Arkansas Archeological Survey

Project Archaeology and Archaeological Education in Arkansas

Because archaeological sites are endangered and finite resources, I spend a lot of my time doing archaeological education encouraging people to care about and protect sites. I teach in a university setting, but I also do youth programs to help teach young people to be stewards of the past. This year, I have spent many of my days of archaeology co-writing a 5th grade (age 10-11) social studies curriculum about archaeology and plant-based foodways in the southeastern United States. The curriculum, which focuses on sites in Arkansas, will be aligned with common core standards to promote and enhance archeological education in Arkansas’s public schools.

Project Archaeology Leadership Academy course materials.

Project Archaeology Leadership Academy course materials.

Like the majority of archaeologists, I didn’t learn how to teach archaeology to the public in college. Fortunately, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel. This summer, I attended the Project Archaeology Leadership Academy in Bozeman, Montana. Project Archaeology is “an educational organization dedicated to teaching scientific and historical inquiry, cultural understanding, and the importance of protecting our nation’s rich cultural resources.” They are a national network of archaeologists, educators, and concerned citizens working to make archaeology education accessible to students and teachers across the country through high-quality educational materials and professional development. Each year, they offer a Leadership Academy to teach educators (and archaeologists) to use Investigating Shelter, an inquiry-based Social Studies and Science curriculum, and empower them with educating their peers on how to implement the curriculum in the classroom.

Workshop participants visited Madison Buffalo Jump State Park

Workshop participants visited Madison Buffalo Jump State Park

It was a fun week of learning new ways to teach archaeology, visiting Madison Buffalo Jump State Park and the Museum of the Rockies, and meeting educators and archaeologists from around the country. The 5-day workshop underscored the importance of working with descendants to learn about the past, how archaeology contributes to inquiry-based learning, ways to connect archaeological education to common core standards, and a lot more.

Dr. Emerson Emerson Bull Chief, Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, talking about Native American buffalo stories.

Dr. Emerson Bull Chief, Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, talking about Native American buffalo stories.

Panorama of the Buffalo Jump.

Panorama of Madison Buffalo Jump State Park.

When I was an undergraduate student, if someone asked me: “What does an archaeologist do?”, it never would have occurred to me that archaeologists teach educators (and other people) to teach about the past. This is changing as archaeologists have come to recognize the importance of working with communities and teaching others to think like archaeologists. But I hadn’t thought about how important it is to teach educators to teach archaeology until Courtney Agenten pointed it out during the workshop. As an archaeologist, I have taught an archaeology camp for 10-15 students, which I wrote about last year. The students learned about the process of archaeology from excavation to lab work and from artifact analysis to report writing. In the process, they developed a love for learning about and preserving the past. But if I teach 10-15 educators to teach archaeology in their science or social studies classes, in one year, those teachers have the potential to teach 250-375 students about the importance of archaeology. That’s a huge impact if you think about how many students could be reached in 10 years!

So now as I sit at my desk in front of my computer, like so many of my days of archaeology, I am inspired by my experience at the Project Archaeology Leadership Academy to teach their fun curricula about shelter and nutrition. I am also motivated to continue to develop high-quality lesson plans focused on archaeological sites in Arkansas that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Thanks to the support of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, the Arkansas Archeological Society, the Arkansas Humanities Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the curriculum should be available this fall. Check out the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s website for classroom materials currently available to teachers and keep an eye out for new things to come.


A Day of Archeology in Blytheville, Arkansas, USA

A typical day in my archeology job is anything but typical. It can be anything from a full day of excavating, to a day working in the lab or doing public presentations. I wrote about all of the various things I may do during a day in last year’s Day of Archaeology post. This year, I’m starting a large scale research project, so my day of archaeology is a lot more library driven.

I start out my day by getting on the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville library website.  Because I am stationed in Blytheville, which is about a 6 hour drive from Fayetteville, I have access to the library as an employee of the University, but I have to search for the books I want on their website and then have them mailed to me.  It makes the process for books a bit longer, but is better than having to drive to Fayetteville whenever I need something.  The library website also has access to an excellent variety of journals and journal articles that can be viewed online or downloaded.  I like to use journal articles for research as they are generally a bit more current and specific to a topic than books, so this works out well even from the other side of the state.

Blytheville, Ar is located in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which is a spot in the middle of a continental plate that produces earthquakes.  From what I’ve been reading, no one is really sure why earthquakes happen here, but they certainly do.  I haven’t felt one myself yet, but last year there was an earthquake large enough to be felt and shake things in houses about 75  miles SW of Blytheville.  Historically the earthquakes here can be very large.  In 1811-1812 there was a series of 2 large (~M7) earthquakes centered on the city of New Madrid, MO and then thousands of aftershocks for the following years.  Large earthquakes like this also happened in the 1450’s and 900’s.  In the delta region of the Mississippi River (where we are only a few feet above the water table) there are hundreds of feet of sand covering the bedrock below.  Because of this, when a large earthquake strikes, the shaking of the wet sand causes it to become a liquid that moves up to the surface of the ground and come out almost like a volcano, covering the area around the crack with wet sand.  This phenomenon is called a sandblow.  You can see these sandblows all around this area in farm fields.  Often the crops don’t grow as well in these areas because the sand doesn’t have as many nutrients in it and it doesn’t hold water as well as the surrounding silt.

When the wet sand comes up out of the earth and covers the surface is when it gets interesting in terms of the archaeology.  Sometimes what is on the surface is an archaeological site.  If the sand covers the site and is fairly thick, it prevents the site from being destroyed by plowing.  Due to the huge amount of farming that is done in the Delta (where the soil is excellent for growing a variety of crops), many archaeological sites are at least partially destroyed by plowing and planting crops.  Many sites are almost on the surface as they are only a few hundred years old, so any plowing hurts them and deep plowing or leveling can destroy them completely.  If a sandblow is covering the site, it mitigates these effects.  It can also cause the site to be unknown completely if it is totally buried.


As a research project, my station plans to look at these buried sites in a variety of ways.  First, we want to do some survey to try to find completely buried sites.  There are known sites here and there along the Bayou, but we think that there may well be more that are deeply buried.  To find them we want to put in deep shovel tests in areas that look like a good location for an archaeological site (generally higher areas near the Bayou or another water source).  If we find these sites, we want to bring in a specialist to do geophysical survey so that we can try to see if there are any possible cultural features that could be excavated to tell us more about the people who lived on the site.

We also want to look at the ways in which different groups responded to the large earthquakes.  Did the people move away from the site?  Did they stay and rebuild?  Did they leave but then come back again later?  We hope that by looking at a variety of sites we’ll be able to see some of these things archaeologically.

During this initial background literature search, I have come across reports of a number of archaeological sites in this area that have been excavated in which the people who lived at the sites seem to have reacted in different ways.  I’m very excited to find out if we will see the same kinds of things in our project.

After the literature review, I am going to write up a research plan/agenda for the project.  I want to be able to present it to the landowners and farmers that we’ll be working with as well at to the Native American groups whose ancestors lived in this area.  The background is an important part because it explains why we want to do the project and why it should work the way that we think it will.  Using geology and seismic data I can talk about how the earthquakes would cause the sandblows and how they work and using other archaeological reports I can talk about what other researchers have done, what worked, what didn’t and how we plan to do our project.

So despite seeming a bit boring for awhile while I sit at my desk in my office day in and day out, this is the first step to starting what could be a very interesting and long-lasting line of research that could produce some really interesting results.  Hopefully next year for A Day of Archaeology I can update you on what step of the project we are on by then.