Retrospective and Looking Forward

Our summer work is about a month behind us now and I’d like to give a wrap-up and a glimpse of things to come. But, first things first, a big THANK YOU to my fantastic field crew, especially the volunteers who dedicated their entire summer vacation to the project. I’m sure they can think of many more relaxing things that they could have been doing: Moundville was hot and alternately wet and dry; the ants were out in force; and we never did find another Duck Bowl. Despite these hardships, we had a lot of fun and the project simply could not have happened without this crew.

The excavations were a complete success. We obtained the information we needed to confidently interpret different types of magnetic anomalies and a map of Moundville showing the majority of its buried structures is forthcoming. We also recovered the right kinds of information – decorated ceramics and carbon samples – to date the ancient buildings we uncovered. Stratigraphic profiles shed light on the construction and occupation of the plaza and laboratory analysis of soil samples will add additional resolution.

The word “archaeology” typically conjures up images of dusty crews meticulously picking through the dirt in search of artifacts and, indeed, that is a big part of what archaeologists do. However, it’s often estimated that fieldwork constitutes only about 10% of an archaeological project; it just happens to be the most visible part. The discoveries do not cease once archaeologists head indoors, but continue in the lab as our data are organized, refined and discussed with others, integrated into and contrasted with existing data, and presented with conclusions to the public via talks, reports, articles, and books. It’s a lengthy but rewarding process that this blog will chronicle from here on out. Join me! 

I’ll be summarizing our preliminary results in two presentations at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Baton Rouge, Louisiana six weeks from now (November 7-10). Here are the abstracts:

 Landscape Archaeogeophysics at Moundville

Jera R. Davis and John H. Blitz

The recent magnetometer survey of Moundville encompassed 43 hectares – approximately 60% of the site – including the entire plaza and most mound summits. This poster interprets these data in light of excavations designed to correlate magnetic anomaly types with different kinds of architectural features. The results highlight many previously unknown aspects of the content and spatial organization of the Moundville landscape, particularly in regards to arrangements of domestic and nondomestic space and archaeological features in the plaza area.


On Common Ground: Memory, Identity, and the Remaking of Communal Tradition at Early Moundville

Jera R. Davis

Moundville’s vast plaza redefined and ramped up public activity at a critical moment in the crystallization of a new sociopolitical order. Its construction obscured many reference points of an earlier, more spatially segmented, communal tradition, as the remains of former gathering places were either buried beneath plaza fills or obliterated as their locations were leveled. In doing so, it affected a higher order communalism grounded in a reimagined past. This paper uses new geophysical and archaeological data to identify shifts in early Moundville’s communal landscape and address the emergence of a “Moundville” identity.

Keep an eye on the blog. I’ll post the presentations here so you don’t have to actually be at the conference to see/hear them!

The Walls Themselves

The MPP has been rather ambitious since the last update in which I shared photos of some of our more interesting unit profiles. The recording of those profiles was essentially the final task that had to be completed before backfilling those units. Once accomplished, we opened five new units at locations scattered throughout the western plaza: three more to test possible structure walls and two to help tease apart the complexities of the magnetic signals revealed within the large “circular anomaly.” A fair amount has happened in the last three weeks, but I’ll bring you up to speed on some of it in this post.

Of the three units placed over possible structure walls, one exposed a straight-walled pit of unknown function and two exposed wall sections of burned wattle-and-daub buildings. These latter features appeared as dark gray (magnetic high) anomalies.

The magnetic signals of two burned buildings in Moundville’s plaza, the locations of our 1-x-2 meter units represented in orange. The image on the left shows a lone structure in the west-central plaza, while the image on the right shows a cluster of structures in the southwestern plaza.

The burning afforded a startling degree of preservation – we recovered intact pine posts and sizable sections of the split-cane mats once fastened to them. A thin but artifact-rich midden (trash heap) was found overlying the architectural remains in one of the units. It yielded several large pottery sherds, including enough pieces from one serving dish to just about fully reconstruct it. Designs on these pieces of pottery suggest that the burning of this structure dates to the latter part of Moundville’s history long after the town’s defensive palisade had fallen into ruin.

We did not expect this high degree of preservation. Most archaeological work in the southeastern United States consists of tracing the soil stains that represent where posts and other architectural features once stood. In this unit, we found the posts themselves. Notice the evenly spaced charred poles within the charcoal concentration (slightly enhanced here for easier viewing). The pile of reddish orange material in the lower left corner is what remains of an ancient hearth smashed in antiquity.

A closer view of the burned posts.

The Mississippians split cane shoots into strips that were then easily woven into mats. They lashed these to the upright posts of their homes. Here is what’s left of one such mat.

