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Inside American Archaeology

Vol. 18 No. 1 Spring 2014

The Threat of Climate Change

By Mike Toner

In the far corner of northwestern Alaska, archaeological deposits containing a record of 5,000 years of human habitation—ancient campsites of the Inupiaq people that have been preserved in the undulating beach ridges of Cape Krusenstern National Monument—are being washed away by the rising waters of the Chukchi Sea.

In central Florida, episodic droughts and falling water levels in shallow interior lakes are uncovering the soggy remains of hundreds of prehistoric dugout canoes, exposing them to the sun and other elements.

In New Mexico forest fires, magnified by drought and counterproductive forest management practices, threaten cultural resources as diverse as historic gold mining cabins in the Gila National Forest and prehistoric pueblos in the Santa Fe National Forest.

In central Texas, frequent region-wide droughts have dropped water levels in man-made reservoirs along the lower Colorado River, and left hundreds of once-submerged archaeological sites high, dry, and easy prey for artifact hunters.

Climates are always changing. But as evidence mounts that the pace of change has accelerated, myriad archaeological sites are endangered. Along the Mississippi Delta south of New Orleans, prehistoric shell middens—some dating back 4,000 years—are disappearing. Due to the rising sea level and subsiding land, Louisiana has lost 200 square miles of land to the Gulf of Mexico in the last half century.

“There are 500 to 1,000 significant archaeological sites in coastal Louisiana, and I would say we have lost 20 to 30 per cent of them in the last 50 years,” says Richard Weinstein, an archaeologist with Coastal Environments Inc. in Baton Rouge. “It’s a real tragedy. These sites are chock full of ecological data that could tell us something about past climate change.”

An Examination of Historic Trade

By Julian Smith

Native North Americans had been using shell items for ornamental and ceremonial purposes for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, before European colonies sprang up along the East Coast, the metal tools received from traders in ships allowed coastal Indians to begin manufacture of large numbers of white and purple beads known as wampum from local marine shells. These wampum beads soon took on deeply symbolic meanings and came to be greatly desired by powerful tribes further inland, such as the Five Nations of the Iroquois and the Susquehannock. In return the inland tribes provided furs the coastal peoples could barter to the Europeans. When the first colonists arrived in New Netherland, the Dutch colonial province that extended from Delaware to Connecticut, they quickly found ways to insert themselves as middlemen into this trade.

A little over a decade ago, Duane Esarey of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey took note of elaborate marine shell ornaments in recurring geometric and animal shapes at numerous sites. Esarey was intrigued to learn that, despite all the research on wampum, next to nothing was known about these standardized marine shell (SMS) ornaments, as he came to call them. Even though archaeologists had been aware of them for over a century, there was virtually no mention of the ornaments in colonial documents, and no production sites had been found.

So Esarey conducted the first comprehensive survey and analysis of the SMS industry and its role in the trade between Europeans and Native Americans during the colonial settlement of the Northeast.


Ready for Research

By Paula Neely

One day in 2007, the owner of a field that covers part of the 1,000-year-old Carson Mounds group in northwest Mississippi began leveling the land to improve its drainage. As a result, as much as three feet of dirt was scraped off the tops of small mounds and a midden, and hundreds of human remains were exposed.

The next day a graduate student studying the site saw the bones, and he contacted John Connaway, an archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, who in turn contacted Jessica Crawford, the Southeast region director of The Archaeological Conservancy. “We ran out to the site and saw bones everywhere. To see all those remains destroyed as well as the information they held was heartbreaking," Crawford says.

Crawford negotiated an easement, a legal agreement that allows Connaway to excavate a three-acre portion of the field that has the highest concentration of burials and archaeological resources before plowing resumes. Without an easement the owner probably would have slowed down long enough for the bones to be recovered, she says. “All you would end up with is bags of bones and little else.” Plowing resumed on the rest of the 10-acre field.

Carson was built by the Mississippian people, and it once consisted of 89 mounds. The six largest mounds remain, and the Conservancy owns four of them. But most of the smaller mounds, including those in the field covered by the easement, have been destroyed by plowing during the past century.

Since Connaway began excavating the field six years ago, he has recorded the remains of about 250 men, women, children, and infants, who were buried in 65 pits. It’s the first excavation of the Carson site in nearly 100 years.


Continue reading these articles and more in the
Spring 2014 issue of American Archaeology

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