By MAIA BRONFMAN, Democrat Natchez
FAYETTE, Miss. (AP) — The question graduate archeology students asked during their lunch break was about the cooling ability of chicken broth. Under a tent in a field off the Natchez Trace Parkway, they deliberated on relevant factors such as gelatinous texture and protein and salt content.
After lunch, the students focused on a rectangular void they had created in the ground and the dirt-filled buckets that once filled the hole.
At the same time, they focused on the Baytown/Troyville period of Native American civilization, around AD 350-700.
Led by Dr. Meg Kassabaum, professor of anthropology and associate curator of the Weingarten Museum for North America at the University of Pennsylvania, students from the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania excavate the site of Pumpkin Lake since July.
Unlike Feltus, a nearby site that Kassabaum has been studying with colleagues since 2006, the Pumpkin Lake study is at a very early stage.
“Our goal is to determine the archaeological potential,” Kassabaum said. Due to the proximity of Feltus to another mound that hides in the woods a few yards from the field they are currently excavating, the site most likely once hosted Native American activity prior to settlement.
Before choosing where to concentrate their excavations, they created a 25-meter grid which they traced and then systematically traversed, in search of possible artifacts.
They found lithic materials, or stone, which were projectile points and the debris used to make them.
Then comes the stage of geophysical prospecting.
Regina Lowe, a graduate student at UNC walked the entire expanse of land for a week with a machine that detected “ambient magnetism,” as she called it.
Everything has a magnetic gradient, she explained. It doesn’t have to be metal, things like water content and organic content versus inorganic content can cause differences in magnetism. Her machine, she says, is like a high-powered metal detector. It must be more powerful to detect more subtle magnetism.
Lowe’s machine collected data from the ground walk and generated a map that showed a unique dark halo shape, a sign of high “ambient magnetism” or magnetic differences between ground materials. This is where they chose to dig, or “ground truth”.
Between periods of shoveling, the students wrote down their discoveries. They sifted through buckets of dirt and noted the color of the soil.
UNC graduate student Devin Henson sat in the excavated rectangle with a book on Munsell’s floor. On each page were paint chips, and then an adjacent hole, so that Henson could approximate a color as precisely as possible.
He brought each sample under the page and compared it to each chip before giving the alphanumeric identifiers to Qi Liu, an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, to register.
On the inside cover of the Munsell book is a three-dimensional representation of all colors, by hue, value, and chroma. It seems like it should be infinite, but it’s just hyper-specific.
Kassabaum’s book, which she shares with her students because it costs about $250, is soil-specific. It mostly has variations of browns, reds and grays.
The darker soil could indicate more organic matter like plants or trash, Kassabaum said. Comparing Pumpkin Lake with their findings at Feltus, it is possible that the ground where they dig was once disturbed to build a mound or create a hole for storage.
“If we knew immediately, then we’ve already seen it,” Kassabaum said.
The mystery of Pumpkin Lake has her swinging between excitement and frustration.
“We have to put aside the desire to know everything right away,” she said.
The period they dig also comes before the origin of Feltus. Not only is it more enigmatic, she says, because it’s less well understood, but it creates a new question about Pumpkin Lake and Feltus’ relationship.
They are geographically close, but what is their relationship over time?
For a long time, archeology has associated flat-topped mounds with a chieftain-like societal organization. They argued that to design and build the feat which was a flat-topped mound, there must be a powerful person in charge. This was often demonstrated by houses built on top of mounds.
Kassabaum suggested the relationship might be more complicated. Emerging with studies of earlier periods, there is less evidence of mound-top houses. It’s possible, Kassabaum said, that the flat-topped mounds were feats of communal cooperation.
“It goes against the assumption that you have to be intensely hierarchical to do important and powerful things,” Kassabam said.
The mounds were highly designed. Whoever created them had to have an in-depth knowledge of the soil to tamp it down and plant it in a way that prevented erosion. They also varied the type of soil they used for different parts of the mound and used intact roots as a partial structure.
Bias in archaeology, she said, has diverted attention from these ground structures. In this neglect, especially in the United States, people often overlook the incredible engineering of Native American societies. She said this could lead to lingering prejudice, because with knowledge comes respect.
People tunnel their vision in all sorts of ways, whether it’s away from the Anno Domini years and Native American history or into stone and away from the dirt, Kassabaum said, “but the past shows us what’s possible.” .
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