The trash heap overlying the daub and cane matting was chock-full of food remains (deer bone), pottery, and fired clay.

The project is nearing its end. Tomorrow is the last official day, but we’ll be in the field for a couple of days next week to finish up the odd jobs that remain. I’ll have a couple more updates for you all before it’s over!

Beware the bunkhouse! We store some of our gear in this old park building which doubles as a refuge for mice and, usually, nonvenomous snakes. While straightening things up last week, I disturbed a young copperhead nestled within a pile of plastic bags.

Peter Corn scooped the snake into a flat shovel and tossed it into the nearby borrow pit. He was quick, but I managed to snap a few shots!

Stylin’ and Profilin’: Vertical Views of our Excavations

Perfectly vertical unit walls are a principal goal of careful archaeological excavations for they provide a clean side-view from surface to subsoil of the layers through which the archaeologist has excavated – an opportunity to scrutinize the associations between different archaeological contexts. These “side-views” are called profiles. For the last two weeks several teams have been preparing their profiles for photography and illustration. I have the pleasure of sharing their hard work with you in this post.

The neat profile photographs of Team 1’s wall trenches are key to meeting one of the principal goals of the MPP: confirming the relationships between certain magnetic anomalies and the architectural details of prehistoric buildings. For this reason, they excavated their units well into subsoil. The profile of their 1-x-3 meter unit is especially informative, as it shows the sharp transition between the old structure’s sunken floor and the underlying subsoil. The wall trench is deep and narrow, too narrow, in fact, for substantial, rigid walls. Instead, they probably supported a “flex-pole” wall.

The oblong yellow-brown stain on the right is a wall trench in profile. This deep yet narrow trench probably supported a pre-fabricated wall of flexible saplings. The trench feature bounds a sunken floor to the right, visible as the sharp transition between a layer of yellow-brown fill and underlying red clay subsoil. [A 3-meter-long profile]

The tamped clay floor overlying red clay subsoil in the flex-pole structure.

An artist’s rendition of a Mississippian flex-pole building. The magnetometer reveals that our flex-pole structure was far larger than this one, about ten square meters.

Team 2 bisected their 2-x-2 meter unit for the sole purpose of exposing the “bell-shaped pit” in profile. This was an especially important feature, given its rarity at the Moundville site. The profile reveals the precise shape of the pit, the layers of the deposits within it, and the darker soil of the overlying basin.

One profile of the “bell-shaped pit” in a basin structure. [A 2-meter-long profile]

Another profile of the “bell-shaped pit” feature. [A 1-meter-long profile.]

Our interpretation of this feature as a bell-shaped pit is not as secure as it once was. Its shape is not quite textbook (see the pictures of West Jefferson bell-shaped pits posted under “Posts, Pits, and Ancient Buildings”): one side of the subterranean chamber is much more deeply undercut than the other and the floor slopes in that direction. This pit probably would have collapsed had it remained open for long. It must have been quickly filled after its creation. The thick yellow linings at the base and at intervals throughout are also a tad peculiar. We are considering other exciting possibilities that I may post here after further thought. Stay tuned!

Rebecca McLaurine donned a headlamp in order to excavate the cavernous “bell-shaped pit.”

Team 3 completed their excavation of the refuse-filled pit that marks the edge of a large crescent-shaped, light grey anomaly within the larger “circular anomaly cluster.” If the crescent-shape represents the extent of this pit, then it is quite large, so large, in fact, that we may be dealing with a previously unknown “borrow pit.” Several borrow pits, usually filled with water, can be seen at Moundville today. They are locations from which mound builders quarried soil.

The deposit exhibits subtleties that could not have been discerned had we not examined its profile. These include two occupation surfaces that appear as thin lenses of organic-rich soil. They tell us that the pit was, in fact, filled in over time rather than all at once.

The refuse-filled pit contains many subtle deposits that we were unable to distinguish until now. [A 4-meter-long profile]

The east profile of the refuse-filled pit reveals a sequence of activities including more than just those mentioned in last week’s post (“The Remains of a Day, ca. AD 1300”). The first and most extensive fill episode, which includes the food remains and the ash layer, extends up from the base of the unit to the bottom of the lowest occupation surface. The second fill episode was much less substantial than the first, only a few centimeters thick. A clay-packed posthole penetrates through both occupation surfaces from above. [A 1-meter-long profile]

The Remains of a Day, c. 1300 A.D.

Large archaeological sites like Moundville are end results of thousands and thousands of individual human actions: earthen mounds pile up basketload by basketload; pots shatter and are swept into trash heaps; towns sprawl wall-trench and posthole at a time. In the course of archaeological fieldwork, we are often confronted these “moments in time.” Sometimes we can reconstruct plausible short-term chains of actions by studying layered deposits. The recent findings of the MPP provide a nice example of this.

