University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

What are we finding?


June 11, 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.


My time onsite down in Mississippi was planned in such a way that I’d be around for the middle two weeks of the field season – the real meat of the dig. This, of course, means that I missed some of the more dramatic views of earth removal at the outset of the excavation. The top layer of soil is the newest, and as such has the highest probability of containing modern materials mixed with those left behind by the ancient Coles Creek culture that shaped and used this site, starting more than 1,000 years ago. With that in mind, it’s generally safe to dig in with a shovel; in some instances, even more powerful equipment (such as a backhoe) can be employed, though that’s not the case here at Smith Creek. Here you’ll see a shot taken by the team prior to my arrival.

Digging at Mound C.
Digging at Mound C.

After the top layer has been removed, the trowels come out, though depending on the context, we do keep using shovels. Troweling through dirt is a much more careful process than shoveling, and is used in areas where many artifacts are present so as not to damage them during their excavation. In the mounds at Smith Creek, our team uses shovels to dig through layers of fill—these are areas of the mounds that are human-made, piled on top of the previous surface of the mound by the site’s ancient inhabitants. We use trowels on surfaces and middens, areas of mounds that were directly impacted by human activity. Each layer can be distinguished from the next based on, among other things, its color and texture; our unit at Mound A shows us a textbook example of contrast between very clearly delineated layers of mound fill and mound surfaces.

Taking a close look at soil layers in the excavation unit at Mound A.
Taking a close look at soil layers in the excavation unit at Mound A.

Susannah, one of our wonderful field supervisors, explains the process of troweling through a fill layer and coming down on a mound surface in this short video.

The layers are identified sequentially as our excavators dig deeper into the ground, and the soil from each layer is run through screens of various measurements, depending on the layer. The idea is that you push the dirt through the screen, causing all the soil to loosen up and fall through; anything harder than soil and larger than the holes in the screen stays on top, leaving us with a collection of small objects like pottery sherds, animal bones, and rocks. At Smith Creek, even the rocks are significant, because the site lies on a bluff made completely of windblown silt—meaning that even small pebbles had to have been purposefully carried there at some point.

Zhenia and our intrepid volunteer, Tim, sift dirt through a 1/2-inch screen.
Zhenia and our intrepid volunteer, Tim, sift dirt through a 1/2-inch screen.

Some layers have higher concentrations of small artifacts than others. Here’s where a method known as water screening comes in. Water screening starts with the same process of dumping a bucket of excavated soil onto a screen, in our case a 1/4 inch screen; however, that screen lies atop another screen with 1/16 inch holes, which prevents even the smallest artifacts from getting through. Of course, this is too small for us to grind through by hand without harming the material, so once the soil is on the screen, it’s sprayed with water from a hose to remove the dirt. The end result is tiny objects remaining on the 1/4 inch screen, and lots of even tinier objects on the 1/16 inch screen, which are bagged and labeled separately from one another. This allows us to recover things like fish scales, rodent teeth, and micro flakes.

Ally working at the water screening station.
Ally working at the water screening station.

After the day in the field is done, the team brings all the objects they’ve discovered back to the dig house. The water screening yields objects that are relatively clean, but that’s not the case for artifacts that get caught in our 1/2 inch dry screens. These are still pretty caked in dirt and have to be washed before they can be analyzed, and it makes sense to clean them here rather than bringing a bunch of dirt back to the labs at Penn. So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after the team is back at the house and full of dinner, the students fill buckets with water and clean the larger artifacts by hand (and by toothbrush). Nothing makes you appreciate the importance of brushing your teeth quite like an artifact-cleaning session.

Scrub-a-dub-dub.
Scrub-a-dub-dub.

So what are we left with? Well, so far, plenty.

Just a few of the bags of artifacts that have been collected thus far.
Just a few of the bags of artifacts that have been collected thus far.

More specifically, for starters, we’ve found literally thousands of pottery sherds. No whole pots, sadly—Meg has found one whole pot in her entire career and we’re unlikely to find any here. The sherds vary in color and shape, as well as design; many of them show no signs of decoration, while others feature incised, stamped, or punctuated patterns on one side. Many of these patterns are not as elaborate as some that are often found on later pottery, but some are quite dramatic. These distinctions contribute to our ability to tell the difference between periods of occupation at Smith Creek and other sites.

Pottery sherds from the south plaza.
Pottery sherds from the south plaza.

We’re also finding plenty of animal bones, ranging from small fish to large fish, bear, turtle, lots of deer (young and adult), and plenty of small mammals. Some small animals like voles and mice are also being found, but these weren’t necessarily being used for food; in the case of burrowing animals, it’s quite possible that the animal burrowed its own way into the ground and then died naturally. We need to bear this in mind when trying to reimagine the eating habits of the Coles Creek inhabitants.

Animal bone, likely from a deer.
Animal bone, likely from a deer.

Finally, beyond finding plenty of rocks and pebbles that could not have appeared at the site naturally, we’ve also found a few points that were used as heads for spears or arrows as well as the debris that would have resulted from making these points. One of our field supervisors, David, was inspired toward archaeology as a five-year-old when he discovered an arrowhead with his mother in her flower garden; it’s an incredibly powerful experience at that age to hold in your hand something that was crafted by another human being thousand of years ago or more. For some, the experience does not diminish with age.

Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.
Jordi shows a stone arrowhead.

But we’ve found more than just artifacts. Stay tuned for our next post, when we look at some of the fascinating cultural features that our excavations are revealing.

Top photo by David Cranford; all other photos by Tom Stanley.


© Penn Museum 2018 Sitemap | Contact | Copyright | Disclaimer | Privacy |