot, those movies didn’t exactly prepare me for fieldwork. I haven’t been navigating caves and sprinting away from boulders, but I can say for certain that my experience so far in Wilkinson County, Mississippi, will let me do what I think is the truly important part of archaeological work – contribute to the knowledge base of a field that I’m passionate about.

For the past week I’ve been part of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project (or SCAP, as we affectionately refer to it), led by Dr. Megan Kassabaum of the Penn Museum and Penn Anthropology Department. This project seeks to excavate a Native American mound site in the lower Mississippi Valley, which during its time of occupation would have been nestled between the Mississippi River and the much smaller Smith Creek. Though the course of the Mississippi River has changed through the years due to natural causes, after scaling to the top of Emerald Mound on our first day exploring the area, it’s not difficult to look out in all directions and imagine why people would want to build sites in such a beautiful expanse of nature.

Mound sites, from what we can tell, were common ceremonial locations in the Woodland and Mississippian periods. These sites were often constructed with several dirt mounds surrounding a plaza. Our site has one large mound, a smaller burial mound that we are not excavating, and, finally, a third mound that has eroded slightly into the creek.

How do we know all this? Well, partially because Dr. Kassabaum has been working in this area of the country for almost a decade now, and also because archaeologists have spent years excavating sites similar to Smith Creek to understand what they were used for. So now I, and some of my fellow classmates, get to carry on that work. Let me tell you, it is not easy. It’s pretty much impossible to look cool while being an archaeologist. Basically the only thing Indiana Jones got right was that hat, because believe me, the only thing worse than digging in the sweltering Mississippi heat would be digging here with a sunburn. I’m currently covered in blisters, scrapes, bruises, and sunburns. Two days ago, I swallowed a gnat. It just flew down my throat. The fact that I’m not currently covered in dirt as well is an anomaly.

This is what an archaeologist looks like.

So why do it? Well, for one, the amazingly cool things we find. I first should have realized I wanted to be an archaeologist in 10th grade; my history teacher was talking about writing found somewhere on the Indian Subcontinent that had yet to be deciphered. When I stayed after class to talk to him he said something to the effect of “We may never know….” Naturally, with all the determination a 15 year old can really muster, I decided that I was not going to be kept from knowing things simply because the information hadn’t been discovered then. That pretty much left me with the option of going out and helping to make these discoveries in any way that I could.

I don’t have any illusions about the nature of my assistance. I would be of no assistance to this project if it wasn’t for the help of my professors and the grad students. Everything cool I come across would be essentially lost information if I wasn’t lucky enough to work with people who know how to interpret it. So I do my part, I dig where I’m told, and take special care to recover the information in a scientifically sound way, and I try to learn as much as possible so that one day I can hopefully do the interpretation too.

Soil interpretation
Soil interpretation

I’m so excited to see what information we uncover on this trip, and I hope you’ll stay tuned for all of the updates from those of us in the field, Tom Stanley, and the Penn Museum, and even check out SCAP’s Facebook page.