Team 3 has been excavating in a 1-x-4 meter trench for about two weeks. In the last post (“Posts, Pits, and Ancient Houses”), you can see photo of the trench as it appeared Friday before last. We’ve made a lot of progress since then and we know much more about what caused the magnetic anomaly at this location as a result. The trench now crosscuts a 2-meter section of what appears to be a large trash pit containing animal bone, stone tools and debitage, ash, and broken utilitarian pottery. These remains and the ways in which they are distributed throughout the pit suggest that at least the lower portions of the deposit are the result of a feasting event. Ceramics suggest a date for the pit of sometime during the latter half of the 13th century, or just after the construction of Moundville’s mound-and-plaza complex.

A 10 centimeter thick cut across the top of the pit exposed easily distinguishable lobes of midden (trash remains) and fill. The outer edge of the pit (a) consists of a rich layer of deer bones interspersed with stone tools. A dense ashy blanket (b) directly overlying this artifact-rich layer may represent the cleaning out of nearby cooking pits. The various zones of the pit are delineated in this photo in preparation for mapping.

The photo above shows a horizontal cross-section of the trash pit. The unit crosscuts the layers such that we can discern the order in which they were created. We know for sure that the ash layer was deposited after the layer of deer bone, for instance. If we zoom in closer and note the associations between artifacts in the “deer bone layer,” we can say a bit more.

The distal end of a deer humerus (where the upper part of the front leg connects to the elbow) and a deer mandible with molars mostly intact. The bone is quite fragile.

First, we have uncovered about 10 individual bones so far, representing the remains of at least 2 deer. All are front shoulder and jaw parts. These parts of the deer are overrepresented in Moundville trash heaps in comparison to other parts of the deer, suggesting that the ancient people considered these choice cuts of meat: shoulder and tongue, to be precise.

Small stone tools provide additional clues. We discovered two projectile points amidst the bones, perhaps the arrows that felled the deer. A razor-sharp stone flake dulled from use on one edge was found just beneath one of the shoulder blades. The people of Moundville did not use formal stone knives to process their meat, instead favoring one-time-use flakes struck from flint cobbles. This “expedient tool technology” is typical of Mississippian groups.

More deer bone: a second humerus and a scapula (shoulder blade). The shiny red object is a worn stone blade that directly underlies the shoulder blade, probably the same used to slice the meat from the bone.

The used blade, an “expedient tool,” found alongside deer remains.

A magnified section of the used edge of the blade. The nicked and jagged edge of this stone tool indicates that it was used for some purpose – butchering a deer, most likely – before being discarded.

A layer of clay and dense ash concentrations overlies the bones and artifacts. It’s not stretching the imagination too far to suggest that at least some this ash represents the cleaning out of nearby cooking pits.

All in all, these two pit layers and the objects they contain reveal a possible short-term sequence of actions/events: a hunt, processing of the game with an expedient tool, and cooking the meat. These aren’t revelations of the sort that will surprise any Southeastern archaeologist, but it’s fun to imagine the connections of these mundane objects to real human lives. They have an ageless quality, as if they were discarded only recently, rather than in the early days of Moundville over seven centuries ago.

Posts, Pits, and Ancient Buildings

Our days at Moundville have now become routine, but the same cannot be said for our discoveries. Even after a Monday cancellation due to summer storms, the MPP had a productive week full of exciting finds.

Matt Colvin shows Sophia Fazal how to fill out a photo board. With its thousands of yellow wildflowers, Moundville’s plaza is particularly picturesque at present.

Dan Salberg operates the total station, an electronic/optical instrument that we use to plot the locations of our excavation units and the prehistoric features within them.

Team 1 has just about finished excavating all of the features from their first 1-x-2 meter unit: two parallel wall-trenches and two large postholes. Team 1 is now focusing its energy on a second unit that has already exposed what we think is the edge of a rectangular building with a floor area of approximately 900 square feet (9-x-9 meters, as judged from its magnetic signal).

A large posthole intruding one of our wall trenches. Archaeologists are able to reconstruct a chain of events by examining the order in which features were made.

Team 1’s second unit uncovered the edge of what we believe is a massive square building. The yellowish brown soil in the lower part of the photo is what remains of the structure, while the red soil in the upper part of the photo is unmodified subsoil.

Team 2 has exposed the original floor of a rectangular pit house. Incised designs on the fragments of pottery that they have recovered suggest that this ancient house was built onto the freshly made plaza surface about 750 years ago. While clean-trowelling the floor of this structure, Team 2 noticed a well-defined oval stain. After four days of constant excavation, we now know that this was the top of a bell-shaped storage pit, the first of its kind ever found at the Moundville site.

