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In New ‘Short Talks From the Hill,’ Archeologist Discusses Arkansas Bluff Shelters and Leetown Dig

Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast from the University of Arkansas, highlights research and scholarly work across campus. Each segment features a university researcher discussing his or her work.

Matt McGowan: Hello and welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. Today we’re talking to Jamie Brandon, research station archaeologist with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey and he is also a research associate professor in the Department of Anthropology here at the University of Arkansas. The first question I want to ask you, Dr. Brandon, is something I’ve wondered about for a long time, actually before I first wrote about the archeological survey is, what is it? Can you tell us what is the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, how is it sort of structured and what does it do?

Jamie Brandon at the Leetown site in Pea Ridge National Military Park.

Jamie Brandon: Yeah of course. That’s a question we get a lot. The Arkansas Archaeological Survey is an independent unit of the University of Arkansas system and our mission is to do archaeological research across the state and then to educate the public about what it is that we find. And so how I usually explain it to people is we’re like Ag extension agents but for archeology. And I mean that in several ways. There are 10 research stations stationed around the state of Arkansas, so no matter where you are you have an archaeologist to call and ask questions of. And those 10 research station archaeologists are paired with either a four-year university or a state park. And we have research station territories the way that AG extension agents have counties that they look after, and in those research station territories we do research and public outreach. So that’s the mission of the survey and what we do. And I happen to be the research station archaeologist for Northwest Arkansas and a big hunk of the Ozarks. I teach here at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and I do research up here in the Ozarks.

MM: Okay you are a lead research archaeologist with the UAF station of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, but as you just mentioned, you’re also a research associate professor in the Department of Anthropology. So you have sort of separate but related hats. How does that work for you, how do you manage both jobs, so to speak?

JB: We do wear a lot of hats at the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, so as a part of my relationship with my research station I teach two classes at the University of Arkansas in the anthropology department. And I work with graduate students, I serve as chairs on committees, I serve on committees for graduate students, and I you know teach a good number of upper division and graduate level courses for them. In exchange we have a space on campus and sort of access to some of the campus sort of things. I serve the campus, the campus serves us a little. But that’s only part of my job. That’s about 3/16 of my job. The rest of my job is to do, like I said, research in the territory. Now the bonus of that is because I’m here at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville I can involve students, as well as volunteers and graduate students in my projects here. So they get to learn by getting hands-on experience and I get the benefit of having more hands on the wheel as it were.

MM: The University of Arkansas Fayetteville station includes, as you mentioned 12 counties across northern and northwest Arkansas. Can you talk some about the Fayetteville station’s significant projects over the last several years?

JB: The survey itself was founded in 1967, and the UAF research station was one of the first. So we’ve been around for a long time. There’s been five different research station archaeologists. The longest serving was Dr. George Sabo, my predecessor who’s now the director of the survey, and he had a lot of great projects that he did across the Ozarks. One of the most notable was probably a three year NEH-funded rock art project, recording rock art across the Arkansas Ozarks and trying to understand where it was, how it was different in different places and what it might date to. But also he did lots of other projects. He did a series of field schools for the University of Arkansas in the 1980s at a place called Huntsville Mounds, collaborating with Dr. Marvin Kay over in the anthropology department. And so we have a long history of teaching archaeological field schools, teaching students how to do archaeology working with Fayetteville. Now myself, I’m working on Arkansas Ozark bluff shelters across the entire Ozark region. It’s a fairly under-studied class and a very important class of sites, and we’re talking about 9,000 years of Ozark history that’s waiting to be unraveled and understood and we’re quite excited about that. We’ve just created a publicly oriented website about it you can access through the survey’s web page. And so it’s really fun it’s a great project.

MM: That’s really interesting. Who were some of the people who are living in these shelters?

JB: Well, we know that the Osage and the Caddo have some historical depth in the Ozarks, but beyond that, pushing back into far prehistory, 9,000 years, it is very difficult to project any ethnic identity that far back. And so that’s one of the things archaeologists can help do is try to unravel that and figure out how are all these people related, how are people moving around how, are these people connected to contemporary Native Americans?

MM: Let’s move over to a current important project and that is Leetown. Tell us what Leetown is, and why it’s important and what the Pea Ridge National Military Park is wanting to accomplish with Leetown.

