Mississippi River

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.