This is an important and unexpected discovery. Bell-shaped pits are typical of the hunter-gatherer-horticulturalists who inhabited the Black Warrior River valley in the centuries before agriculture. These people moved from place to place on a yearly round. Along the way, they sealed acorns, hickory nuts, and other comestibles in these roomy storage pits in preparation for their eventual return. The pit we’ve found was lined in fine yellow sand and clay, a measure taken to preserve the foods once kept inside. Soil samples from this pit will be processed and analyzed by a specialist who can identify just what kinds of foods were stored here.

So what does it mean to find a hunter-gatherer style pit at one of the largest agricultural centers of the pre-Columbian Southeast? Here is one possibility. Moundville was a cosmopolitan center, a Native American “cathedral” of sorts that would have attracted many kinds of people. When it was first occupied, the agricultural and sociopolitical revolution of the early Mississippian Southeast was in full swing, yet in that otherwise transformative cultural context some things were slow to change: how to build a house, make pottery, and dig a storage pit, for example. Of the various traditions brought to early Moundville, it was those removed from the public eye – and, thus, from the broader conversation of how things “should” be done – that would have been most resistant to change. This bell-shaped storage pit in the corner of a private home may have been made and used by a family of farmers who, despite the newer fashions of their neighbors, continued some of traditions of their hunter-gatherer ancestors.

We’ve excavated only about a quarter of the bell-shaped pit (enough to tell what it is) and yet crew members can nestle inside with ease. In the lower left corner of the picture, Elizabeth Davis is peeking out. We’ll be donning headlamps this week as we continue to excavate this surprising feature. There is talk of caged canaries, as well.

Two bell-shaped storage pits from Ned Jenkins’ West Jefferson excavations. Ours is more similar to the lower example, in that it exhibits a pronounced lip below which the pit sharply expands.

We broke new ground this week with a fourth team: Clay Nelson, Emmalea Gomberg, Elizabeth Davis, and Traci Roller. They opened a 1-x-4 meter trench that crosscuts the edge of an enormous circular cluster of magnetic anomalies. I’ve been itching to find out what caused this eye-catching feature of the magnetometer map ever since Chet completed his survey. The wait is over at last and I can at least say that the cause of the anomalies is not recent, but prehistoric. We’ve already recovered numerous ceramic and stone artifacts from this area. If we aren’t completely rained out, we should know a bit more by the end of the coming week!

High-resolution magnetometer data from the “circular anomaly.” The imagery shows a 60-x-60 meter area of the southern plaza. We are specifically interested in the circular pattern in the northwest corner of the larger circular cluster. The yellow rectangle shows the approximate location of our 1-x-4 meter unit.

Team 4’s trench over the west edge of what may be a large circular arrangement. Note the wide, curving, dark swath of soil in the lower part of the photo.

When we aren’t present, our excavation units are covered with plastic tarps to keep them dry. Rains transform the covered units into temporary havens for water-loving critters, especially frogs. Traci Roller happily fetches these before returning them to nearby borrow pits.

It’s Learnin’ Time: The Field School Begins!

Our crew almost doubled in size this week! Does this mean that our chances of finding a second “Duck Bowl” have also doubled? I think it’s safe to say, “Yes, that’s exactly what it means.”

Matthew (Matty) Colvin flatters the MPP by making the 14 hour drive from San Marcos, Texas just to be with us (on his 28th birthday, no less), and Emmalea Gomberg arrived ready for work on Monday after a long Sunday flight from California. Matty will be with us for all of June and Emmalea is in for the rest of the summer.

The University of Alabama archaeology summer field school began on Tuesday with the arrival of Rebecca McLaurine, Sophia Fazal, and Peter Corn, all excellent additions to the project. It’s a small field school, but it packs quite a punch. All three students have already gotten their trowels dirty. Peter is stationed with Team 1, with whom he helped expose the third and largest wall trench discovered by the MPP to date. Rebecca is with Team 2 and showing early promise in her trowel-and-spoon excavation of a surprisingly deep prehistoric pit. Finally, Sophia joined Team 3 to continue in their search of large posts at the center of the plaza. By the end of the summer, Peter, Rebecca, and Sophia will know all the basics of real archaeological excavation and then some. Hey, they might even be able to teach Lara Croft and Indiana Jones a thing or two! One can only hope…

Sophia Fazal on her first day excavating the the southern half of a large post in the plaza.

Rebecca McLaurine washing artifacts in the lab on Friday.

Peter Corn getting prune hands in the lab.

Team 1 completed their excavation of a few posts and a second wall trench this week. They recovered several interesting artifacts in the process including fragments of decorated pottery and a beautiful arrowhead made of local stone. 

