Blytheville

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.

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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.

 

A Day of Archeology in NE Arkansas

There is no “typical” day as the Station Assistant at the Blytheville Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  I can find myself doing anything from initial site survey, to mapping, to excavating, to lab work, to final report write-ups.  So I thought a more fun blog would be to show you around my area of NE Arkansas and the kinds of places that I find myself throughout my days.  We have some amazing archeology out here and I’m lucky to get to work on it every day.

As a general rule I start out my day by coming out to my office.  This summer we planted two gardens out front as part of our public outreach/engagement.  One is a tenant farmer garden and the other is a native (3 sisters) garden.  These two gardens show people not only how the crops differ, but also how planting techniques differ between cultures and time periods.

Tenant farmer garden (left), Native garden (right), Survey Station building in the background

Tenant farmer garden (left), Native garden (right), Survey Station building in the background

We also have an up-and-coming museum in Blytheville called the Delta Gateway Museum that is located on Main Street in the old Kress department store building.  We have loaned some of our collections to the museum for display and we work with them on various events and displays throughout the year.

Delta Gateway Museum

Delta Gateway Museum

Mississippian Pottery on display at the Delta Gateway Museum

Mississippian Pottery on display at the Delta Gateway Museum

We have more than just a museum in NE Arkansas though.  We also have a lot of archeological sites.  Despite being so close to the Mississippi River and having it meander and destroy most very old archeological sites over the years, we do still have some Archaic (8500BC-600BC) sites!  Though they don’t look like much during the summer while the field is in beans…

Archaic Site, NE Arkansas

Archaic Site, NE Arkansas

We also have a lot of small, nearly abandoned historic cemeteries.  You can be driving down the road and just run across one.  Someone is keeping this mowed, but the headstones are falling down and the church that was likely near it is long gone.

Historic Cemetery

Historic Cemetery

Just down the road from our office is the city of Armorel, named for Arkansas (Ar), Missouri (mo), and Robert E Lee Wilson (a local cotton Barron in the early days)(rel).  They don’t have a huge headquarters there anymore, but this is their old headquarters building and also possibly the company store.

Armorel Headquarters

Armorel Headquarters

Armorel is just inside the levee that protects the low lying ground of NE Arkansas from flooding on the Mississippi.  Seeing the levee makes you really think about the days before the levee was built and how people must have constantly worried about the river flooding, which would have wiped out everything in the area.

Mississippi River Levee

Mississippi River Levee

The huge Mississippian site called Knappenberger is also in our area of NE Arkansas.  It used to have giant mounds on it, but farming over the years has reduced them to hills on the landscape.  Here they are planted for the season.

Knappenberger Site

Knappenberger Site

Another nearby Mississippian site has a mound that hasn’t been plowed over.  It has been severely looted over the years, but not taken down in the same way that plowing does.  It is called the Chickasawba mound and has a large site associated with it.

Chickasawba Mound

Chickasawba Mound

Back to our historic roots, there are a few shotgun houses still standing around the area.  Why are they named shotgun houses?  Maybe because they are long and thin, or maybe because if you take your shotgun and shoot, you can reach from the front of the house to the back through the doorways in the center.  Most are uninhabited, but this one has a satellite dish…

Shotgun house...with satellite dish

Shotgun house…with satellite dish

In the more recent past, the NE Arkansas area was home to Eaker Airforce Base, where B52’s were stationed during the Cold War.  The base is now closed, but many of it’s buildings, including our office, are still extant; as is the razorwire on the top of the fences and some of the old guard towers.  A bit of a chilly reminder of no-too-distant American history.

Razor-wire topped fence

Razor-wire topped fence

Guard tower near bunkers

Guard tower near bunkers

So there you have it, a fly-by tour of archeology in NE Arkansas as seen by the Station Assistant at the Blytheville Station of the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  This is an amazing area with so much archeology that no one could ever possibly get bored.  Come out and see it for yourself!