There are some days when the importance of preserving archaeological sites is painfully evident. An example of this occurred not too long ago in the Southeastern region. The story begins back on a cold December day about three years ago at a site in Mississippi called Blanchard Mounds. When I arrived with an archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and the Conservancy’s Southeast Field Representative, George Lowry, for a routine site visit we found something shocking that we were unprepared for.
A few months earlier, we had learned the site was part of a large cotton farm that for sale. The mounds happened to be located at the farm headquarters which had several old outbuildings, a house, and a family cemetery. As is often the case, this was a site we were already familiar with and had spoken to the owners about before. We approached the daughter of the owner, who had recently moved to a retirement home. She said her mother had been renting the farm to local farmers for several years and had decided it was time to part with the family land. Because it was part of a much larger tract, it was our hope that she would agree to subdivide the property and allow us to purchase just enough land to preserve the mounds and the surrounding site area. This would mean also acquiring the old family home and outbuildings. While we prefer not to purchase structures, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid. We learned that the cemetery and the mound beside it were owned by several family members and not available for purchase. The owner and her daughter agreed to sell us two of the mounds, which would include the area where the house and outbuildings were located.
Before purchasing a site, we always so background research and try to learn as much as we can about the extent of the archaeology and how much is known about it. Sometimes sites have previously been surveyed and tested and their boundaries mapped, or in other cases, very little work has been done besides just assigning it a state site number. We found a map of Blanchard done by the Lower Mississippi Survey from the Peabody Museum when the visited the site in 1940. (see map). It showed not 3 mounds but 4. While Mounds A, B and C were located on the farm headquarters and the house yard, the fourth mound, Mound D was being plowed and farmed as far back as the 1940’s and was visible as just a slight rise in the field. This isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the Lower Mississippi Valley where the mound sites are almost always located on agricultural land. However, just because a mound isn’t as tall as is once was, doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn from it. These sites are in floodplains and often the lower levels of mounds are covered by years of flood deposits and somewhat protected. After seeing the 1940’s map, we asked the owners to consider allowing us to purchase the small field next to the headquarters where Mound D was located. Unfortunately, the farmer who had been renting the farm for several years was buying the farm land and did not want to take those few acres out of what he was buying. We showed the owners the map and explained that the area contained part of the site and needed to be protected, but to no avail. The owners didn’t want to change their agreement with their buyer. Still, we were happy with the portion that we were getting and we closed on the purchase in November of 2012.
When we arrived that day in December to check on things, we were shocked to see that the field east of our property, where Mound D had been located had been completely leveled. There was no longer any rise at all. It was completely flat, and we were amazed at the archaeological features that were visible. The leveling had taken the dirt from the higher area, which was that field, and scraped it away and moved it away from the site, to lower places. We could see the outlines of trash pits, and the familiar square patterns of daub houses. Animal bone and pottery sherds were all over the place.
It was truly heartbreaking to see so much information just sitting there exposed. Since we didn’t own the property, there wasn’t much we could do other than try to get what information we could recorded before spring plowing and planting started a few months later. Mississippi is like most other states and its state archaeologists have little or no staff and few resources to conduct much salvage archaeology, so little from the field where Mound D once stood was saved. As we stood in that leveled field and looked west, toward the Conservancy’s portion of the property, we couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief that at least most of Blanchard Mounds was safe, but the fact that our purchase and the leveling were just months apart, was a little too close for comfort.