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‘There’s an Archeological Site Here’

by | Sep 18, 2019 | Fall 2019, Features

Lockesburg, Ark. By way of the backhoe scar, Elizabeth Horton climbs to the top of Mound A to straighten her spine and drink a Red Bull. The woods here are fairly dense – hawthorn and pawpaw growing under towering hickory and pin oaks, ferns dotting the forest floor – but sunlight spills in from the east and creates a pretty room.

After crouching to identify a few plants, Horton, station archeologist at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park in Scott and research assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, steps over to the edge of a man-made crater and looks out through the woods onto an open field. The sun is shining bright out there, and you can see at least one other, smaller mound. She places one hand on her flank, moves the other to her mouth. Horton stops herself from speaking too soon. She wants to choose the right words so you can see what she sees.

Elizabeth Horton works in a unit on the north side of Mound A.
“This whole area looked nothing like it does today,” she says. “The Caddo had very sophisticated agricultural systems. In addition to the adaptation of neo-tropical crops like corn, beans and tobacco, they grew local plants that had been domesticated by their ancestors thousands of years earlier.” Horton pauses here to further consider a place that existed 700 years ago. “They had berries …” she says. “There were orchards.”

Horton is a paleo-ethnobotanist, one who studies native people’s use of plants, not only for food, but, as with the Caddo and other tribes, textiles for clothing and baskets. She has come here this summer, to the Lockesburg Mounds, a significant but poorly understood Caddo site in Sevier County, to help her friends and colleagues solve an enigma and rectify the past.

Learning and Practicing Archeology

In early May, Conner LaRue picked up his bachelor’s degree at the University of Arkansas. He majored in anthropology, focusing on archeology. (LaRue had several teachers, but the only one he mentions is Jamie Brandon. Professor, beloved mentor to scores of students and ardent champion of Arkansas archeology, Brandon died late last year after a short illness.) Now, a month later, instead of lounging poolside, LaRue, from Lakeview, near Bull Shoals Lake, is participating in his first archeological dig.

He shares one of four units at Mound E with Ashton Raney, a sophomore at Southern Arkansas University (SAU) in Magnolia. For the past three days LaRue and Raney have been learning the fundamentals of archeological excavation, including “de-sodding” to a depth of 10 centimeters – by way of shovel and trowel – measuring and mapping, taking photographs, documenting soil differences, and, if possible, gathering artifacts. Though they haven’t found any of the latter, they’ve been told, because of highly sensitive, non-invasive imaging technology and now the soil composition and color, that they are probably standing on the remains of a 700-year-old Caddo home.

LaRue and Raney’s supervisor is Emily Beahm, station archeologist at Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain. Including Horton over at Mound A, Beahm is one of six station archeologists – “a community of professionals finding patterns in the geology and connecting them to human behavior” – working at Lockesburg this summer. Like all other professionals here, paid and volunteer, Beahm is polite and helpful, but she manages to keep a watchful eye on trainees while talking about what they expect to find.

She unrolls and flattens a map on a work table next to the four units. The map was created by Carl Drexler, research assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and station archeologist at SAU. As director of this summer’s dig, Drexler made the map after he and an assistant, Fiona Taylor, surveyed the Lockesburg site with a gradiometer weeks before the excavation began. The document looks like a basic topographical map, which it is, but in addition to contour lines, it also provides abstract information about objects beneath the ground’s surface.

Through magnetic resistance similar to the process of an MRI on human tissue, gradiometers construct subterranean “signatures.” Though relatively flat on the surface, Mound E’s signature – a dark splotch with fuzzy margins – indicates some kind of structure. Beahm says it was probably a house with a center hearth. So far, the discovery of layers of reddish soil within the units seem to substantiate this. The soil color indicates the presence of fire. (In addition to using fire for heat during the winter, the Caddo were known to burn structures and build new ones on top of the old.)

