Charcoal, Isotopes, and Shell Hoes

Reconstructing a 12th Century Native American Garden

By: Gail E. Wagner

Originally Published in 1990

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Corn-based agriculture was established among the Fort Ancient Indians in the cen­tral Ohio River valley by the 11th century A.D. Beginning in 1978, the Dayton Museum of Natural History set out to reconstruct the sort of garden the Fort Ancient Indians would have grown at SunWatch Village, an A.D. 1180 stockaded settlement located in what is now Dayton, Ohio (see box on the ex­cavations). Charred plant remains, gardening and food production arti­facts and features, and the results of human bone studies from this site, combined with similar information from nearly 50 other Fort Ancient sites, have provided direct and in­direct archaeological evidence for what was grown.

The goal of our efforts is not so much to replicate Fort Ancient gar­dening practices as it is to re-create the plants themselves (Fig. 1). The gardening techniques we follow are derived from historic accounts and descriptions of fields and gardening. The types of crops we grow are based on archaeological evidence, and our program of breeding is guided by comparison between the modern varieties and the archaeo­logical evidence.

Life in the 12th Century

The Fort Ancient Indians, whose culture flourished from A.D. 950 to 1650, established permanent villages along the Ohio River drainage sys­tem in what is now central and southern Ohio, northeastern Ken­tucky, southeastern Indiana, and western West Virginia (Fig. 4). Their villages typically were arranged in an orderly fashion, with the ceme­tery, houses, and underground food storage pits laid out around a central public plaza. A stockade or fence often surrounded the village, which was home to several hundred inhabi­tants. The villages appear to have been independent and self-support­ing, unlike the settlements of con­temporary Mississippian groups to the west which were unified into regional networks under an over­arching political authority.

Even though the Fort Ancient people relied heavily upon a few food plants and meat animals, they supplemented and spiced their diet with a wide variety of less important foods (Shane 1988). White-tailed deer and elk frequently accounted for over 85 percent of the meat in their diet, with the remaining 15 percent supplied by black bear, raccoon, turkey, squirrel, turtle, fish, and other animals.

Fort Ancient farmers raised corn, beans, pepo squash, gourds, sun­flower, tobacco, and chenopod (goosefoot), but they also gathered a variety of wild nuts, fruits, greens, small-seeded annuals, and roots. Corn (Zea mays) was an important component in the Fort Ancient diet: actual corn remains are ubiquitous and often abundant at Fort Ancient villages, and associated small seed assemblages indicate the high degree of vegetational disturbance asso­ciated with agricultural fields. By way of comparison, corn is absent or infrequent at preceding early Late Woodland (A.D. 600 – 750) sites in the same area, and the associated weed assemblages are smaller and less indicative of large, open fields. The switch to dependence on corn occurred between A.D. 750 and 950, a period for which we lack ex­cavated sites in this region.

SunWatch Village

SunWatch Village occupies a low terrace in the floodplain about 200 m west of the present course of the Great Miami River, at the southern edge of the city of Dayton. The site itself is on a pocket of Wea silt loam, a highly productive, well-drained neutral soil with a deep root zone that is typical of prairies. The site is underlain by glacial sands and gravels that provided good drainage for the underground food storage pits dug by the villagers.

The stockade bounding SunWatch Village enclosed an oval area ap­proximately 128 m north-south and slightly less east-west. Inside, the village was arranged in a series of recognizable zones around a cleared public plaza (Fig. 3). The zones in­cluded an outer residential area marked by a single or sometimes double row of houses, each with a central hearth; a band of under­ground storage pits that were sec­ondarily used for trash disposal; and the village cemetery. In the center of the plaza was a large pole made of eastern red cedar and flanked by four smaller poles that had been carefully spaced to form a paral­lelogram.

Although the most obvious pattern at the village is the concentric ar­rangement of residential/work, mor­tuary, and public zones, Heilman proposes that further village divi­sions were roughly marked by astro­nomical alignments from the central pole (Heilman and Hoefer 1980). The solstice sunset lines divide the extant village into three radial sec­tors: two residential areas, one to the north and one to the south, and a public/ceremonial area to the west. A fourth sector to the east has been destroyed by road building.

