The Unusual Legacy of J. Ashley Sibley

May 28, 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.

Scattered archaeological work has been conducted on mound sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley dating back as far as the 1840s, but there’s no documentation of excavation at the Smith Creek site until the 1950s. That’s when a fellow by the name of J. Ashley Sibley visited the site, and brought with him the young members of the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. Somewhat similar to a scout troop, this group of mostly boys and a few girls came to the site for a hands-on experience with prehistory, digging at a real Native American mound.

Sibley was a teacher, an author, an avocational archaeologist, and eventual recipient of the Governor’s Award in Louisiana for “outstanding service in education and service in archaeology” for 1981. He cared about knowledge of Native Americans and he worked to instill in the Junior Archaeologists a kind of respect for Native culture. But his work at Smith Creek left something to be desired in a number of ways. For starters, Sibley and his young team chose to focus at Smith Creek on Mound B, the one mound of the three that contained human burials. Their team excavated the remains of several individuals and removed them from the site.

Our project director, Meg Kassabaum, says this is something that our team will most certainly NOT be doing. When speaking to tribes about conducting archaeological work on prehistoric Native sites, Meg says that the main concern is often over ancient burials. Tribes don’t want Native remains dug out of the ground, especially when there’s no pressing research question that will be answered by doing so. So this year’s excavations are being conducted in areas of the site where there is no evidence for the presence of human remains.

Next, it’s safe to say that Meg and her team will be doing a better job of documenting this year’s field season than Sibley’s team of Junior Archaeologists did. But that’s not to say they didn’t try. Indeed, Sibley had his young explorers draw up some pretty adorable records of some kind or another. See two examples here; one is a rudimentary map of the site, and the other is just kind of hilarious; supposedly showing the location of their excavation trench in the mound.

Excavation records, circa 1964, created by the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge
Excavation records, circa 1964, created by the Junior Archaeological Society of Baton Rouge. Image provided by Meg Kassabaum

Proper fieldwork requires good documentation—a responsibility for our own good and for the good of the people who will study this site and its underlying culture in the future. Needless to say, our team will be producing much more in the way of archaeological records and field notes than Sibley’s team did, both in number and in detail. For comparison, below, you’ll see a map of the site created in 2013; this comes from a brief investigation of the site, conducted by a team from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s Research Laboratories of Archaeology; Meg was a field supervisor for this project.

Smith Creek site map, 2013.
Smith Creek site map, 2013. Image courtesy of Meg Kassabaum and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

In fact, perhaps the most notable record of Sibley’s work at the site is a physical one—a gaping scar in Mound B, where he and the Junior Archaeologists dug and did not replace the soil afterwards. This is bad practice for a handful of reasons; beyond its obvious aesthetic damage, it greatly increases the risk of further damage to the site due to issues like erosion, or even looting. That also won’t be the case during this year’s excavations. Every hole that our team digs this year will be refilled at the conclusion of the season, despite the strong possibility that future seasons of excavation will be conducted at the site. The potential for hazards in leaving an open trench at a temporarily dormant site far outweighs any time advantage that would be gained during later excavations.

Mind you, I don’t mean to be too critical of Sibley and his young adventurers. He meant well and made what I can only imagine to be a profound impression on those Junior Archaeologists. He also tried to preserve the artifacts he dug for future generations by housing them in a small museum just north of Shreveport, Louisiana. Sadly, after Sibley passed away, that museum was abandoned and fell into obscurity and disrepair. Recently, the materials in the shuttered museum were taken by Dr. Jeffrey Girard of Northwestern State University of Louisiana in Natchitoches. While the human bone from the museum has been analyzed by specialists at the Louisiana Department of Justice, Meg has analyzed the other artifacts and the preliminary analyses show them to be quite similar to objects discovered at Smith Creek during the brief 2013 site investigation.

Sibley leaves a considerable legacy at Smith Creek. In the end, his work was done in the name of education. The kids in the Junior Archaeology Society got to experience archaeological work firsthand, which was surely an experience that stayed with them beyond their time in the field. And considering it’s not unusual to find mounds on private land, the experience may have led some of those Junior Archaeologists, in later years, to push for preservation of other sites that would have been bulldozed or otherwise destroyed if not for their feedback. In the future, Meg hopes to interview some of the people who were a part of this group and now live near the field site in Natchez, Mississippi.

Ultimately, education is the goal of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project as well—especially for the students who will be participating in the fieldwork. We’ll meet this year’s team in our next Smith Creek blog post.

P.S.—If you’d like to hear more about this project and the site on which it focuses, we’re creating a Smith Creek Archaeological Project Podcast as a companion to these blog posts. Click here to listen and download.