Hey there, Xplorers!
Wow, it’s been a busy few weeks around here! We’ve been hard at work on a wide variety of surveys, and we’ve welcomed a few new members to our team. We’re grateful for all the incredible progress we’ve made, but now it’s time to get back to digging deeper.
You guys loved it last time we posted about a major project, so we thought, “Hey, let’s do that again!” That’s why today, we’re taking you deep into the Louisiana Bayou to what we call the Point Pleasant site.
Our mitigation at the Point Pleasant Site was another landmark project. It lasted almost a year from 2020 to 2021 and took hundreds of hours from dozens of team members to complete. We uncovered thousands of cultural features and artifacts, and we learned so much about how people in the Coles Creek period lived — but more on them in a minute.
As always, we’re excited to bring you more about what we do here at TerraX. We love sharing stories about the incredible work we feel so privileged to do, and we’re grateful to you all for taking the time to check us out! Now, without any further ado, let’s get into it!
Middens? Point Pleasant? Coles Creek? Oh my!
Okay, we know we dropped a lot of vocabulary terms on you in that little introduction, so let’s slow down for a minute and cover what those mean. You may remember from last time that a mitigation is basically a big project — but when we say “big,” we mean BIG. Mitigations are where we go in and recover as much data as possible. We use a wide variety of excavation tools and techniques, and we collect as many artifacts, photographs, samples, and records as we can.
This time, we performed our mitigation south of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The data we recovered indicated that this site is part of the Coles Creek archaeological period. Now, what does that mean? When we say “Coles Creek,” we’re referring to the artifacts, features, and other data we’ve recovered from people who lived in a specific place during a specific time — in this case, the Mississippi Valley during the Late Woodland period, about 1,000 AD.
Imagine that — we’ve discovered so much about Native American people who lived in the southeast 1,000 years ago. Throughout our investigation, we learned about how they structured their community. We learned about how they cooked and ate. We found faunal remains that taught us about how animals were part of their daily lives, and we found evidence that the site was used seasonally. Do you see all these pink flags? Each one represents a feature we found!
We also found large portions of what we in the biz call “middens.” A midden is a little challenging to define, but we’ll give it our best shot anyway. Middens are essentially large piles of garbage, but they’re so much more than that. They may be composed out of leftover materials the Native Americans who made them didn’t have another use for, but they’re anything but wasteful.
Think of it this way: Today, we recycle old cans, plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and things like that. Middens are like an extreme form of recycling. Instead of getting rid of their leftover materials like shells, broken tools, animal bones, etc, Native Americans would recycle those materials by adding them to middens. Those middens would get bigger and bigger, and then they could be used for all kinds of purposes. Often, since they were composed out of soil and lots of organic matter, they would be used like gardens, and people would plant crops in their middens.
It’s difficult to overstate just how fascinating and informative middens can be, but it gets better. Sometimes, we find what we call sheet middens — that’s when the items in the middens are layered in clear-cut sheets — kind of like the layers in a cake. When that happens, not only do we have a record of the waste materials of the people who lived on a site, but by looking at what items are found at different layers and carbon-dating items from different sheets within the midden, we can paint a picture of how communities and people groups changed through time — sometimes across centuries. That’s right — middens are like gold mines of information for archaeologists!
Sound pretty interesting? We think so too. Let’s dig a little deeper and talk specifics about the cool features and artifacts we discovered at the Point Pleasant Site.
What Did We Find?
Our mitigation at the Point Pleasant Site consisted mainly of extensive mechanical and hand excavations. (In other words, we did a whole lot of digging with a whole lot of tools.) As we began mechanical stripping, we discovered that, because of a protective fence, the boundaries extended to the furthest limits of the barrier and probably used to extend past the fence into areas that were inadvertently destroyed. The total mitigation focused on 12.5 acres and removed over 600,000 cubic feet of soil.These investigations revealed the footprints of many round structures from the Coles Creek period and houses with walls set in hand-dug trenches from the Plaquemine period. We also found thousands of other cultural features…
More specifically, a total of 18,991 features were recorded during all phases of work at the site. These included 18,574 Native American posts and post molds, 162 small to medium basin pits, 57 large basin pits, 16 historic burials, six wall trenches, one historic structure, and 23 sheet middens. (That’s SO MANY.)
Unfortunately, because of time and budget constraints, not every post was excavated, so several of the “posts” may be tree or animal burrows. However, of the 291 posts examined, 99 percent had well-defined outlines, and most, in fact, had highly evident post molds, meaning that the wood may have rotted in place rather than being pulled or burned. All in all, that’s a lot of structures, so this must have been a village for a sizable number of people.
