Sneak Peak: Covering the Mississippian Frontier at Carter Robinson

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Writer Linda Vaccariello takes notes while Assistant Professor Maureen Meyers shows U of Mississippi undergraduate Conor Foxworth and UM graduate student Emily Warner how to excavate part of the structure wall. The Mound is in the distance. Credit: Charlotte Smith
Writer Linda Vaccariello takes notes while Assistant Professor Maureen Meyers shows U of Mississippi undergraduate Conor Foxworth and UM graduate student Emily Warner how to excavate part of the structure wall. The Mound is in the distance. Credit: Charlotte Smith.

Fall 2017 Sneak Peek By Linda Vaccariello.

The cell reception is pretty bad at Carter Robinson Mound and Village in Lee’s County, Virginia. Sometimes, if she’s lucky, Maureen Meyers can stand on the top of the mound and get a signal. But cell service notwithstanding, Dr. Meyers, Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi, feels lucky to be here.

A wide view of the site with excavation on left, and the mountains on north. Credit: Charlotte Smith.
A wide view of the site with excavation on left, and the mountains on north. Credit: Charlotte Smith.

The area’s remoteness is one reason why it’s such an exciting place to work. The mound had been identified in C.G. Holland’s Archeological Survey of Southwest Virginia in 1970, but for years it got little attention. In 2006, when Meyers first approached the property owners about her interest in undertaking research in the rolling pastureland, it had experienced only minor looting.

Excavation of Block 1 in foreground and Field team taking transit readings on the mound. 2013. Credit: Carter Robinson Excavation Archives.
Excavation of Block 1 in foreground and Field team taking transit readings on the mound. 2013. Credit: Carter Robinson Excavation Archives.

In June, Meyers wrapped up her fifth field study here. She has determined that this is a Mississippian site occupied 1250 to 1400. The people who lived here were part of the Mississippian expansion during that period, living on the frontier of Mississippian settlement. Meyers’s work at Carter Robinson focuses on life at the fringes of the Mississippian world. Typical of other Mississippians, the people at Carter Robinson built a mound; this one is 10 feet high and 120 feet in diameter. She believes, however, that unlike their contemporaries in the fertile floodplain of the Mississippi River, they didn’t grow maize—or anything else. She’s found only a small amount of shelled corn “and one bean.” They came here to trade, taking advantage of the area’s location, which is just a few miles from the Cumberland Gap, the narrow passage in the lower Appalachian Range. The area, says Meyers, “is a trade funnel. They could go north, south, east, or west.”

Maureen Meyers explains the details of the excavation to Linda Vacariello and archaeologist Charlotte Smith. Credit: JC Burns.
Maureen Meyers explains the details of the excavation to Linda Vaccariello and archaeologist Charlotte Smith. Credit: JC Burns.

Her previous excavations have uncovered parts of five structures, including one where Meyers and her team screened out 2.5 kg of shells and shell beads in various stages of completion. The house, which she has dated to the middle of Carter Robinson occupation, seems to have been a production area, she says. It’s located close to the mound—a position that’s usually considered a place for those who have higher status. This suggests to Meyers that making and trading these goods was restricted to people of higher status.

Maureen Meyers describes how the structure wall was burned and fell to Linda, while American University graduate student Erin Cagney prepares part of the excavated area for photos. Credit: Charlotte Smith
Maureen Meyers describes how the structure wall was burned and fell to Linda, while American University graduate student Erin Cagney prepares part of the excavated area for photos. Credit: Charlotte Smith.
 Maureen Meyers takes photos of the collapsed structure wall and surrounding excavation area. Credit: Charlotte Smith
Maureen Meyers takes photos of the collapsed structure wall and surrounding excavation area. Credit: Charlotte Smith.

This summer’s excavation explored a site where three houses had been built sequentially on the same spot over the course of the site’s occupation. It’s an unusual and puzzling site because, the way it looks to Meyers, each house was occupied for 40 to 50 years, then deliberately burned, the walls pushed in and dirt thrown on top to stop the fire. Uncovering the middle house this summer, her team found large patches of burnt clay daub alongside partially unburned logs which had fallen into what would have been the interior of the structure. That’s the evidence that the destruction was deliberate and according to a plan.  A house destroyed in an accidental fire, she says, would be “just one burned mess.”

In the coming months she’ll be analyzing artifacts to come to a better understanding of what was going on here, hoping to add another chapter to the frontier saga at Carter Robinson mound.

Read more in the Fall 2017 Issue of American Archaeology, hitting Newsstands Early September.

A close up of burned structure as it is excavated. Credit: JC Burns
A close up of burned structure as it is excavated. Credit: JC Burns.
Erin Cagney excavating the structure. Credit: Charlotte Smith
Erin Cagney excavating the structure. Credit: Charlotte Smith.

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University of Mississippi students excavate the structure while archaeologist Charlotte Smith talks with local volunteers Alan Crockett and Sylvia Zingg. Credit: JC Burns
University of Mississippi students excavate the structure while archaeologist Charlotte Smith talks with local volunteers Alan Crockett and Sylvia Zingg. Credit: JC Burns.

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1 COMMENT

  1. How long could one expect a house made of untreated wood be expected to survive in the elements? At some point the house would have reached a stage of decay that would required moving to a new site or destroying the old house.

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