My Summer in Mississippi: Archaeological Survey Field School in the Big Black River Basin

I will attempt to relate an unlikely series of events that climaxed in the experience of a lifetime. I am an undergraduate student (Junior) at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that came up through the community college system. Being my first year at UAB, I took nearly every anthropology course available, as well as volunteering in the lab each week sorting and documenting the artifact collection. This is where I first came into contact with material culture from the southeastern United States; specifically, that of Mississippi and Alabama. I was fascinated and wanted to learn more.

After a year of intensive study of archaeological theory and methodology from two top-notch professors; Dr. Lauren Downs and Dr. Sarah H. Parcak, I was ready to put some of this training to practical use. The only problem was that UAB was not offering field school this summer. Dr. Downs suggested that I consider a school in Mississippi. After much research, I concluded that Mississippi State was easily the best choice, and that the Cultural Resource Management (CRM) based approach to archaeological field survey being taught by Instructor Jeffrey Alvey was exactly what I had been looking for. I contacted and subsequently met with a very professional Mr. Alvey, applied for transient student status, and made living arrangements. This was really going to happen!

I was immediately impressed with Jeffrey’s no-nonsense approach to teaching. On the very first day, after a comprehensive lecture on sampling strategy, we were off to the field! The focus of the class is to train and prepare the archaeological student with the skills and demands required to be competitive in the field of Cultural Resource Management. That is to say—real archaeology in the real world. Being that the vast majority of work in the field of applied archaeology takes place within this context, and that the greater portion of that work consists of phase-one sample survey, I felt very fortunate to be included in the class. Whether one decides to make a career in CRM-based employment, or works as such for a means of financing oneself through graduate school, the experience gained in this course is invaluable.

One of the first tools we learned to use properly was a good sighting compass. This may sound like a small thing, but trust me, one becomes disoriented very quickly in the forest, and being proficient with a compass is essential to prevent getting oneself lost right away. We conducted our survey on large private farms that are evenly planted in agricultural fields, pasture, and pine trees for the timber industry. As these dissimilar land use purposes effect the terrain in different ways, our sampling strategy was modified and adapted as required. In forest and pasture, we employed shovel-testing, digging 30-cm test pits at 30-m intervals on any one of the cardinal directions that best corresponds to the landform being sampled. When any test becomes positive, the strategy is to transect the positive sample and shrink the sampling interval down to 10 m, then continue until two consecutive negative tests occur on any given transect. By following this pattern with each subsequent positive test pit, one may delineate the likely boundaries of an archaeological site with astounding accuracy. This pattern may be more narrowly defined by further reducing the interval distance or by expanding the area of the pits themselves.

Accurate survey of agricultural fields requires a different strategy altogether, as a land-owner is not likely to allow cash crops to be destroyed by the digging of pits. The standard procedure employed here is to walk and visually inspect the field rows at ca. 10 m spacing until artifacts appear, then to reduce the spacing and pace as required by the density of artifact distribution. Regardless of the scenario, once the occupation zone parameters have been established and charted on a grid sheet, one then fills out the site form. This entails all pertinent information about the site, including soil analysis, ground cover estimate, UTM coordinates, land-owner, etc. Although the work is rigorous and the conditions adverse, each and every day was filled with countless informal question-and-answer sessions that are so conducive to conceptual learning that one seldom considered the many obstacles or physical challenges imposed by the environment. These challenges are very real; the heat and humidity can be much more oppressive than the published data from the weather services suggest, even to dangerous levels at times. There are snakes—sometimes lots of them—there are chiggers, and always, everywhere, there are ticks. So much so that we named our crew the “Tick-Magnets” and are printing t-shirts with this logo!

Because time constraints prevented a complete canvasing of every section of land available for our survey, we modified our strategy at times to seek high-probability occupation areas for our research purposes. I was very impressed with the Instructor’s ability to locate these occupation zones by the study of topographical maps and careful scrutiny of the lay-of-the-land. Using this method, we discovered and mapped 47 previously undocumented occupation sites spanning the full range of the pre-history of Mississippi! We discovered literally thousands of artifacts, 9,000-year-old spear-points, 3,000-year-old cord-marked pottery, and everything in-between. Each another piece of the great puzzle of the archaeological record, and each with a story to reveal.

photo

Edison Pearce holding a prehistoric spear point recovered during archaeological survey

We learned so much so fast that space does not allow for recapping it all in this blog, but the value of the experience cannot be denied, for one crew member secured a job for a major CRM firm a week before the class was finished, and the determinate factor was the skills he acquired within this course! The work was hard and the obstacles were real, but for those of us that possess the will and determination to meet the challenge, the rewards are without compare. I made life-long friendships and expanded my social network as well as my career trajectory. I cannot speak for the others, but I came away better in every way; smarter, healthier, stronger, and more determined than ever to become an archaeologist.

-Edison Pearce

Undergraduate at the University of Alabama, Birmingham

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3 thoughts on “My Summer in Mississippi: Archaeological Survey Field School in the Big Black River Basin

  1. Fascinating! Your clarity about what you want to do and what your resources are will take you a long way. Thanks for this post–I fantasize what I might have done as a college student if such a thing were possible then.

  2. Paul Jacobs says:

    Well-wrotten report and one that reflects the Jeffrey Alvey I know. Great guy in the field and classroom.

  3. Douglas Fry says:

    Thanks for sharing. In enjoyed hear hearing about your experiences and I delight in your very last sentence. I’m glad this was such a transforming experience for you! Way cool! Hope you didn’t bring any of those ticks back to Bham.

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