Blue and white canopies punctuate the horizon in the bend of a sleepy state highway that weaves across the Cross and Crittenden county lines in eastern Arkansas.
Under the canopies, archeologists with the University of Arkansas, Arkansas Archeological Survey and volunteers with the Arkansas Archeological Society hunker down in square pits carefully carved into the rich soil and gingerly move dirt into buckets layer by layer. In the Parkin Community Center several miles away, more volunteers wash dirt off clumps of debris pulled from the pits. What looked like balls of mud at the excavation site are revealed to be important clues about life in the village that occupied this field hundreds of years ago — bits of pottery, beads, animal bones and tools.
“A lot of what we’re really looking for is a snapshot in time,” said Jeff Mitchem, of the Arkansas Archeological Survey and site archeologist at Parkin State Park. “We have one chance to document this. Unfortunately, this is a destructive science. Once we dig through this, we can’t put it back together.”
This June was the first time this site has been excavated, and it wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers who come in every year to help. The Arkansas Archeological Society and the Archeological Survey host training digs every year for volunteers to learn how to excavate a site. Most volunteers come back year after year.
Standing on the edge of one of the pits, Mitchem pointed to variations in the color of the dirt to where charcoal remains indicated a fire pit near small sherds of pottery.
Here, where fields of cotton, beans and corn thrive from horizon to horizon along the Tyronza River, a thriving Native American chiefdom once stretched for miles, running trade routes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.
That was about 500 years ago.
In 1541, Hernando de Soto, the Spanish explorer, crossed the Mississippi into Arkansas and became the first European to meet the Casqui tribe near Parkin. The site being excavated near Parkin is believed to be one of many satellite villages of the larger town visited by de Soto and his men.
Like the larger settlemen of Casqui, homes of the village at the new excavation site were made of cane and stick mats held up by wooden posts and covered with thatched roofs. The villagers daubed clay around the chimney and on the walls around the fire pit as protection between the dried thatch and floating embers. Mitchem said the soil tells the story of life back then through the remains of clay, charcoal and poles that once held up houses.
Mitchem is searching for answers, validations for discoveries already made at the Parkin site about life of the Casqui people.
Volunteers scrape away layers of dirt and run it through sifters at the site. The clumps of debris are bagged and sent to the field lab at the community center. They come from Arkansas and surrounding states year after year.
Van Schmutz of Lake Charles, Louisiana worked in a shaded pit with a trowel, moving dirt to his bucket. It’s his 13th year volunteering on an Arkansas Archeological Survey site. He turns 90 in September.
“And I don’t feel it, either,” he said with a laugh. “I like the people and I like the digging.”
Dan Sharp, a middle school teacher from Dallas, likes feeling like a student. “I like not knowing what I’m going to find,” he said. “And it’s not an extreme sport.”
Hundreds of bags of debris line the walls of the small building in the heart of town as tables of volunteers work through each back hand by hand. Individually, these sherds and bits of clay don’t mean much.
“When we put them all together, they give us the big picture,” Mitchem said.
The excavation is the fastest part, said Emily Beahm, station assistant for Arkansas Archeological Survey at Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.
“For every hour out there in the field, it’s 10 hours in the lab of cleaning, sorting, follow-up carbon dating and written analysis,” she said.
The volunteers will be long gone before that is done, leaving the bulk of the work to Mitchem and the Survey.
“When you find a piece of pottery that has a fingerprint in it from the person who made it, that is something no one has seen since these people lived here. It’s a connection to the people who lived here hundreds of years ago,” Mitchem said. “That’s what hits home. In a way, we’re honoring their story, otherwise it would be lost.”