Let me introduce myself: my name is Andrea Keller and I am the Cultural Program Coordinator at the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex in Moundsville, West Virginia, USA. Like everyone here, I “wear many hats” in a single day. Today, I shall put on my garden hat and take you on a tour of our Interpretive Garden. Let’s meet by the gift shop at the museum’s entrance. If you get there before I do, there is a display of crops and photos from previous years (our garden is in its 4th year). By the way, if you visit us during the winter season, you might find a “Holiday Tree” decorated with produce from the garden in this hallway. It’s nice to have these indoor displays, since there won’t be much to see outside in the garden in winter.
Ah, there you are – let’s go outside!
With the rain and warm weather this year, the Interpretive Garden has been growing like mad. It is based a traditional Native American gardening system known as a Three Sisters Garden, but also on archaeological evidence. The basic premise of a Three Sisters Garden is that the Three Sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, grow together in the same plot. Sister Corn is tall and supports Sister Bean, while Sister Squash spreads her vines on the ground and protects the other two. Modern science tells us that the bean’s roots put nitrogen in the soil, which the corn needs. Meanwhile, the squash’s vines and leaves protect the other two plants by shading out weeds, and holding moisture in the ground as living mulch. I am told that the prickly squash stems and leaves deter animals who otherwise would joyfully feast on the corn and beans. The prehistoric gardeners who learned about all of this must have been amazing people.
The Interpretive Garden is home to some very special “Sisters”:
The corn is “Rhode Island Eight Row Flint” originally grown by the Narragansett people of Rhode Island. A type of 8-row flint corn was found on an archaeological site near here. The corn in the garden has yellow cobs and red cobs, but since corn kernels found on archaeological sites are usually charred, I do not know what color the prehistoric version might have been.
We are growing three different kinds of beans. “Blue Shackamaxon” has small, very dark blue –black seeds. It originally came from the Lenape people of New Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania and dates back to at least 1800 AD. Known as the “Treaty Bean”, it has been preserved by Quaker farmers. “Yellow Arikara” beans come from Monticello, where Thomas Jefferson found them “one of the most excellent we have had”. They were collected from the Arikara people in the Dakotas by Lewis and Clark on their “Voyage of Discovery”. The third bean is “Genuine Cornfield”. I don’t have much history about this variety, but it does grow very well amongst the corn! Look carefully among the corn stalks, and you will spot its vines.
The garden also contains squash, pumpkins, and gourds. The pumpkins and squash have showy orange flowers, while the gourds have white ones. Our squash is “Canada Crookneck”, and was grown by the Iroquois. It is the ancestor of the “Butternut” squash that can be found at the supermarket in the fall. The crooknecks have long necks that I am planning to cut and dry to make squash rings. Such rings were stored for winter use, but I have other plans. We will use them to make ring-and-pin skill games with our visitors.
The pumpkins and gourds in the garden are commercially available heirloom varieties – grown until varieties with more detailed histories can be obtained. I hope to use the pumpkins as décor under our “Holiday Tree,” and will cut the gourds into handy bowls.
In addition to the “Three Sisters”, we are growing sunflowers and goosefoot. The latter is a variety of Chenopodium and is related to a plant whose seeds were found in archaeological sites (there was even a domesticated variety). Goosefoot has diamond-shaped leaves that are supposedly resemble those of a goose. I don’t know much about the feet of a goose, but I do know the leaves of the goosefoot plant are quite tasty! Sunflowers and Chenopodium were some of the earliest plants cultivated in this part of North America. Sunflowers have a fascinating history of their own – look them up sometime, if you have the chance. There were also other plants grown in early gardens such as marsh elder, little barley, erect knotweed and maygrass.
The Interpretive Garden grows at the foot of the Grave Creek Mound, and I can’t help imagining that the Adena people who built the Mound may have been eating sunflower seeds, goosefoot greens, and possibly pumpkins or squash. They may have taken a break from their toils to drink water stored in a gourd, and probably dug up the 3 million loads of soil for the Mound with similar digging sticks and hoes used in their gardens. Imagine using tools with wooden handles and blades of stone, bone, or mussel shell to build the Grave Creek Mound!
I am glad that you joined me on this Day of Archaeology garden tour. If you have the chance to visit our area in person, please stop in and say “hello”. The Three Sisters will be happy to meet you, and so will I!
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many volunteers who made the garden possible: The John Marshall High School horticulture students who prepared the soil by clearing last year’s debris, spreading mushroom compost, and rototilling; the service learning students from WVU’s native American Studies program who put up the fence and weeded and watered the young seedlings, and Steve and Martha, whose weeding efforts are very much appreciated. Thank you also to everyone who helped plant the garden and provided displays and activities on our annual public planting day. THANK YOU ALL!!!
You can learn more about the Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex by reading posts by my colleagues and some of our amazing and much appreciated volunteers. We are part of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, and can be found at www.wvculture.org/museum/GraveCreekmod.html.