This is a news release from the University of Southern Mississippi
Every chiseled rock or oddly-shaped stone could be a potential clue to unearthing a part of the vast pre-European history of Native Americans in Mississippi. Dr. Ed Jackson, anthropology professor at The University of Southern Mississippi, wanted his students to adopt that mindset when they traveled to the Mississippi Delta this past summer to discover more of the state's untold stories.
Their excavation site is located at the Winterville Mounds, a state-owned portion of land on the north side of Greenville near the Mississippi River. The mound is one of the largest ceremonial and political centers in the Delta embedded with several hundred years of Native American history.
"My primary interest is to understand its role in the political and social dynamics of Native American cultures of the last 500 years before Europeans got here," Jackson said. "The site was first occupied about 1000 A.D. and became a mound center about 1200 A.D. and was abandoned around 1500 A.D. just before the Spanish made their march across the Delta."
Since they began work on this particular project in 2005, Jackson and his team have made significant discoveries. Their most notable finding was an unusually large structure adjacent to various mounds. The building, believed to be a ceremonial structure for high-ranking society members of the historic tribes, was the focal point of this summer's project.
"I'm interested in the politics of the economic system, how high-status people are being supported by low-status people," said Jackson, who earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. "The building is located behind a couple of mounds, so the long-term goal would be to try to relate it to the mounds. That's what we're trying to do -- to envision this site as being inhabited by the leaders of different segments of society."
The dig is an opportunity for students to participate at the forefront of anthropological research. The students are paired based on their level of experience; a graduate student usually works alongside an undergraduate student, but both are involved at every level of the excavation.
"They're responsible for excavation, record keeping, artifact recovery, everything," Jackson said. "So by the time they leave they're prepared to participate in other projects. If you're an anthropology major, and you're interested in archaeology, participating in the field school is the first step in the path toward employment after graduation. Almost every government agency or private firm would require a field school as part of your training. It's an essential part of what you do while you're in college if you want some of those job opportunities out there."
Nicholas Glass, a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Southern Miss, is concentrating in prehistoric southeastern archaeology. He participated in the field school in the Delta as a graduate field assistant to Jackson.
"Working with Dr. Jackson has been a wonderful experience," Glass said. "He has taught me a great deal about field methodology, excavation procedures, logistics of managing a large scale excavation, and of course lifeways of Native Americans."
The excavation process is a challenging but rewarding experience for students and teachers. The work consists of digging in small groups in a grid system, mapping out certain areas of the site, washing and retaining artifacts and much more.
"Most digging is done with trowels and we're moving dirt a little at a time because we not only want to find the artifacts, but there are all sorts of evidence in the ground, like earth discoloration that represents where pits were and post holes were set," Jackson said. "We want to be able to map that in as we find it. We have a water screening system set up so the dirt is moved to another location and is all washed away, leaving artifacts in the screens that separate the items from the dirt."
"There is no question that the project was hard work," Glass said. "Excavating in the Delta can be warm in the heat of the summer, but the work is very gratifying when students begin to see artifacts that they excavated themselves."
Jackson and his team of students will return to the same excavation site next summer to uncover more of the structure they believe to be of some significance. Until then, there is much work to be done with the discoveries they made this past summer.
"The artifacts need to come back to the lab and be sorted, inventoried and classified," Jackson said. "It's a fairly lengthy process. We'll be able to examine everything by the end of next summer."
With so many questions unanswered in the world of prehistoric Native American culture, many more students will be needed to help dig deeper to find the answers. Participating in a project like this summer's Delta dig is a good start for students to kick off their careers in the field.
"I would recommend that any student interested in archaeology take the class and work on the project," Glass said. "It is a wonderful and unique opportunity to further their understanding of what an archaeological dig is, and how it works."
To view a photo gallery of the Delta dig and the Archaeology lab at Southern Miss, visit http://artsandlettersnow.usm.edu/archaeology-lab.html.