JB: Well, Leetown was a 19th-century hamlet. It was founded in the 1830s, 1840s, and it was there it was present during the Battle of Pea Ridge during the Civil War. And it was used; there was a battle, large battlefield the first day of fighting just to the north of the town, and it was largely used as a field hospital during the battle. Shortly after the battle this town sort of disappears to history, and a few buildings remain but most of them disappear. So now we’re at the point after the 1960s when the park is founded, the park is trying to interpret the landscape and bring the landscape back to where it was. And we don’t have any historical documentary agreement on how many buildings make up Leetown or where those buildings were or what those buildings functioned as. And so this is one of the ways that archaeology can easily contribute beyond the historical documentary record. We’re very good at finding lost things, and so what we are trying to do there is as find as many of those structures as we can and talk about how they were used and when they were used.

MM: That’s fantastic. You mentioned earlier how you use some of the students who are in the department, your students, and other professors’ students that are in the department of anthropology. One way that you do that specifically with Leetown is this thing called the Arkansas Archeological Field School, which Dr. Sabo, you said earlier, did a lot back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

JB: That’s right, that’s right.

MM: So you have sort of resurrected that I guess, so to speak. Although it’s been around off and on.

JB: Yes, sure.

MM: Tell us a little bit about the Arkansas Archaeological Field School.

JB: Sure. Well, most universities that have a program in anthropology, and especially have a focus in archaeology, have an archaeological field school. This is a way that you teach students hands-on how to do archaeology. You know we teach them a lot of the theories and the methods that we use in classrooms, but really for archaeology, you really have to get your hands dirty and execute some of those methods over and over again to get good at them. And so that’s what we do at a field school. So it lasts all the month of June as the first summer session, and these students go out there all day long for a month practicing archaeological methods. So they learn how to excavate properly, how to map properly, using our high-tech methods of mapping, how to identify artifacts, how to process artifacts, how to keep all of the information together with those artifacts. So this is very important for them, and for us it provides a platform for getting more hands on the wheel as I said, getting more research done, providing research questions that students can use for their theses and dissertations, and just the camaraderie also of teaching the next generation of archaeologists how to do what we do.

MM: Tell us a little bit about what you found there last summer, that would be the summer of 2017.

JB: Yeah, so we have, so far we found quite a number of structures that we believe belong to the town. I think about four structures, three of which decidedly have 19th century components. We even have artifacts directly related to the battle, such as a small cuff button of a union officer’s cape or waistcoat, but we still have a lot more to go. We suspect there’s probably at least four more structures to the south of where we’re excavating and we’re looking forward to future excavations uncovering those as well.

MM: I visited the site a few times this summer while you were working out there and one day I actually witnessed you practicing some very unconventional methods. A student handed you an artifact and you put it in your mouth. Can you tell me a little bit about some of your methods?

JB: Oh sure. You know it’s funny. It isn’t actually all that unusual. Archaeologists quite commonly stick things to their tongue. You can tell bone immediately from other artifacts, and if you’re an historical archaeologist, such as myself, then certain kinds of ceramics like coarse earthen wares will absorb water in a way that for instance stone wares or porcelains will not. So quite frequently some of my colleagues, now not all of them, will do this, but it’s not as unusual as you might think. Sticking artifacts to your tongue is not unusual.

MM: There is a similar project that will also take place out at Leetown. Tell us a little bit about the Arkansas Archaeological Society summer training program.

JB: Sure, well that’s the public outreach part of what we do and that’s been around even longer than the survey. That’s been going on since the early ‘60s. The Arkansas Archaeological Society is our volunteer organization and we couldn’t do what we do without them. If you could have you ever seen archaeologists on television, it’s never one or two people out there digging, it’s a whole bunch of people out there digging. And so the society are people from all walks of life, school teachers, folks who work, who are retired, sawmill workers, all the way to folks who work at nuclear one power plant down in Russellville. They all come down and dig with us for two weeks in June, and we have between 80 and 100 volunteers come out and work with us during that time. And that’s a lot different. The field schools that we do usually involve like 10 to 15 students, something along those lines. So to have 80 to a hundred people for two weeks out there digging is quite a undertaking, and it’s one we’ve been doing every summer since the ‘60s, and we really know how to do it and it’s really impressive and fun to watch. And this time around I think the field school will be happening at the same time, so the field school students will be involved with the broader public, digging with us too and they’ll learn a lot about public archaeology that way.

MM: Thank you. Dr. Brandon. It was very interesting talking to you and visiting the site and we look forward to hearing more about your accomplishments out at Leetown. Thanks a lot.

JB: Thanks for having me.

MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts go to or, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

About The Author

Matt McGowan writes about research in the College of Engineering, Sam M. Walton College of Business, School of Law and other areas. He is the editor of Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. Reach him at 479-575-4246 or

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