By: Sara Hoover
The phrase “Indian artifacts” brings to mind items like flint arrowheads, broken pottery
and maybe even a stone tool. One doesn’t initially think of houses and certainly not
an entire community, but that’s just what the U of M’s archaeology field camp found.
Earlier this summer, the earth sciences department discovered an Indian village during
their month-long camp in Somerville, Tenn., at the Ames Plantation. The find included
ceremonial mounds and eight to nine houses surrounded by a defensive wall or palisade.
The settlement dates back to 1100 A.D., known as the Mississippian period.
The discovery is important because it reveals people’s living habitation at the time.
“One hypothesis was that these mounds were vacant ceremonial centers where people
gathered and then dispersed back to their farmsteads,” said Dr. Andrew Mickelson,
project director and assistant professor of earth sciences in Arts and Sciences. “No
one really understood quite where people were living about 1,000 years ago in Western
Tennessee. There was some thoughts that groups were living in isolated farmsteads
scattered across the countryside or that they were living in small hamlets with just
a couple of houses.”
|Students conduct the “screening” process during the excavation of the Indian settlement.
This find proved otherwise by being a large, permanent settlement. The site is also
significant because it reveals the period’s farming trends.
“It’s right when people are seriously farming various crops, mainly corn, beans and
squash,” said Mickelson, whose primary research interest is prehistoric land use changes
Archaeologists had visited the site since the 1960s, but were unable to uncover anything
of significance. The U of M discovery is due in large part to a new $20,000 piece
of equipment, a magnetometer.
“With the magnetometer, we’re able to survey a large area, almost five acres in three
or four days,” said Mickelson. “This gave us a complete picture of what was buried
beneath the surface without having to dig. Through traditional excavation means, this
would take decades.”
The magnetometer, which detects anomalies in the soil, has a wide range of applications
and is used for other projects like mapping earthquake faults in Montana.
The U of M has been excavating at the site since 2007. Undergraduate and graduate
students worked and received class credit for the monthlong stint. While cross-listed
in earth sciences and anthropology, the camp is open to any major. Students will continue
working there weekly as part of the field methods class.
“I couldn’t get this done without them,” said Mickelson of his students. “They’ve
been great. They’re really doing the archaeology themselves. We’re training them how
to dig. They go out into the field everyday and they learn about all aspects of what
it is to be an archaeologist.”
Eric Goddard (BA ’08), an archaeology and geographic information systems master’s
student, was in charge of the magnetometer and training students to use it.
“It really changes how archaeology is done. We thought the site didn’t have a resident
population. The magnetometer completely changed our understanding of the site. We
used that data to place our excavations more carefully, so we wasted less time where
there weren’t artifacts.”
Goddard, who is studying magnetometry, found the experience useful.
“You see all these really fascinating images that other people have collected in articles
and in books. You don’t ever expect to (find) that yourself, but we did. We found
some really great stuff. You couldn’t ask for a better summer.”
The new magnetometer has two sensors rather than one, and the additional sensor cancels
out background readings from the atmosphere and magnetic fields to give a higher resolution
This clearer picture helped the team to find hearths used for cooking and fires, wall
trenches of houses, pits or foundations of the homes and the palisade. Most surprising
was the palisade that completely encircled the settlement.
“The wall would have been made out of logs, some of which were a foot to a foot and
a half in diameter, so we’re talking something fairly substantial,” said Mickelson.
“We’re thinking that maybe that wall would have been at least 12 feet tall, that they
were protecting themselves from other groups, which is quite significant.”
Senior anthropology major Harrison Witt had past experience as a full-time contract
archaeologist, but found this dig to be his best yet.
“I’ve never been on a project where we found a palisade with a whole village, with
a mound complex, everything. Those components really made for a great experience.”
His unit discovered a single-family, residential house with internal and external
posts. Witt plans to volunteer at the camp next year.
“It has benefited me a lot because the best way to learn is to have some really great
firsthand experience. To be there to discover whatever is on Earth. Usually with contract
work, it’s not that exciting.”
Mickelson thinks it is crucial for students to learn outside the classroom.
“They get to experience the good and bad that comes with being an archaeologist –
the long days, the bugs, the sun, the sweat – to see if it’s an occupation they really
want to do,” said Mickelson.
Video: Click here to see a video of the dig.