Summer Dig

Nearly every summer, the Arkansas Archeological Survey – a unit of the University of Arkansas System – and the Arkansas Archeological Society co-sponsor a training program where students and volunteers can learn professional skills while participating in a real archeological excavation. For the past two years, Survey archeologists and Society volunteers focused on Leetown, the former community within what is now Pea Ridge National Military Park, and this year they have schlepped their tools down south, to De Queen and rural Sevier County, to learn more about two important, yet unexamined Caddo Indian sites – Lockesburg Mounds and Holman Springs.

Led by Carl Drexler, research assistant professor at the University of Arkansas and station archeologist at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia (the Arkansas Archeological Survey has 10 research stations throughout Arkansas), this year’s program serves two purposes: 1) to excavate and learn as much as possible about Lockesburg, a large Caddo site that has received scant legitimate attention (The site has received much illegitimate attention.) and 2) to finish analyzing and organizing artifacts gleaned from Holman Springs during Society training programs there in 1985 and 1986.

Work on the latter occurs on the campus of the University of Arkansas Cossatot in De Queen, where SAU station assistant Fiona Taylor and volunteers are going through 368 boxes containing perhaps as many as 100,000 artifacts, mostly pottery sherds. (Holman Springs was a Caddo saltworks operation where workers broke dishes each time they harvested a block of dried salt.) Four days into this year’s operation, Taylor estimates she and volunteers have made it through roughly 20 percent of the boxes.

Carl Drexler at Mound A.

Mound A Redux

A quarter mile west of Mound E, Horton and Jodi Barnes, station archeologist at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, are finding the same thing. While students and volunteers schlep buckets of loose soil to be sifted for artifacts, Horton and Barnes carve and chisel the floors and walls of adjacent units on the north side of Mound A.

Many people are doing important work at Mound E, but Mound A is the unequivocal focal point this summer. Nestled in the woods – some of the mounds here are in the middle of open pastures for grazing livestock – Mound A is a large platform, about 12-feet tall and roughly one-quarter the size of a football field. Drexler and the other researchers think a large community building or religious structure – or perhaps series of such structures – once stood at the top of Mound A, not far from where they are digging.

When Drexler describes Lockesburg as an “enigma,” it is this area he’s talking about, not because he doesn’t know what happened here, but rather because of the consequences of what happened. For five consecutive years in the mid 1980s, artifact hunters – some would call them “looters,” although, as Drexler points out, they did not act illegally – visited the Lockesburg site and mined it. They used heavy machinery to dredge up pottery, stone blades and other flinthead tools that Drexler describes as demonstrating “amazing craftsmanship.” Though they appeared to have hit all mounds, the hunters concentrated their efforts on Mound A, which, by virtue of its size, was probably identified as the richest cache.

This history is no secret. Drexler and others knew about the looting. He did his homework, including talking to several people who were at the site more than 30 years ago. Their information was helpful, but, as one might imagine, they weren’t terribly forthcoming about the work or the artifacts that were found.

“A lot of cultural information is totally gone,” says Drexler.

Some of it can be found online and some probably resides within the University of Arkansas Museum at the Agricultural Experiment Station in Fayetteville. But the archeologists can’t be certain of this because the artifacts were never formally processed. In other words, because this year’s excavation is the first systematic archeological work at the site, there’s no record or proof about the artifacts.

“We don’t know what to believe about claims to the site,” Drexler says. “The hunters aren’t totally forthcoming. We talked to others who claim certain artifacts were taken out of Lockesburg, but you can’t trust what people say. It wouldn’t be the first time someone’s tried to punk an archeologist.”

The units on the north slope of Mound A look nothing like those at Mound E. And yet they are exactly the same, because of the systematic method archeologists use to excavate, going straight down, layer by minute layer, regardless of the grade at the surface. These units look like they’re hanging onto the side of a hill. There are six of them, spilling down off the mound in a single column next to the gouge made by the backhoe 35 years ago.

