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.

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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.

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

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Pargoud Landing

I put off going to photograph Pargoud Landing because it is in Monroe, not far from where I live and I kept thinking I could go there any time.  It wasn’t an excursion that I needed to plan (or pack a lunch) for.  But in December the clouds were right and the temperature cool and the wind brisk and it was just time to visit Pargoud.

Pargoud Landing is in a residential neighborhood that is nestled up against the confluence of the Ouachita River and Bayou Desiard.  I can get there by kayak from my backyard though I would have to go over or under a few bridges along the way.

One of the earliest references to the site was in 1787 which listed that there were originally three mounds but that two had been destroyed.  In 1909, archaeologist C.B. Moore published “Antiquities of the Ouachita Valley” and wrote about Pargoud Landing that  “the mound, evidently domiciliary, has suffered through wash of rain.  It was not dug into by us.”

It was excavated in 1935 by Ford and Freeman who noted that the site included at least two mounds.  A portion of the site was bulldozed in 1973 and skeletons and associated grave goods were exhumed by amateurs.  Really.  The site was excavated again during the summers of the mid- to late 1970s by Glen Greene from what was then Northeast Louisiana University.  A collection of artifacts is on display at the ULM Museum of Natural History and if you haven’t seen it, you should go.  Soon.

The tallest mound at the site was estimated to be approximately 28 feet tall.  It is thought to be an early Plaquemine site built around AD 1200.

So that’s the history I can glean from the articles given to me by Dr. Diana Greenlee from Poverty Point.  But every time I mention my ancient mounds project to anyone who grew up in the area around Pargoud they always tell me stories.  Riding their bicycles up and over the mound.  Sliding down it on pieces of cardboard.  They usually express remorse now that they are adults and realize that the ground they played on was sacred.

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Standing on the paved road next to the large houses while the occasional golf cart putters by, it’s hard to imagine the surroundings of this mound back when it was built or even when it was first noted in 1787.  But, to me, the humble mound still makes all the fine homes seem so temporary.  They will probably crumble to the ground someday while the mound waits, patiently, to see what’s going to replace them.  Again.

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Hogan Plantation

It had been over a year since I first heard of the Hogan Plantation mounds that I finally found myself turning down the dirt road that I thought, maybe, led to them.  I stopped at the first house I came to, got out of the car and knocked at the front door.  No answer.  I drove to the second house.  Same thing.  So I wrote a quick note about my project, attached a business card and tucked it into one of the mailboxes.  And waited.

About a week later I got a call from one of the landowners saying she would be delighted for me to come back and photograph the mounds.  So a couple of days later I made the return trip, arriving mid-morning on a warm November day.

I was met by Melissa Cummings, one of the owners of the site, who graciously offered to give me a guided tour of the two mounds that reside on her family’s property.  She got in her Jeep and I followed in my ancient Honda and we struck out down the dirt road, past the fallow cottonfields, around the muddy ruts, over the levee, along the edge of the thick woods then, finally, into the thick woods where the weeds grew taller than the hood of my car.  We got out.

Melissa immediately told me to be careful of the water moccasins and rattlesnakes.  She said there were also copperheads but not to worry about them since I would probably step on one before I would see it anyway.  She also mentioned ticks that carried Lyme disease as well as mosquitoes with West Nile virus.  And then she tossed me an orange vest saying there were inexperienced hunters in the woods that day and that I should make as much noise as I could.  I wished I had at least worn my boots.

We climbed to the top of Mound B which rises from a terrace of the Ouachita River and is home to a small cemetery and a simple deer stand.  Melissa got me oriented, showed me the historic gravestones and made sure I was settled into my surroundings before leaving me to explore and photograph in peace.  Or relative peace.  I decided to whistle intermittently to announce my presence, not that I really thought it was doing much good.

Mound B is approximately 20 feet tall and though it is oval-shaped now, it was probably once a rectangular platform mound.  It is surrounded by dense, tangled woods but it would have risen above a clearing when it was active during the Coles Creek period.  It has partially eroded into the floodplain of the river that meanders just south of the site.

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The first known recorded account of the Hogan mounds was by a geologist in 1902.  At that time Mound B was estimated to measure 100 x 50 feet at the top.  It’s always strange for me to stand alongside history, alongside an ancient past as well as the more recent explorations of archaeologists and other scientists.  Just another speck in the long, long continuum.

