Vols joined Pros at Kolomoki

Submitted by Dick Brunelle (rfbdick@yahoo.com)

It is was once said, “June is the month for weddings”. Not in our field of avocational and vocational interest. June is the first full month when schools of all kinds release students of anthropology and archaeology, along with their professors, to “get down to earth” in archaeological pursuits. And sometimes, they allow volunteers to use their vacation time to assist them in their endeavors. In June of 2006, there were three such opportunities to work alongside professionals, before the unbearable heat (for digging in middle and lower Georgia), took over in July and August.

In Macon, the foundations of Fort Hawkins were to be exposed by Dan Elliot and his crew. Dennis Blanton would be leading a team of mostly volunteers in a search for the lost mission of Santa Isabel de Utinahica in Telfair County. Also, Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn would be returning to the Kolomoki Mound complex at Kolomoki State Park in Early County to search for remains of domestic living there during the Late Woodland time period.

As all three of these worthy endeavors were to take place at the same time, choosing among them was difficult. For this writer, that decision was made easier by the opportunity of camping under beautiful pines, three minutes from work and two minutes from fishing. The choice proved fortuitous, as upon arrival, I was offered a berth at an old ranger cabin. It was a small room with three beds, shared with two other male volunteers. To sleep under a small window air conditioner, suddenly seemed preferable to sleeping under the beautiful pines.

There has been a wide range of opinion on how to interpret the cultural remains left by the builders of earthen mounds at Kolomoki and other mound complexes in America. But much progress has been made in the last century. To keep things in perspective, it may not hurt to include a few quotations from the writings of early mound investigators. As late as 1904, John Patterson MacLean, a historian, concluded this from his own research and that of the archaeologists of the late nineteenth century: “An ancient race, entirely distinct from the Indian, possessing a certain degree of civilization, once inhabited the central portion of the United States. They have left no written history, and all that is known concerning them is gathered from the monuments consisting of mounds, enclosures, implements, etc., which they have left behind. These remains have been carefully examined, and after long and patient investigations, the archaeologist has arrived at certain definite conclusions, and so apparently accurate are they that we may safely say that we are very well acquainted with this lost race.”

By 1905, archaeologist Cyrus Thomas, addressed the “Lost Race” theory with these words: “A single voice raised at intervals in protest against this conclusion was overwhelmed by the declarations of leading authorities of the time. Research and careful scientific investigation, however, have to a large extent cleared away the mist that surrounded the subject, and it is now generally conceded that the authors of these works were the immediate ancestors of the Indians found inhabiting this section when visited by the first European explorers.” Most archaeologists working at Kolomoki have investigated the site by digging into the mounds, a practice that has not provided all the answers to questions surrounding the largest Woodland mound complex in the Southeast. Dr. Pluckhahn believes additional understanding can be achieved by excavating living areas next to the mounds. Features of a Middle Woodland house were recorded in 2001. Now, the search is on for a Late Woodland period house that might shed light on any changes in construction and use.

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Figure 1. The Core Crew at Colomokee (seated, left to right: Buck, Bobby, Elsbeth, Sarah; standing: Rae).

My partners in grime for this dig were a good representation of the academic spectrum (Figure 1). There was Bobby Butler, a high school student from Savannah, Buck Brown, grad at the University of North Carolina, Elsbeth Field, a Princeton graduate who was in a graduate program at the University of Oklahoma, and Rae Harper, with a B.A. in Anthropology from the University of South Florida (USF). Thomas Pluckhahn topped the tower of technical talent; with a 2003 Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, three years teaching at the University of Oklahoma, and now, Assistant Professor of Archaeology at USF. Rae was the invaluable right-hand person at the project. She was uniquely qualified for the task, having entered a post graduate program in public archaeology.

The Summer 2006 excavation was funded by the National Geographic Society. Support was provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. During previous visits, shovel tests and excavated test units had shown a relatively high concentration of Late Woodland artifacts on the south side of the access road.

kolomoki_map

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Figure 2. Units excavated (illustrations courtesy of Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn).

Multiple units were excavated in this area and 18 m2 of earth were screened (Figure 2). Six features were excavated and others were exposed. These were covered and backfilled in anticipation of Dr. Pluckhahn’s 2007 summer field school at the site. The units shown in Figure 2 contained deep storage pits, which are larger than those of Middle Woodland sites excavated in previous years. Although features representing a Late Woodland structure were not definitely found, an arcing line of possible post holes were visible. The pattern is very different from that previously observed in Middle Woodland house sites at Kolomoki.

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Figure 3. Excavation in progress.

Digging at Kolomoki in June of 2006 was about as good as it gets. The weather was hot and sunny, but not unbearable. This article gives me an opportunity to thank our leader, Dr. Thomas Pluckhahn, for his humanity in having us dig in shaded spots as much as possible (Figure 3). He, in turn, wishes to thank all those who participated. After brush was cleared, top debris removed and squares laid out, the digging commenced. The soil being mostly alluvial, there were few rocks to contend with. But roots were an annoyance to bear. This was made easier by keeping in mind that tree roots are a good trade off to digging in a field under a hot sun. After reaching a depth where the roots thinned out; excavating the loamy soil was easy.

It impressed me that no artifacts from the historic period were present and that prehistoric artifacts were in such a thin layer once encountered. Something else that surprised me, was that pottery sherds of different traditions were at the same level, or nearly so. It was the same with the relatively few lithics (compared to pot sherds), that were found. In one square I was digging in, a lanceolate biface was at the same level as a crude looking spike.

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Figure 4. Stemmed projectile point from Kolomoki excavations.

The Swift Creek Complicated Stamped and Weeden Island decorations appeared to be well executed, especially the Keith Incised sherds. The most exquisite bifaces were excavated by other members of our group in nearby squares (Figure 4).

The project was a lot of fun and I enjoyed helping to shed light on Georgia’s prehistory.

Editor’s note: Dick returned for Dr. Pluckhahn’s second field season at Kolomoki, which was completed on June 21, 2007. This time he chose to stay in the campground, which he has dubbed “Falling Timbers,” as a tree came crashing down behind his tent at 3:00 AM one morning. Some branches broke up ten feet away, but his tent was untouched. Ahhh‚ communing with nature is always so relaxing. We’re glad Dick is safe.

References cited

MacLean, John Patterson
1904 The Mound Builders, Being an Account of a Remarkable People That Once Inhabited the Valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi, Together With an Investigation Into the Archaeology of Butler County, Ohio. 7th edition, The Robert Clarke Company.

Pluckhahn, Thomas J.
2003 Kolomoki: Settlement, Ceremony, and Status in the Deep South, A.D. 350 to 750. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.
2007 Personal Communication.

Thomas, Cyrus
1905 The History of North America, Vol. 19, Prehistoric North America. George Barrie & Sons, Philadelphia.