The western sector is marked as the ceremonial and social center of the village by the large size and unusual content of the structures, the number and spacing of high-status burials, and by the number of exotic (non-local) and unusual goods re­covered from the western trash pits. A great deal of secondary lithic reduction (the final stages in tool or arrowhead making) took place in and around one of the west-side structures (Robertson 1984).

Other social divisions within the village are evident: household burial plots can be delineated based on the distribution of congenital skeletal anomalies and pathologies (Robbins 1976), and differences among ce­ramic vessels and their disposal point to a possible matrifocal residence pattern (Heilman 1988).

Due to its short period of use before abandonment, SunWatch vil­lage essentially constitutes an ar­chaeological snapshot in time. Even before the site was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places, James M. Heilman (Curator of Anthropology) conceived of recon­structing the village and opening it to the public (Fig. 2). My imagination was kindled with the idea of re­creating, as accurately as possible, the type of garden that would have been grown by the original inhabi­tants of the village. I wanted to breed plants that looked the same as those from 800 years ago. In 1978, a high school student named Anthony Con­ard enthusiastically agreed to plant the garden if I would obtain the seed. We are still growing and perfecting the garden.

Breeding the Plants

The breeding program has been centered around corn. In 1978, we grew commercially available vari­eties, but by 1979, I had obtained Northern Flint corn from corn breeders and Indian contacts (see box on domesticates). In the initial years of our garden, we grew out and hand pollinated a number of types of Northern Flint, along with a few other races of corn (Fig. 5). The purpose was to make metric com­parisons of cobs and kernels be­tween the modern types and the archaeological Fort Ancient corn. It also was to find which types are best suited to growing conditions in the Miami Valley. The hand pollination was necessary to keep the separate types pure, or to make deliberate crosses. In 1981, a grant from a local garden club made possible the pur­chase of a small freezer to use for a permanent seed bank. Seed from the garden is dried, sealed in glass jars, and frozen to retain optimum long­term viability.

The goal is to breed selectively for those morphological cob and kernel characteristics that most closely mimic the archaeological specimens. In actuality, most of our efforts have worked toward increasing our seed supply. Good intentions exceed avail­able time for measuring, then burn­ing and re-measuring the modern crops. Nevertheless, some compara­tive data have accumulated. Luckily, the morphologically uniform Fort Ancient corn undoubtedly became the morphologically distinct race, Northern Flint. No matter what type of Northern Flint we grow, we at least have the correct ancestral race.

The squash we grow is a thick-shelled variety developed by John White (Illinois) to replicate early Mandan-type strains. Like the early squashes found archaeologically, it can be hollowed out and used as a container. Fort Ancient may mark the period when thinner-skinned “summer” squashes first became common crops, based on the nega­tive evidence that few squash rinds are recovered from Fort Ancient sites. The drop in charred squash rinds at Fort Ancient sites may just as reasonably be related to the methods of preparation, including the use or not of fire. At Middle and Late Woodland sites, rinds often are ubiquitous and abundant. Historic accounts describe a wide variety of squash forms, and comparable vari­ety probably was present among the Fort Ancient squashes.

The beans we have grown, while replicating the length to width ratio of the Fort Ancient beans, have not been as small as the archaeological beans. Although we have not deli­berately bred our sunflowers, we have selected for multiple-headed plants with achenes (as sunflower seeds are called) of a solid purple-black color. This color first appeared as a sport in the 1979 crop; the polycephalic trait may be attributed to natural outcrossing with local wild populations.

Excavations at SunWatch Village

Sunwatch Village (originally named the Incinerator Site for a nearby landmark) was brought to the attention of James M. Heilman, Curator of Anthro­pology at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, by John C. Allman. Allman, a local amateur archae­ologist, urged that something be done about this nearly undisturbed single component Fort Ancient site. Other Fort Ancient sites had been excavated as early as the 1890s, but this was one of only a very few that did not contain a bewildering sequence of multiple occupations, nor had it yet been encom­passed and destroyed by urban sprawl. Destruction, however, was imminent due to plans to expand a nearby sewage treatment plant. Already a road ran through the east side of the site. Excavation and subsequent reconstruction of the site were carried ut by the Dayton Museum under Heilman”s direction.