On the other side of the modern levee is the sister mound, Mound A.  It is shorter, roughly 15 feet, and is conical-shaped with a flat top.  That top is roughly 35 feet across, large enough for a picnic table and nighttime hot dog roasts and ghost stories.  Unlike Mound B, it is surrounded by farmland that still has clumps of cotton mixed in with the well-turned dirt.

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I spent over an hour walking the mounds, scrambling to the summits, surveying the perimeters, whistling.  But it wasn’t until I crawled up on the picnic table, stretched out on my back and gazed up at the sky that I finally felt a part of the site.  My view included trees that wouldn’t have been there during ancient times but I’m sure the November sky was the same and maybe even the wonder at the amazing gifts that can be found beneath it.

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Thanks to Melissa Cummings for her gracious hospitality and Dr. Diana Greenlee for providing me with the information on the site.

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The Owls of Poverty Point – in print

There is a new article in the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities magazine – Louisiana Cultural Vistas – featuring the Owls of Poverty Point.  It was written by Monroe writer, William Caverlee, and contains a blurb about this Shared Earth project.

http://www.nxtbook.com/leh/lcvwinter2012/lcvwinter2012/index.php#/42

If the above link doesn’t work for you, just google “Louisiana Cultural Vistas” and take a look at the Winter 2012 issue.

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The Ghost Site

A year or so ago I was driving along Hwy. 4 in Tensas Parish when I noticed a sign that said “Bob’s Campground.”  And there was indeed a campground there with sites laid out in an orderly grid.  It was full of old campers and trailers … vintage Shastas and Prowlers, rusty Airstream knockoffs with round windows and the occasional full-scale mobile home.  And I couldn’t help but wonder … why?  Why would so many people want to camp along Hwy. 4 in Tensas Parish?  I vowed to go back one day and photograph my way to an answer.

I found myself there again a few weeks ago, along with my “Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana Driving Trail Guide”, and was astonished to discover an ancient mound in the rear of the campground.  There was even a driving trail sign that I had overlooked before.  “The Ghost Site Mound.”  I was ecstatic.

I called the phone number on the wooden sign and spoke with Bob Himself, Mr. Robert Brumley.  I told him I wanted to photograph the mound there and he graciously gave me permission and answered many of my questions about the place.  It turns out the campers there are mostly on yearly leases.  But why?  Ah, they are hunting camps.  I don’t hunt but find it somehow comforting that the mound is surrounded by people who, like the original inhabitants, still do.

I was greeted on my arrival by an inquisitive Basset Hound who, after getting her ears scratched and belly rubbed, was willing to tag along with me on the photo expedition.  There are 3 (possibly 5) mounds at the site but only one is really large enough to see.  It is about 11 feet tall and 118×92 feet at the base.  It has a historic cemetery on top as so many of the ancient mounds do.

I climbed to the summit and read the text chiseled into the old tombstones.  Jacob Bieller, October 30, 1824- April 11, 1851.  Joseph B. Ford, March 20, 1839 – Dec. 29, 1857.  Mr. Brumley told me a couple of the large and very heavy markers had tumbled off the mound over the years but he and his sons had hauled them back to the top and tried to replace them where they originally stood.

As I explored and photographed, a few of the campground inhabitants wandered by ferrying pots of food to a central location for cooking dinner.  I listened to their muffled conversation and laughter and watched their dogs weave their way through all the activity.  I knew that soon the aroma of spices and woodsmoke would fill the air and that later the families would sit under the night sky, tell stories and watch the firelight flicker in the darkness.  And I knew that even though the living quarters and cooking methods were vastly different, the evening would be much the same as it had been for the ancient Coles Creek culture who had lived at the base of the mound a thousand or so years before.

Thanks to Mr. Brumley and his family for caring for this ancient site and for allowing me to photograph it.

The Ghost Site Mound, AD 700-1200

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Flowery Mound

Ok, I’ll be honest.  When I first saw “Flowery Mound” on the map, south of Tallulah, near St. Joseph, I wasn’t expecting much.  It sounded too cute.  I expected miniature windmills and garden gnomes.  Maybe one of those whirligig birds with the spinning wings.