However, we noticed something else that was interesting. From other studies and archaeological research, we know that people during this time would often build structures by burying long poles in the ground and gathering them together at the top to create a rounded shape. Then, they would weave in grasses to make walls and create thatched roofs. Finally, to make the structures more permanent, they would use daub (a kind of architectural clay) to seal up any holes and make the structure stronger. However, we didn’t find a lot of daub at the site. These structures, we concluded, weren’t built to last for more than a few months at a time — evidence that this was a seasonally occupied village!
But It Wasn’t All Posts!
In addition to the round structures common to the Coles Creek period, we also identified two semi-rectangular wall trench structures. Both structures were found on a small island once surrounded by the central bayou that cut through the site. The structures, which were roughly 5-x-8 m in size, were positioned side by side. Like most of the features recorded on the site, the upper portion was probably once contained within the disturbed plow zone. Only a few shallow basin pit features were found within or directly adjacent to the structures, and we think they may have functioned as cooking or heating pits. These structures appear to be a later occupation than most of the site, most likely a Plaquemine (another archaeological era, just a little bit after Coles Creek) occupation.
Speaking of basin-shaped pits, they were the next largest category of features we recorded. The analysis is still ongoing, but they seem to have several different functions, depending on size and relationship to structures. However, most appear to be cooking pits or roasting pits. We noticed that numerous posts were recorded within the features or immediately adjacent, and we think they could represent wooden scaffolding for raising food above an open flame. Other smaller features may be what we in the biz refer to as “smudge pits,” which are typically used to produce smoke to help control the insect population around and within living quarters.
Some of the recorded basins are very large and relatively deep, especially considering the likelihood that excavators didn’t discover they were uncovering a pit feature until they had already removed the uppermost portion. The largest pits, which ranged in length from 2 to 6 meters and contained more than one million cubic centimeters of soil in volume, may have had more of a communal function for the village. In other words, they were big enough that big groups of people could gather and share meals together. These large pits were closer together, which further enhances that argument in a couple of portions on the site.
One of the richest areas for features and artifacts recovered was found near the center of the village, on the northside of the bayou, adjacent to the existing farm road. In this area alone, we recorded 14 large basin-shaped pits. Just like with their smaller versions, we recorded numerous posts within and around them, indicating scaffolding or roasting of foods. The pit-fill contained all manner of faunal materials, charcoal, ash, and pottery, and some features even had more artisanally made items such as a pipe bowl fragment, a decorative plate, and large serving vessels.
And remember those middens we talked about? Get this — at the Point Pleasant site, we recorded 23 portions of large sheet middens. The largest of these stretches is more than 75 m and lies directly adjacent to the northern edge of the original course of the bayou. The landform was not initially as flat as it appeared in modern times, so many of the smaller middens and certainly the most extensive midden are probably more the result of land leveling during the historic farming of the area. Because the ground naturally sloped toward the bayou, when the area was leveled, these portions were covered with the same rich cultural topsoil as the bayou, and the surrounding area was filled.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what these middens were used for, but we’ll venture a few guesses. It’s entirely possible that some of these middens were disturbed when the land was leveled for construction projects decades ago. However, based on the materials we found within the middens — which were objects that would have been part of the daily lives of the people who lived there — and the kind of soil mixed in — a darker organic soil — we think they may have been the sites of houses. Further, we think that pits and post holes that were no longer used may have been filled in with these refuse materials, so these middens could represent sites where houses once existed and were taken down and rebuilt over and over again, possibly for centuries!
So What Does It All Mean?
These findings are evidence of a large Coles Creek village that was used over and over for generations. The lack of heating pits, particularly at the center of the structures, and the general construction of most of these suggests that the area was only seasonally occupied. However, one section of the site had concentrated areas of very large basin pit features, and we think these may have been gathering sites for the community to get together, eat good food, and enjoy each other’s company.
For one of the first times, we got to see first-hand exactly how a community living 1,000 years ago would structure a seasonal village. We developed our understanding of how this community would come together to build, cook, and live together, and the really cool thing is, these people were just like you and me.
Often when we think of doing archaeology at ancient Native American sites, we think of large mounds. However, such mounds were often the sites where the important people in the communities lived — only the powerful leaders would have occupied mounds. Instead, at the Point Pleasant site, what we found was a site of the common people. The people who lived here didn’t live on high mounds — this was their temporary site they visited for a few months out of the year, likely to catch some fish when they were in season. And just like we do, these people got together to celebrate. We believe these large basin pits were probably used for proper parties — to celebrate marriages, seasonal changes, and so on — but they were also just great places to get together and feast with the community
Finding this site where so many people lived, worked, and gathered together for so long was an inspiring and informative experience, to say the least! We’re incredibly grateful for this experience, and we look forward to finding more and more sites like this and the future.
What do you think? What questions do you still have? We’d love to hear from you! You can find us on Facebook, Instagram, or LinkedIn. And be sure to look out for more posts about our mitigations in the future!
Until next time, keep learning!
— The TerraX Team