The artifacts that had been brought to the surface by plowing were limited to a roughly circular area, leading Heilman to surmise they delineated a stock­aded village. Salvage excavations (1971-1975) con­firmed that this was, indeed, a stockaded village with only a single occupation period of approximately 40 years or less. Better yet, the preservation of fragile remains was phenomenal for an open site that had been exposed to 800 years of rain, freezing tempera­tures, and other natural destructive forces. The excavators were able to recover delicate artifacts such as infant bones, crawdad pincers, fish scales, turkey eggshells, and bits of uncarbonized (but collapsed) wood. The site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and with the cooperation of the City of Dayton and the sewage treatment plant, plans for destruction were discontinued.

Re-creating a Garden

No actual Fort Ancient garden plot has ever been identified or excavated, so the design or layout of the fields is unknown. The ubiquity of weed seeds such as sumac, purs­lane, and nightshade at Fort Ancient, sites leads to speculation that gar­deners selectively allowed certain weeds to grow along with the deli­berately planted domesticates. An abundance of freshwater mussels that had been hafted and used as hoes constitute indirect evidence for gardening (Fig. 10). The gardening practices we follow are taken from historic accounts and descriptions of other Native American fields and gardening. There are a number of excellent descriptions dating from as early as the 16th what similar accounts. For example, Captain John Smith described native farming practices of 1607-1609:

The greatest labour they take, is in planting their corn, for the Country naturally is overgrown with wood. To prepare the ground one they bruise the barke of the trees ho-neare the root, then doe they quois scortch the roots with fire that they grow no more. The next year with a crooked piece of wood they beat up the weeds by the roots, and in that mound they plant their Corn. Their manner is this. They make a hole in the earth with a stick, and into it they put foure graines of wheate [corn] and two of beanes. These holes they make four foot one from another; Their women and children do continually keep it with weeding, and when it is Browne middle high, they hill it about like a hop-yard. (Arber and Bradley 1910:357-358).

Two of the most detailed accounts are from the early 20th century: by Arthur Parker (1910) on the Iroquois and one recorded by Gilbert  Wilson (1917) from the Hidatsa in North Dakota.

In strict archaeological usage, these are far-fetched analogies to be making: one would prefer an historic account on the Fort Ancient Indians, but there are none. Only recently have some of the northern Kentucky Fort Ancient sites been definitely linked with the historic Shawnee, and we have no accounts of Shawnee gardening in this area. Because all of the historic accounts from eastern North America describe similar horti­cultural practices, we simply chose the most detailed (and delightful) account to use as our model for the SunWatch Village replicated garden.

We plant our garden plots in the pattern described by Buffalobird­woman for the Hidatsa Indians (Wilson 1917). All of the corn, beans, squash, gourds, and sunflowers are grown in hills in a square to rectangular plot. The sunflowers are spaced approximately six feet apart around the border of the plot. Wide corridors of squash and gourds (see Fig. 1) separate areas of corn and beans. We have spaced corn hills four feet apart, with bean hills placed between them. We have also planted beans directly in the corn hills. So far, we have simply allowed local mod­ern species of chenopod to grow as tolerated weeds, but we are starting to introduce seed of the most prob­able species, Chenopodium bushia­num (alternately called C. berlan­dieri).

The tobacco is started in a small, separate seed bed, then transplanted to a tobacco plot separate from the rest of the garden (Fig. 11). Among the Hidatsa, the women tended the corn/bean plots, and men tended the tobacco plots. We have no such detailed information for the Fort Ancient Indians.

We are learning that scheduling can be important in the success of a crop. Sunflower is planted in early May. We begin to plant corn the second week in May: some of the varieties we breed do best when planted early (the northeastern Northern Flints), whereas others need the warmer soil temperatures of the first week in June (the plains Northern Flints). Following the Hi­datsa schedule, we plant beans the second week in June (they require a warm soil for successful germina­tion). Pre-sprouted squash and gourd seeds are planted in late May to early June. The tobacco can be planted outdoors in early May. Our eheno-pod, which is wild rather than domes­ticated, germinates best if it is allowed to seed naturally in the fall.