A sampling of the artifacts found so far: a & g) rim sherd from a noded jar (a) and a triangular projectile point (g) from one of the wall trenches; b-e) decorated and undecorated pottery (b, c, e) and a lump of fired clay (d) perhaps from a clay-covered wall or hearth, all recovered from the pit house feature; f) a beaded pottery rim from the base of the plowzone covering our wall trenches.

This calls for a brief digression about the bow and arrow. Despite its pop cultural connection with Native Americans, the bow and arrow is not a weapon of great antiquity in the United States. It dates to the few centuries that immediately precede the Mississippian period, so to about AD 800-900. It is a weapon that revolutionized warfare and probably is partly to blame for the social, cultural, and political revolutions that characterized the emergence of chiefdoms in the Southeastern United States. Most things that people call “arrowheads” are, in fact, spearheads or atlatl dart points. Those things were too large to have ever tipped the end of an arrow. By mapping the spatial and chronological distribution of projectile points across the Southeast, archaeologists have documented the rapid spread of bow and arrow technology.

Another early historic etching (recently colorized), depicting Southeastern Indians firing flaming arrows at an enemy settlement. The bow and arrow revolutionized prehistoric warfare when it was introduced into the Southeast around the 9th and 10th centuries.

We can now confirm that Team 2 has exposed the corner of an ancient semi-subterranean house. By semi-subterranean, I mean that the house had a sunken floor around which the walls and roof were erected. It is possible that this style of architecture kept things a bit cooler for the original inhabitants. Once Team 2 removed the dirt filling this sunken floor, they noticed a large oval-shaped stain that turned out to be a deep pit that may formerly have been use for storage. Artifacts recovered from this pit and from the dirt covering the house floor suggest that the structure was occupied sometime during the 12th and 13th centuries, when Moundville was first getting started.

The dark yellowish brown stain in the lower left portion of the unit is the top of a rectangular pit house feature. If you look closely, you will see pieces of pottery and other artifacts sticking out of the soil.

Team 3 has confirmed at least one large post in the middle of the plaza. The post feature was truncated, meaning that we only caught the bottom part of it. Presumably, historic plows or ancient plaza-builders destroyed the top part of the post stain. We are seeking more post stains. We’ll have exciting news if we succeed in our quest.

The lower part of a post stain found near the center of the plaza. The post is about 40 centimeters in diameter. Team 3 bisected this feature so we could see it in profile.

This week was cut short by Southern summer thunderstorms. We were prepared to work as usual on Thursday morning – our canopies up, our shovels and trowels sharpened, our pens and pencils ready to record what surely would have been yet another day of discoveries. But before we could get started, storm clouds began rolling in from the west and we retreated to the museum with the threat of thunder and lightning close at hand. Just before the bottom dropped out around 11:00, we quickly packed up and called it a day with an early lunch at Big John’s Barbecue. I suppose I can write this off as an educational experience, since “barbecue” is derived from word that the Spanish used (barbacoa) to describe early Native American cooking practices.

An etching of early historic period Southeastern Indian barbacoa.

Friday was spent washing artifacts in the archaeology lab, a task accompanied by Erik Porth’s party mix and plenty of stories from me that I’m sure most of our students have heard before. It was a great opportunity to review all the things that have been found so far, though three hours with his hands in a wash basin prompted poor Peter to exclaim, “You didn’t tell me I’d get prune hands!” Archaeology isn’t all sunshine and lollypops, Peter!

We took a “rain day” on Friday, even though the sun was shining. This gave us a chance to clean up the artifacts we’ve been finding.

Dr. Ashley Dumas’s University of West Alabama field school visited our excavations this afternoon (Saturday). Betsy Irwin and I met them at the site for a three-hour tour of the museum and park grounds. I don’t know about them, but I had a wonderful time. Please visit their student-run blog for a recap of the visit!

The Magnetometer Does Not Lie

In my conversations with Dr. Chet Walker over the last couple of years, he’s said this on several occasions: “The magnetometer does not lie.” The magnetometer accurately reflects what is buried in the ground. However, this does not mean that every magnetic anomaly viewable in the Moundville survey map represents a prehistoric feature. To the contrary, many represent modern metal trash: nails, tent pegs, rusty pin flags, old bullets, bits of wire. We certainly have hit a bit of that during past seasons of the MPP. But after the first full week of this summer field season, we’ve yet to hit anything of the sort. All but one of our excavation units have already uncovered ancient architectural remains.

The indigenous peoples of the eastern United States rarely built in stone. Their construction materials came from the hard- and softwood forests, cane-choked riverbanks, and red and yellow clay seams that could have been found within an arrow shot of most settlements. Nowadays, little more than stains in the soil are all that can be found of most prehistoric houses, temples, and civic buildings, but stains in the soil are enough for the purposes of Southeastern archaeologists. And we get excited about such things!

