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.


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


AMEC Survey Field School

We find ourselves at the mid-point of AMEC’s 2016 archaeological survey field school, which provides a good opportunity for a progress report.  Our efforts during the field school have focused on training students in the methods of archaeological survey routinely employed in the southeastern U.S.

survey in agricultural field

Survey in agricultural field

After a little over two weeks of survey in the Big Black River valley of central Mississippi we have identified 20 prehistoric archaeological sites and two historic sites.  We have also visited two sites that had been previously recorded as “Indian mounds,” and were able to confirm that neither of these sites are prehistoric mounds.  The “mounds” are simply erosional remnants that represent geological, rather than cultural, features.  These efforts have provided students with a broad exposure to the prehistoric and historic material culture of the region (some of which you can see in the photos below), and introduced them to the methods used to identify the locations of previously unrecorded archaeological sites.  Of equal importance is the understanding students are receiving of how past settlement of the region correlates with environmental variables, and how modern land management practices have affected, and continue to affect, the archaeological record.  We have surveyed in a variety of settings including agricultural fields, pastures, pine plantations, and mixed pine-hardwood forests, which provides students with invaluable lessons about how to adapt field methods to these different environments.

Lauren Bailey and Erika Niemann screening a shovel test

Lauren Bailey and Erika Niemann screening a shovel test

Delineating a prehistoric site

Delineating a prehistoric site

Dylan Karges shovel testing

Dylan Karges shovel testing

We are eternally grateful for the generosity of the landowners who have so far allowed us to perform survey on their land.  At present, these include Joseph Guess and Tommy Garrett.  We are also indebted to our archaeological colleague, Cliff Jenkins, who is a MSU alumnus, and currently an archaeologist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  Through his connections to farmers in the region, Cliff has arranged for all of the land access we have thus far been granted.  Without his generous assistance it’s unlikely we would have been able to make the connections we have made to landowners in the region.

artifacts collected by general surface collection from a prehistoric site

Artifacts collected by general surface collection from a prehistoric site



Stay tuned as next week one of the field school students will submit a report on the field school providing a student’s perspective on the experience thus far!

– Jeffrey Alvey

Cobb Institute of Archaeology, CRM Program Manager


The Beginning of the Topper Excavation Field School

This year, MSU has partnered with the University of Tennessee, the University of West Georgia, and the University of South Carolina to run field schools at the Topper site and surrounding areas. The MSU crew is working at the Swag Site, about a mile north of the Topper site.

I strapped a GoPro to the dash of the van and it took photos every five second. About half-way through you see where we had to make a side trip to pick up another student who had car issues in Atlanta. Driving a 15 passenger van through downtown Atlanta is an adventure. (The song is “Lights On” by Big Grams).

Tuesday we had an orientation, a tour of the Big Pine Tree, Topper, and Swag sites, and then started staging gear in the lab and at the site.

Martin Tour Martin Walker (University of Tennessee) describing excavations at Topper

Wednesday we laid out our first units on the eastern edge of the Swag Site (i.e. Swag East), where we found an several overshot/overface flakes during last year’s field school. The University of West Georgia crew are working on “Swag South” – an area that produced a biface with overshot flaking last year.

Swag Map

For the MSU crew, we laid out two perpendicular rows of 1x1m excavation units off of last year’s test unit because 1) I want to see a cross-section of the sediments in that area and 2) we didn’t want the students fighting for elbow room.

Swag East Sketch

So on Wednesday morning we opened up the units…

By Thursday they were getting the hang of it…

…and they also got to see a flintknapping demo by Stephen Williams, were fed by Dr. Goodyear, and got to hear Andy White give a presentation on his research.

By Friday, the MSU students got in a groove and peeled through several levels…

…and we capped off the week with sunset over the Savannah River.

Dr. Shane Miller

Assistant Professor of Archaeology


On Point

After completing a successful two week dig at Poverty Point in Louisiana, the class returned home to Starkville for the next two weeks of field school. Following a weekend of rest and countless bottles of poison ivy lotion, everyone showed up bright and early, eager to get back to the grind of shovel tests and controlled surface collections. Monday we met Jeffrey Alvey, a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Missouri and director of the cultural resource management of the Cobb Institute, to help survey for his dissertation. After arriving at Dr. Peacock’s brother’s house near French Camp, Mississippi, the class began shovel testing the area. One of the shovel test pits showed a feature that is going to be very helpful to Jeffrey’s research. During this week, we also met Jayson Zoino, a graduate student, and went to Greenwood to controlled surface collect an area which consisted of many historical artifacts.



Controlled surface collection on cotton fields in Eupora, Mississippi was successful and turned into a competition of who could find the most points. Thursday we found a site with lots of flakes, and Will Turner found the first triangular point of the day. Another triangular point was found by Ryan Young, which started the “smack talking” between him and Will, but both would fail to find any more. Daniel Shawl was the last to find a triangular point, and found another later, though it was not a diagnostic. Unfortunately, for them, their finds could not beat the spear point I found earlier in the week and still holds true today.

Image Small Triangular Point

Image Woodland Stem Point

Brent Lyles
MSU Anthropology Undergraduate


Surveying Poverty Point

The beginning of our field school this summer started in Louisiana, Poverty Point to be precise. We were all tasked with digging shovel tests and bagging any artifacts (which meant any and all concretions) that we came across. The first few days were did not render many artifacts (other than concretions which we later had to size grade).
Cheyenne Bennett and I arrived about two days late. Our first few days we kind of laid low and tried to get a feel for how everything worked, but it wasn’t long until we were prepared to work with the others. While digging one of the last shovel tests of our first site we discovered a plummet! The plummet was a standout moment in our entire crew’s dig in Louisiana, but it was far from the only one. There were several funny moments we experienced such as the “interesting” tour guide we met in Marksville, the dancing maneuvers around trees that Dr. Peacock performed while running tests on the new mound that was discovered, and the crazy shenanigans that we pulled each night.

Image Daniel Shawl in Zone 1 with plummet

In addition to digging with each other, we of course lived with each other for the two weeks of our dig. We were staying in a dorm behind the park manager’s house in Poverty Point; the boys stayed in one room and the girls in another, with a kitchen and lobby in between us all. Each night two people were assigned to cook dinner for everyone, and I can honestly say that everyone actually cooked really well. Every other day or so two people were also assigned to clean the entire dorm, which was not quite as fun as cooking but still equally appreciated. On the weekends we would usually have a choice of fun things we could do, such as canoeing or seeing a movie in the town of Monroe. One of the only problems we faced while at Poverty Point was the poison ivy which most of us got pretty much everywhere. Overall though, the two weeks in Poverty Point were great: we all got great experience in archaeological survey from two of the best in the business, we found some very interesting artifacts, and we all made some great memories. The digging wasn’t over yet though; two and a half more weeks of shoveling in the hot Mississippi Delta were waiting for us back home.

Image  The crew at Poverty Point

– Daniel Shawl
MSU Anthropology Undergraduate