I was recently putting together a talk about The Archaeological Conservancy. I was going through photos of artifacts that had been excavated from some of our sites, and came across a photo one of my favorite artifacts. It’s most of a bowl that I helped excavate from the Carson Mound site. The Carson Site is a large mound complex in the northwest Mississippi. While there is some evidence of a Woodland occupation, the main occupation of the site and construction of the mounds indicate the main occupation and construction of the mounds took place during the Mississippian Period, between AD 1200-1600.
The site was mapped by William Henry Holmes and published in Cyrus Thomas’s 1894 Report on the Mound Explorations of the Bureau of Ethnology. It was one of the largest sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Holmes described 4 flat-topped mounds, a 3 sided embankment and ditch in the area of Mound A, two “double mounds,” one of which may actually be a “ridge top mound” and approximately 80 additional, smaller mounds. Of all the mounds Holmes mapped, only the six with letter designations, A, B, C, D, E and F remain, others, including the embankment, have fallen victim to years of cultivation and land leveling. The Conservancy purchased three tracts contains mounds B, C, D and F in 2008 and a tract containing the portion of the site where the embankment and several mounds once stood in 2014.
Research at Carson has been featured in American Archaeology a few times and because I live near the site, I’ve been able to volunteer on some of the work done there by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Visitors and Volunteers to Carson are urged to think about the people who used the artifacts that are found there. During one of those excavations, Mississippi Department of Archives and History archaeologist, John Connaway, found the portion of a bowl in the photograph I mentioned above. I helped to remove that very piece. It’s most of the base and sides, but the neck and rim are missing. They were likely literally scraped away by land leveling equipment that damaged the site prior to our purchase. Some artifacts have details that make one stop and really wonder about the people who made it and this is one of them.
The entire body of the bowl was decorated with punctations but not just any kind of punctations, these punctations were made with a fingernail. They’re not a terribly rare method of decoration, but each time I see them, especially so many, I pause and think.
I imagine about 700 years ago, a woman in the Mississippi Delta, wakes up early one morning and is sitting outside of her house, holding a medium sized clay pot in her hand, the tiny pieces of mussel shell she used for temper, catching the sunlight as the smell of morning fires fills the air. The pot is still wet and soft and she begins to pinch it with her fingers, leaving two nail impressions for each pinch. She plans to pinch the entire body of the pot and hopes to get it done before the rest of the household wakes up, or else she’ll never get it finished. Pinch, pinch, pinch, methodically and in her mind, she goes over the many other things she must get done that day. She finishes, then decorates the neck with incised lines. The pot is put on the fire with others that she left plain, except a little fancy stuff on the rims. It turns out nice, just as good the one her sister made, if not better. She likes the look of her fingernail impressions and she uses it often….too often.
A few months later, in the bustle of harvest, it is knocked over and broken. It happens. She throws the pieces into the trash and decides to make another as soon as she gets a chance. Fast forward 700 years, as machines larger and louder than she could ever have imagined move across the trash pit, her house and even her grave, continue the destruction begun by time and floods. A woman is on her knees in the dirt and has found the 700 year old trash. She too woke before her household, burned some cinnamon rolls and left to come here. She is working through this trash pit of another woman’s house, sometimes troweling and sometimes using her bare hands. She sorts gar scales, bird bone, fish bones, and tiny seeds. Then she sees pottery sherds, and they’re big….big enough to reconstruct most of the pot. She doesn’t know what the woman who made it called it, but immediately she thinks, “It’s Parkin Punctate” and, as she always does, she smiles and fits two of her finger nails in the impressions, and thinks of all the women before her, and all that has happened, good and bad, that allowed her to be where she is now.
It may sound hokey, but I think imaging the past filled with real people is an important way for us to look at the items left by earlier people. And yes, I’m just assuming a woman made that bowl. I also made the assumption the vessel is what we call Parkin Punctate. I mentioned this once on a visit to the actual Parkin Site (An Arkansas State Park for which The Conservancy helped acquire land.) across the Mississippi River in Arkansas and I was corrected by the Arkansas Archaeological Survey Station Archaeologist Dr. Jeffrey M. Mitchem who informed me that it is actually a variety of what we call Barton Incised. So much for assumptions…Yes, my mind wanders a lot, but I’ve been told by others that they too try to fit their nails into these impressions on the past, making a connection across deep time to those who have gone before .
~Jessica Crawford, Southeast Regional Director
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P.S. On a completely different note, I want to mention that our friend Dr. Jeffrey Mitchem is the newest member of The Conservancy’s Board of Directors! Welcome aboard, Jeff!