Artist’s rendition of a Mississippian house. The remains of several types of houses have been found at Moundville. This is the wattle-and-daub type that was often raised in wall trenches.

Team 1’s quick but careful excavation in the northwestern plaza has revealed a series of wall trenches which we believe are sections of the north wall of a large, square building that postdates plaza construction. Wall trenches are the hand-dug slots into which the Moundville people lowered pre-fabricated sections of wooden wall. This construction technique was once quite widespread in the southeastern United States, practiced by populations from as far north as Illinois, south as Florida, and west as Oklahoma. It was dominant at Moundville throughout the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. One of the Team 1 wall trenches has already been excavated. Judging by its depth – approximately 80 centimeters (almost 3 feet) – the associated building must have been quite substantial. The locations of old posts removals can still be seen at the base and sides of this excavated wall trench.

Team 1’s first unit. Note the two yellowish brown strips cross-cutting the unit. These are the wall trenches that the magnetometer picked up on.

An excavated wall trench. The trench probably originally began at the plaza surface, but its shallowest portions were destroyed by plows during the 19th and 20th centuries. We noticed the stain as soon as the “plowzone” had been removed.

Erik Porth and Daniel Cardwell are mapping the contours of the excavated wall trench. We have forms for just about any situation and are careful to document everything we encounter.
Erik and Daniel are already such good friends that they have decided to coordinate their clothing for the remainder of the summer. They bring an unprecedented level of panache to the MPP.

On Thursday, we doubled the size of Team 2’s 1-x-2 meter unit in order to get a better idea of what exactly they’d encountered. Before expanding, we noticed a yellowish sandy area taking up the southwest quadrant of their unit. It stood out because the rest of the unit consisted of the reddish-brown clay-rich soil that is typical of plaza area. We now know that this sandy zone extends straight to the south, still with the reddish-brown clay surrounding it. We are beginning to think that Team 2 has uncovered the top of a square-sided pit, probably the semi-subterranean floor of a square pit house. The magnetometer map shows what appear to be clusters of small houses in this area (see Team 2 mag image in “The First Two Days” post, below). I’ll post photos of Team 2’s excavation unit after we get a good shot on Monday.

Aaron Posey is measuring the depth of the unit to make sure we keep things uniform and accurate.

Team 3 has already completed its first unit. That’s because we hit sterile subsoil right under the plowzone! Most people probably think that you can put a shovel in anywhere at Moundville and turn up interesting things, but that’s simply not the case. Team 3’s first unit was a bust – no artifacts, no archaeological features. We had expected to find a large post (see Team 3 mag image in “The First Two Days”), so this left me a bit baffled as to what could have caused the magnetic anomaly. But don’t lose heart! Soon thereafter, we began our second unit less than 6 meters from the first and, lo and behold, revealed what looks like a good-sized post stain right where one should be. Team 3’s top priority on Monday is to figure out if this stain is, in fact, what we think it is. I’ll keep you “posted,” as usual!

Traci Roller and Kimberly Peace had a good time mapping profiles on Friday.

See the dark circular post stain in the lower right quadrant? This post was probably erected after the plaza was constructed.

A dragonfly dropped by to impress us with his size, but we didn’t think he measured up.

The First Two Days

The summer work has officially begun, and I’m happy to say that it’s off a smooth start. The range of first day activities included such time consuming tasks as moving all our gear from UA campus to Moundville, locating and stringing our units, and erecting canopies, but we had all of this done by 2:00 in the afternoon.

Crew members at present include myself, Erik Porth, Daniel Salberg, Clay Nelson, Daniel Cardwell, Kimberly Peace, Aaron Posey, and Traci Roller. Several others will join us in the coming weeks. The crew is divided into three teams and we are quite spread out. Artifacts and features have been very few so far, but that is to be expected since we have are not yet digging in undisturbed prehistoric deposits.

The view of Team 1 (at left) from Team 3 (bottom right/center).

Team 1 (Erik and Daniel C.) is located just off the back patio of the museum at a spot in the plaza where the magnetometer shows multiple large structures arranged in a courtyard group. Erik and Daniel C. have the pleasure of working under our largest canopy, graciously loaned to us by Moundville’s Office of Archaeological Research. Team 1 is closer to the road than the other two teams, and so has already entertained several visitors. Could you be next? We hope so!

The magnetometer anomalies being investigated by Team 1. The anomalies appear to represent several rectangular structures arranged around a courtyard. The courtyard is open to the east and the structures are oriented to the cardinal directions. The largest structure may be over 72 square meters (777 square feet) size. These are likely to have been public buildings.