There Might be an Archeological Site Here

As Horton and Barnes kneel to analyze soil layers, their faces only centimeters from the upper wall of Barnes’s unit, Drexler sits at the top of the column and writes in a stitch-bound notebook. He looks up occasionally, staring into space for a few seconds, and then returns to the notebook and starts writing again. This goes on for a while, as the archeologists work quietly below him.

“We have pottery!” someone yells.

Everyone cheers, “Yea, pottery!”

Drexler stands up. “What do you know?” he says. “There might be an archeological site here.”

Drexler has a pure goatee (no mustache) and wears smallish, elliptical-shaped, wire-rimmed glasses. He’s young and studious-looking, despite his Carhartt t-shirt and Razorback ballcap. He doesn’t talk much. When he does, he sounds smart and articulate, but he doesn’t gesture, and his voice holds steady at a single tone. In other words, it’s difficult to read him, hard to know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling. Despite all this, however, it’s obvious that he’s happy to be in the field, instead of a classroom or his office.

He’s isn’t nerdy, but there’s a wholesomeness there, which makes it all the more powerful when he says “hacked” and “absolute mess” and “chewed-up” when describing the impact left by looters’ backhoe. It might be “salvage” work, but it’s still terribly important.

You get a sense also that Drexler is thorough and painstaking with his work. He has high standards, and he likes things done the right way.

Minutes before lunch, he is standing at the bottom of the mound, facing the slope and admiring his colleagues’ work. As he folds his arms across his chest, the subtlest smile appears on his face.

“I like this,” he says, nodding toward the excavated units. “It makes sense.”

Atoning for the Sins
of the Past

Caddoan Mississippian culture, a conglomeration of ancient prairie and woodland people, thrived from around 200 BCE to 800 CE, and their descendants persisted in what is now western Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma, northeast Texas and northwest Louisiana until roughly 1600, when European settlers pushed them farther west into Texas. They were then moved to Oklahoma Indian Territory in 1859. Today, the small Caddo Nation, a federally recognized tribe, has its capital in Binger, Oklahoma, 60 miles west of Oklahoma City.

As with other ancient, Mississippian-era people, the Caddo were known for the construction of mounds and platforms, some of which served a religious or ceremonial purpose. (The Caddo are also known for their superb craftmanship with pottery and textiles made from plants.)

Compared to the Spiro Mounds near Fort Smith, little is known about Lockesburg.

“The only archeological overview of the Little River Region does not mention it, and it rarely gets attention in wider discussion of Caddo archeology,” wrote Carl Drexler in the program summary for this year’s combined Arkansas Archeological Survey and Arkansas Archeological Society dig. He talked to Caddo officials before the excavation and said Lockesburg “wasn’t on their radar.”

Weeks before the dig, Drexler surveyed the site. He found 13 mounds. (Spiro has 12.) In the program summary, Drexler described Lockesburg as “one of the largest complex of Caddo mounds ever recorded.”

Though little is known about Lockesburg, Drexler and others do know that it shares an unfortunate history with Spiro. At the latter, in the 1930s, artifact hunters mined Craig Mound (also referred to as “the Spiro Mound”) and found an extraordinary bounty of items, including exquisitely preserved pottery, basketry and textiles, and many fragile artifacts made of wood, shell and copper. The hunters also found many human remains.

Fifty years later, Lockesburg was also mined for artifacts.

“Witnesses likened it to the destruction of the Craig Mound at Spiro in the 1930s,” Drexler wrote in the program summary. “There are no known field notes from this destruction, but it is quite clear that a large number of graves were disturbed in the process.”

Drexler established and maintains good relations with the Caddo leadership in Binger. He assured them that if the archeologists found any human remains, they would temporarily cease digging and inform the leaders. After the dig, and after Drexler finishes writing a scholarly article about it, he will go to Binger and present their findings.

scene at Mound A
Fiona Taylor
artifacts
digging
Mound A scence 2
Mound A scene 3
Mound E
Jodi Barnes working in a unit
Jodi Barnes and Elizabeth Horton
tools
Mound E

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 dmcgowa@uark.edu.

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