The likelihood of corn crop success is related to the different kernel types within the Northern Flints: the flint corns will almost always produce a good crop under the present growing conditions, but the flour corn crop may be drastically reduced by smut during the growing season and mold at the time of harvest. Smut is now endemic to the Ohio Valley. Slight shifts in the timing rather than the amount of rainfall may mean the difference between a good and a bad crop. Late summer/early autumn rainfall, such as we often have now, may result in the failure of the flour corn crop. Given the historic prefer­ence for the ease of preparation and taste of flour corn, the SunWatch villagers probably grew both flour and flint corn, hoping for a crop from the flour, but depending on a crop from the flint. So far, we have not identified whether the charred ar­chaeological kernels are flour or flint, but we may be able to do so with the help of the scanning electron micro­scope.

Reaping the Harvest

One of the joys in growing an Indian garden has been experiment­ng with historic Indian recipes. 3uffalobird-woman used white flint corn in the following recipe for napi-nakapa: I put water in a pot, and in this I dropped a section of a string of dried squash, with some beans. Dried squash was always strung on long grass strings; and having, from one of these strings, cut off a piece I tied the ends together, making a wreath, or ring, four or five inches in diameter. It was this ring of dried squash slices that I dropped into the pot. When well boiled, I lifted the squash slices out by the string and dropped them into a wooden bowl, where I mashed them and chopped them fine with a horn spoon. The mashed squash I dropped back into the kettle again, with the beans; the now empty string I threw away. Meanwhile corn had been parched, and some buffalo fats had been held over the coals on a stick, to roast. The parched corn and roast fats I pounded together in the corn mortar; and the pounded mass I stirred into the kettle. The mess was now ready to be eaten. (Wilson 1917:80)

Recipes can be based on fresh foods, dried foods, or a combination of the two. For example, green corn could be boiled or roasted; it could be shelled and boiled to make mush; shelled, pounded, and baked to make bread; or half-boiled on the cob, dried, shelled, and dried for storage.

What was the mix of these plant foods in the Fort Ancient diet? The charred botanical remains do not directly reflect the diet, since not all plant parts char and preserve equally well, nor are they all discarded in the village or exposed to fire. Analysis of the trash from pits filled in the summer versus the winter months reveals no significant seasonal dif­ferences in the types of plant food remains that were discarded (Wagner 1987). Likewise, Fort Ancient skele­tal populations do not reflect epi­sodic fluctuations in health stress.

On the other hand, the skeletal remains do reflect the detrimental effects of a dietary dependence on corn. The Fort Ancient populations have high rates of dental caries, as well as other bone pathologies. Heavy carbon isotope analysis of the bone collagen can roughly indicate the amount of corn in the diet. This is because corn, like a number of other plants that originated in hot, dry areas, carries a particular isotopic signature that is passed on to the organisms that eat it. The Fort Ancient Indians were eating a lot of corn.

We have tried to replicate some of the gardening and storage techniques at SunWatch Village, including making and using shell hoes and wooden digging sticks, building and using drying racks, and digging storage pits. Some of these activities are based on archaeological evi­dence, some on historic descriptions.

How closely should one follow the gardening practices of the time when attempting to present a reconstructed garden to the public? A number of fast-growing, non-native weeds com­mon today were unknown to the Fort Ancient Indians. The burning off of a field today may trigger an explosion of the (foreign) thistle population. In the face of this, the use of digging sticks and shell hoes, while pic­turesque, is labor intensive. Like­wise, new diseases and insect pests have been introduced into the area, forcing the modern gardener to take measures that were unnecessary in the Fort Ancient fields. Today we find it difficult to collect the same species of river mussels that were favored for hoes by the Fort Ancient Indians; other, more pollution-toler­ant species now dominate the rivers. Such concerns emphasize the fact that present conditions are not the same, and thus can provide only rough analogs for interpreting past behaviors.

There is real value to both the participating archaeologist and the observing public in continuing to replicate, as faithfully as possible, past gardens such as these. The archaeologist views such experimen­tation as a laboratory for more closely examining past behaviors. The public gains an opportunity to observe and experience certain as­pects of past lifeways in a way that encourages imaginative understanding. Besides, it’s fun!



Cite This Article

Wagner, Gail E.. "Charcoal, Isotopes, and Shell Hoes." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 2 (July, 1990): -. Accessed February 25, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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