Team 1 has already punched through the plowzone and have recovered a few lovely sherds (pieces of pottery) from the 14th and 15th century. The plowzone layer is nearly ubiquitous at Moundville, since the site was divided among different farmers before the 1930s. Artifacts recovered from the plowzone have been displaced from their original locations by historic period plowing, whereas those recovered from lower layers are relatively undisturbed since Pre-Columbian times.

Erik Porth mapping the soils that can be seen at the base of the plowzone.

Team 2 (Dan S., Aaron, and Traci) is excavating in the south-central plaza at the location of an apparent domestic house group composed of multiple structures also arranged around courtyards. Dan S., Aaron, and Traci are through the plowzone and going strong.

The magnetic anomalies being investigated by Team 2. These are similar to those being excavated by Team 1, except smaller and more numerous. There may be two “courtyard groups” here, with individual structures oriented to the cardinal directions and courtyards open to the north. These were probably typical houses of extended families.

Team 3 (Jeremy, Kimberly, and Clay) is excavating about 150 feet south of Mound A, which lies at the direct center of the plaza. Jeremy, Kimberly, and Clay have been investigating a broad arc of what appear to be large posts.

An arc of anomalies near the center of the southern half of the plaza appears to represent several large posts.

Finally, we’ve made some new friends that live in a tree behind the shed at the Office of Archaeological Research. Traci named them Skippy, Dippy, and Zippy and I believe they’ve agreed to be project mascots – one for each team! For the record, Team 3 claims Zippy for its own.

Skippy, Dippy, and Zippy, the baby raccoons claimed as project mascots.

Our raccoon mascots as the Mississippians would have seen them. An engraving from a conch shell cup (Phillips and Brown 1978, Plate 237).

The Summer and Fall Field Seasons, 2011

In the spring and fall of 2010, Dr. Chester Walker of Archaeo-Geophysical Associates, LLC, accomplished the largest-scale magnetometer of a Mississippian site to date. He covered almost 60% of the Moundville site, including the entire plaza and almost all of the mound summits, in only ten days by towing the magnetometer array by ATV. Hundreds of magnetic anomalies representing ancient hearths, house walls, and other archaeological features manifested in shades of gray throughout the survey area, including the under-investigated and poorly understood plaza. Some anomalies appear to represent circular and rectangular buildings far larger than anything previously known at Moundville.

Excerpt from the Dr. Walker and Dr. Blitz’s poster presented at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Jacksonville, Florida.

Examples of ancient house anomalies – rectangular outlines (walls) often with dark dots (hearths) near their centers. Hundreds of house anomalies are visible in the magnetometer map of the plaza area.

We cannot know for sure what the magnetometer detected until a sample of the anomalies has been excavated. This is called “ground-truthing.” For example, if we suspect that fuzzy, dark gray dots in the magnetometer survey map represent the locations ancient hearths, we must excavate at the locations of several “dots” to confirm. Since May 2011, I have been supervising University of Alabama field school students and volunteers in the ground-truthing of suspected hearth and building wall anomalies. I am pleased to report that with the help of the magnetometer map, we have been able to pinpoint specific kinds of ancient remains with an accuracy that is unprecedented in the history of archaeological investigations at Moundville.

A fired-clay hearth located with a 1-x-1 meter excavation unit.

In the process, we have learned a bit about the pre-plaza surface. The evidence suggests that it was a ridge-and-swale landscape that was frequently if not always flooded in places. We can tell this by comparing the soils layers encountered in each of the excavation units. Some of our units struck culturally sterile subsoil, a reddish clay, immediately under the 10-20 centimeter thick plowzone layer. This soil is typically encountered at deeper depths and below other natural soil horizons. Subsoil at such a shallow depth and without any overlying natural soil layers is evidence that the Early Moundville people stripped off the high points of the natural landscape in their construction of the plaza. Excavation units elsewhere in the plaza encountered up to a meter of redeposited soil overlying natural strata. At one location, we found this fill layer overlying clays that only form in anaerobic, swampy conditions.

A unit profile showing subsoil beneath the plowzone, evidence that the ancient Moundville plaza-builders scoured the upper layers of soil from the natural high spots of the pre-plaza landscape.

A unit profile showing plaza fill overlying natural stratigraphy and swampy clays (the lighter soil at the base of the profile).

Building remains, sherds (pieces of pottery), and other ceramic objects hint at local cultural continuity in addition to connections with populations to the north and east. We documented three different architectural forms on the pre-plaza surface: single-set post wall, wall-trench, and pit house. Single-set post construction was practiced in the Black Warrior Valley for centuries before the founding of Moundville. Wall-trench and pit house styles are introductions from elsewhere in the Southeast. The contemporaneity of these forms during the Early Moundville period suggests a culturally diverse community practicing local and nonlocal traditions.

