How an Archaeologist Studies the Past

Although an archaeologist can gain some information from artifacts that have been removed from a site, much more information can be gleaned through careful survey and excavation. During a survey, the archaeologist examines artifacts remaining on the ground and records large concentrations as sites. The archaeologist evaluates each site's size and age, and determines how it contributes to an overall understanding of Louisiana's past.

No two sites exactly duplicate each other, but some are more unusual than others. Some provide new or important information linking a group of people with a certain location or activity for the first time. This means that sometimes a small site, without elaborate or especially beautiful artifacts, may be more important to the understanding of the past than another site that is larger. An archaeologist who records an important site will recommend protection or excavation for it.

The archaeologist will evaluate threats to the site to determine the possibility of preserving the site intact. Some sites must be protected to insure that future generations can see unexcavated sites, and so that future archaeologists with improved techniques will have sites left to study. Even if an archaeologist excavates a site, he or she will usually leave parts of it untouched.

Archaeological excavation of a site is meticulous in order to preserve every piece of information. The archaeologist photographs and draws soil changes and artifacts as they are uncovered. This provides a permanent record of the relationships of materials to each other and to other parts of the site. Samples of charcoal, soil, bones, and decayed plants are collected for laboratory analysis.

Long months of study and interpretation follow excavations as the archaeologist and technicians piece together the many bits of information. Laboratory analysis may indicate what people ate, what plants were growing around the site, and perhaps even the date the site was used. Study of the artifacts may tell how the site was used, who used it, and whether they were trading with other groups.

Relationships of the remains show what parts of the site were used for butchering game, cooking food, making tools, gardening, building houses, burying the dead, and conducting ceremonial activities. Artifact relationships may tell whether men and women worked in different areas, and whether the site was used repeatedly through the years. An archaeologist may even be able to discover very detailed information like whether the people cooked their fish whole or in fillets, what strains of corn they grew, and what kind of wood they used to build their houses. This detailed understanding can result only from careful study of a well-preserved site.

The archaeological sites of Louisiana span the time from the arrival of the earliest inhabitants, approximately 12,000 years ago, to the 20th century. These sites are as important in understanding Louisiana's past as original journals from early explorers. Each is a unique description of the land and people from years past. Just as a journal with all its pages tells more than a single page out of context, a complete site tells many times more than artifacts on a shelf or a site half-destroyed by modern-day construction activities.

Excavation of a mound site in Iberville Parish was meticulous in order to record the relationships of materials and to collect remains for laboratory analysis (above). Archaeologists were able to determine that under the mound was a circular house built of cypress and ash poles that were covered with thatch (right). Inside were interior support posts and wooden furniture such as beds or racks, as well as a central fire hearth and four smaller fire pits. Honey locust seeds, persimmon seeds and bones from four kinds of fish indicate some of the things these prehistoric people ate. Radiocarbon dates show that the structure was being used at A.D. 1000.

Everyone in Louisiana has the right to know about the state's legacy. The complete history of Louisiana can be recorded only through careful, detailed excavation by individuals especially trained in archaeological techniques. If a site is destroyed before it can be evaluated, that information is lost forever; it is irreplaceable. Unfortunately, sites are destroyed every day in Louisiana, both accidentally and intentionally.

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Plan view of feature three, level four

Major Impact on Site Preservation

Throughout history, the traces of people who lived before have been altered by those who followed. Even when Indians camped in places where their ancestors had camped, they destroyed a piece of the record of their past. In contrast with this age-old pattern of minor alterations, however, is the potentially devastating impact of modern-day technology. In Louisiana today, major types of land modification include energy exploration and development, timber cutting, agriculture, urban expansion, waterway modification, and transportation network construction. These are all likely to disturb archaeological sites if they are conducted without care.

Heavy machinery can destroy a site in minutes

The country's need for oil, gas, coal, and timber has accelerated the search for these products in the past decade. As exploration crews cut roads into otherwise inaccessible areas, previously undetected sites are exposed and disturbed. When heavy machinery is brought in to begin logging, drilling, or mining, sites can be gouged or crushed in a few seconds. Unless the crews are alert, fragile archaeological sites are destroyed before they are even recorded. In Louisiana's coastal areas, oil and gas production has also affected sites. Pipelines are often laid through piles of shells because they are more stable than the surrounding land. Unfortunately, a great many of these piles are man-made; they are actually archaeological sites.

Mechanized agriculture affects sites when plows turn up artifacts, jumbling the materials. Whenever an area is cultivated for the first time, sites may be found. In Louisiana, previously undisturbed areas within the river valleys are now being cleared for large-scale agriculture. Many buried prehistoric sites along old river channels could be destroyed. Sites in cultivated fields may be damaged further if they are plowed more deeply than in the past. Modern subsoilers can cut three feet into the ground, disturbing even deeply buried materials.

The gas pipeline in southeastern Louisiana's marsh was laid directly through an archaeological site.

Farmers often regard Indian mounds as troublesome when they occur in areas otherwise ideal for plowing. If farmers do not recognize the value of these mounds, they may have them removed. For example, a man in Madison Parish sold the dirt from a large Indian mound on his land for road fill. The ancient monument was removed so the land could be planted with soybeans.

Population growth in Louisiana has led to rapidly expanding cities and extended transportation networks. Modern cities are often in the same places that Indians and early Europeans built their settlements, so city growth is almost certain to disturb archaeological sites. As early as the turn of the century, archaeologists were charting the destruction of a mound group in eastern Louisiana. A city was growing up around one of the largest groups of mounds in the Southeastern United States. In 1931, an archaeologist wrote about the leveling of one of the mounds, a square multi-stage one, 80 feet tall and 180 feet on each side. The dirt was used to build the approach ramps for a bridge. Today, part of only one mound remains, protected because of the recent cemetery on top.

Dirt from this mound in Madison Parish was used for a road foundation...

leaving behind a few clumps of trees

The destruction mentioned above has resulted from a lack of understanding of the importance of these sites. It has taken Louisianians a long time to realize the uniqueness and richness of their state's cultural heritage. While many people are now joining in the efforts to conserve the remaining sites, a few continue to willfully destroy them.

Some individuals dig into sites in order to find artifacts that can be sold to antiquity dealers. These looters have demolished entire Indian villages, stealing the story of those sites from all Louisianians. Even if the artifacts are eventually turned over to an archaeologist, most of the information has been obliterated. Lost are the records of where the artifacts originally came from, the relationships of the artifacts to each other, the samples of materials for laboratory analysis, and usually the ordinary or broken artifacts that tell the archaeologist much, but sell for little.

Looters at this archaeological site found artifacts, but destroyed all the other information archaeologists could have used to interpret the site.