Pollen Coring

I went to the Poverty Point area last week to try and track down Dr. Elizabeth Scharf from the University of North Dakota.  I found her there, pulling cores from the deep muck of one of our Louisiana swamps.  She and Lisa Wright (from the Poverty Point Historic Site) were set up on a small raft in about two feet of water in a spot where you would NOT want to be in the middle of summer.  But on this February day the mosquitoes were minimal and the snakes and alligators were either absent or content to keep their distance and just watch.


The process goes something along the lines of forcing a cylindrical tube into the mud, obtaining a sample of the mud and pulling it back out , intact, only using hand-operated equipment.  There’s not much room to maneuver on the raft and I’m guessing it is not very comfortable after the first couple of hours.  They were there for four days.

But the cool part is that Dr. Scharf will take the samples back to her lab in North Dakota to determine the type of pollen that was in the area in the past.  She is specifically looking for what types of plants were growing when Poverty Point was being built around 3700 years ago.  From her previous tests she discovered that oak, pine, planertree, elm, hickory, pecan, cypress, tupelo and sweet gum have been growing in that area for the past six thousand years.  She also found that there is more tree cover here now than there was before historic settlement.  So Poverty Point was probably built in an open area with little vegetation.

She can also tell from the cores that fires were most common around 1500 years ago, even more common than during the Civil War when people were intentionally setting fires to crops and cotton.

I watched them pull a successful core, wrap it in Glad Wrap followed by standard aluminum foil then place it carefully in a section of plastic gutter.  All very low tech.  But I’m guessing the lab in North Dakota is probably slightly more sophisticated.


Looks like it is ready for the oven!  Thanks to Dr. Scharf for explaining while she worked.

About Jenny Ellerbe

I am a photographer living, and working, in northeastern Louisiana.
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1 Response to Pollen Coring

  1. Linda says:

    That is fairly amazing. I had no idea that was the way they determined vegetation from the past. And that is true dedication– to sit out in the raft for that long, taking samples. Only slightly less dedicated is the photographer/writer of the piece…

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