A portion of a single-set post wall buried by a meter of plaza fill.

The corner of a pit house. Most of the thick charcoal layer has been excavated. The locations of postholes intruding the charcoal layer can be easily seen.

Most of the sherds appear to come from locally made pots in recognizable Moundville shapes and styles. As with the architectural forms, some ceramics evidence interaction with more distant populations.

Some ceramic artifacts recovered so far. In the upper left, a painted owl effigy (just the head). In the upper left, an incised jar fragment. Bottom center, sherds from an elaborate, terraced vessel engraved with swirl crosses. Red paint was rubbed into the swirl cross engravings.

Not all of the preplaza contexts we encountered can be considered strictly domestic. For instance, some evidence for ritual activity and perhaps ritual crafting comes from a complex midden (trash heap) filling an earlier pit-house. The upper portion of this midden yielded an interesting array of apparent special purpose objects including a fragment of a hooded bottle, fragments of a burnished bowl that clearly contained red pigment and sheet mica, and multiple effigy pieces including two ceramic owl effigies. One of the owl effigies came from a small pocket in the soil that included several bird bones and a knapped quartz pebble. Aside from the artifacts, the midden included multiple fist-sized lumps of white, red, and purple clays. Painted pottery and some fine pottery coils suggest that at least some of the residues in this unit evidence pottery production nearby, and the thick charcoal layer may have resulted from firing pots. Beneath this layer, artifacts declined sharply in abundance, except for a scatter of large sherds lying flat against the house floor, some of which were stacked like decks of cards.

Sherds stacked on the pit house floor.

In sum, the magnetometer survey offers an unprecedented opportunity in Moundville archaeology to understand the plaza in both broad and fine strokes. The first phase of ground-truthing is not yet complete, and yet has already provided a stronger basis for classifying many untested anomalies. The great majority of artifacts and features derive from pre-plaza contexts. They evidence early and intensive use of the plaza area as both a ritual and domestic space in which old and new traditions were enacted, negotiated, and redefined. The plaza buried this fractional and contested landscape.

The magnetometer map offers many more opportunities and we will soon take advantage of some of them. Fieldwork begins again next Monday, May 21st.

The Construction of Moundville’s Plaza in Cultural and Historical Context

By A.D. 1120, approximately eighty years prior to the first traces of a recognizable Moundville chiefdom, the culturally diverse community settled on the high terrace at Hemphill Bend on the Black Warrior River was in the early stages of a sociopolitical transition. Little of what would later typify Moundville material culture had been decided upon at this early date. Households expanded and fissioned in nonpatterned ways, with families seemingly striking out at random rather than maintaining claims to specific spots on the landscape as they would in the centuries to come. Some built houses that combined traditional single-set post styles with the newly introduced wall-trench forms while others kept them distinct. Likewise, they adhered to local potting techniques, wholly subscribed to foreign ones, or blended these in novel ways. These people built the first two mounds in the valley: Mound X at the Moundville site and Asphalt Plant mound on the same terrace about 800 meters to the northeast. The mounds were pivot points in the reconciliation of a traditional egalitarianism with an emerging institutionalized hierarchy.

The massive building project that accompanied Moundville’s formal political consolidation around A.D. 1250 occurred against this backdrop of sociocultural differentiation and political tension. It was a deliberate attempt to spatialize and, therefore, fix key social and political distinctions in a massive monumental layout that privileged some groups at the expense of others. But even as they conclude that it was implemented in less than only five decades and with the coordinated labor of at least one thousand people, archaeologists place little emphasis on the role of outright coercion, recognizing that the remaking of traditional landscapes in a formative context comes about through the permission of communities-at-large. The Moundville people had decided upon an inclusive tradition – a collective identity – for which a new social memory was required; the mound-and-plaza arrangement was its negotiated materialization, the cornerstone not just of what was to come, but of what had come before. The purposeful destruction of Mound X, for example, reveals that even former monuments were subject to reevaluation. John Blitz interprets the act as an example of “repressive erasure,” a form of selective forgetting instigated by political agents to ensure discontinuity and obliteration.

It is likely that Mound X was not the only symbol deemed contrary to the new social order. The plaza, in particular, probably played a crucial role in erasing and replacing what had come before. Once regarded as so much empty space, trenching, small-scale excavations, and auger and shovel test surveys now make it clear that Moundville’s plaza has a complex history of use. It was physically constructed at a time when the multiple-mound and palisade arrangement was first established. Measured conservatively at 23 hectares, it obscures far more of the early community plan than all 29 mounds combined. The primary goal of the Moundville Plaza Project is to determine exactly what types of constructions the plaza replaced.