But what I found was a single mound, about 10 feet tall, with an old wooden playhouse built on top.  It sits right off Hwy. 128 and can be easily seen from the roadway.  No plastic flamingoes were visible.

The mound was built in a single episode around AD 1000 and measures 165 x 130 feet at the base.  It is located on a natural levee deposit along Andrews Bayou which is a channel of the Mississippi River.  The marker at the site states that the corners are oriented to the cardinal directions.  Why?  Coincidence?

I pulled over on the shoulder of the road, turned on my flashers and got out to photograph the site.  Traffic hurried behind me.  I thought the drivers must be wondering what could possibly be interesting about a pile of dirt with a crumbling playhouse on top.  I’m sure most of them drive by it often, maybe every day, ignoring the sign and the significance.

I wanted to wave them down.  The pile of dirt was built a thousand years ago!!!  I’m fairly confident that it’s the coolest thing they will see all day.

Flowery Mound

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Shackleford Church Mounds

I recently returned from another trip to the desert Southwest where I again tried to follow the fading footsteps of the mysterious Anasazi.  I truly love that landscape which is so, SO different from here.  And I always hate to leave it, not knowing if I will ever make it back again.

But I’m now back home in Louisiana, following the fading footsteps of the ancient moundbuilders.  Yesterday I took a drive through Richland, Madison, Tensas and Franklin parishes.

I love this time of year.  The cypress trees are rusting.  The last of the cotton is being picked and hauled to the bustling gins.  The shoulders of rural roads are covered in white batting which floats down from the large trucks and gathers along the edges.  Dust storms hover behind tractors as fields are tilled and laid to rest for the winter.  It’s as if the whole area is nesting, getting things in order, readying itself for winter.

While I drove, following the directions in the Driving Trail Guide, I was reminded of how much I love this flat delta land.  I see the flaws.  I know the problems.  And I cringe every time it makes the national news because I’m pretty sure it won’t be for a good reason.  But … but … it is so rich.  And lush.  And deep.  And while things move slowly here, they do move.  Progress creeps along, caught behind the cotton haulers and Aunt Bessie’s old Buick.  Honking the horn does little good but … not to worry.  There will be a straight stretch of road soon and we will start to make a bit of headway.  Until we get stalled behind the next obstacle in our way.

People built mounds here for thousands and thousands and thousands of years.  And they only quit when the Europeans showed up and introduced new ways.  A lot has happened since then.  And nowhere is that progress more apparent than when standing next to ancient ground such as this.

The Shackleford Church Mounds
Tensas Parish

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An Owl in the Hand

This is the reverse of the sense of scale post where tiny people illustrated the monumental size of Mound A at Poverty Point.  Here station archaeologist Dr. Diana Greenlee holds a tiny Poverty Point owl made of red jasper, a type of stone.

How could anyone make something so small and so beautiful … with crude tools … over 3000 years ago?

A close-up view …

Amazing artisans.  And, yes, the small perfect hole would have allowed them to be worn as pendants.

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SharedEarth Video

I participated in a TEDx event here in Monroe, LA a few weeks ago.  My talk was about the ancient earthworks so I thought I would post a link to the video.  You can watch it by clicking here. 

I’ve never done a talk like this before and don’t know that I ever will again!  But now that it is over, I can look back and say it was a great experience.  And maybe there are a few more people who understand and appreciate the mounds who didn’t before.

A special thanks to the organizers for including me in the event and to the audience who attended.

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A Sense of Scale

How large is the largest mound at Poverty Point?  According to the info that I have it is about 70 feet tall and more than 700 by 640 feet at its base.  And that’s after roughly 3500 years of erosion from rain and tornadoes and hurricanes.  And the digging of armadillos.  And fire ants.  And probably at least a bit of manmade tinkering.

But those numbers don’t mean much to me.  It’s only when I see the mound in relation to the people who climb it, that it begins to grow.  And grow.

In this small photograph it is difficult to even see the 2 people on the spine of the mound.  But they are there, tiny dots, barely visible.

Some people believe this mound was built in the shape of a bird, with its head pointing west (to the left in the picture) and the tail to the east, wings spreading north and south, as if it is lifting itself from the plaza and flying into the setting sun.  I happen to be one of those people.

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