Why Would We Dig Here?

May 20, 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.

The Smith Creek Archaeological Project focuses on a little-known site in rural Mississippi, land that was reshaped by a culture of Native people, beginning as early as 600 CE and continuing for centuries thereafter. Moreover, evidence from nearby sites indicates that people were living in the area many thousands of years before that. The site is located on private land, and has undergone very little excavation in years past. So why would the Penn Museum be sending a whole team of people to dig there?

Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project.
Dr. Megan Kassabaum, Director of the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Photo courtesy of Megan Kassabaum

The answer lies with the project’s director, Dr. Megan Kassabaum. Meg is a fairly new face at the Museum and the University, having just joined us last summer; before that, she was earning her Ph.D. at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, under her advisor, Dr. Vin Steponaitis. Meg wrote her dissertation on the site where she, Dr. Steponaitis, and John O’Hear worked together for close to a decade – a site called Feltus, located about 45 miles north of Smith Creek. Both these sites, and many more throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley, are characterized by the presence of several earthen mounds surrounding a central plaza.

Feltus has a relatively long history of excavation, dating back to a visit from a physician named Montroville W. Dickeson III, who worked at the Academy of Natural Sciences here in Philadelphia. Dickeson was an “avocational archaeologist” – one who does not necessarily have formal training in the discipline – and excavated at Feltus and other mound sites in the 1840s. Two other excavations at Feltus and a mapping of the site preceded the project that brought Meg to the site in 2006. The Feltus excavations continue to this day under Dr. Steponaitis’s direction.

Work at Feltus revealed clues about the activities that had been practiced in the areas on and around the mounds. It doesn’t appear that many people, if any, were actually living at the site; rather, it’s more likely that the area was once used as a gathering center for feasts, ceremonies, or other communal activities. Deposits of refuse at the site reveal animal bones and broken pieces of large pottery containers; these appear to be contemporaneous with a number of postholes in the ground, into which wooden posts were likely placed ceremonially before being removed shortly thereafter, and then refilled. Limited excavation at nearby Smith Creek has shown indications of a very similar suite of activities as these found at Feltus.

The mounds at Feltus were also not constructed in one fell swoop; each mound consists of layers – in one case with any many as five layers to the construction – similar to the construction of the mounds at Smith Creek. Taken together with unmistakable similarities in pottery remains found at both sites, it’s evident that there were strong temporal and cultural similarities between the people who built and used these two sites.

The pattern that these sites follow, called the Coles Creek pattern, stands in contrast to some other, later and better-known mound sites in the Americas, such as Cahokia where a chief lived on top of the biggest mound and looked down on the people over whom he held power. At Coles Creek sites, there is little evidence that any one person held political rule over any other portion of the population.

After working at Feltus since 2006 and honing her skills as an archaeologist and a researcher, Meg is now bringing her years of experience to Smith Creek in an attempt to broaden the sample for the Coles Creek pattern of site use. The project will use knowledge of similar sites like Feltus to investigate areas of special significance at Smith Creek, and will hopefully provide stronger evidence for these sites’ prehistoric designations as places of gathering, community, and ceremony.