American farmland, particularly the Mississippi Delta, has a rich history, both prehistoric and historic, but without careful documentation, it is in danger of being lost.
This commentary is in response to the article Surveyor Terry Smith: Delta farmland holds secrets of Indian history, published in the Oct. 28, 2013, issue of Delta Farm Press. As archeologists, we enjoyed seeing an article about a person who appreciates the prehistory and history of the Delta. American farmland, particularly the Mississippi Delta, has a rich history, both prehistoric and historic, but without careful documentation, it is in danger of being lost. Therefore, we need to build better relationships between archeologists and farmers in order to learn about the region’s incredible past.
The relationship between landowners and archeologists is often seen to be adversarial. We believe this is based on a number of myths about archeology. Archeology is the study of the human past through material remains. Removing artifacts without recording their discovery site destroys evidence and/or context. Where an artifact is found and what it is near provides important information about the time period in which an artifact was made and about the people who made it. If a landowner or collector reports a site to an archeologist, the archeologist cannot take away land or the artifacts found on the land. In fact, archeologists keep site locations confidential in order to protect both the landowner and the site. Our goal is to gain as much information as possible about the sites and artifact collections found in the area.
In Arkansas, collecting artifacts on private land (with landowner permission) is legal (except in the case of graves). But, without the information about the site where the artifacts are found, an important part of Delta history is lost. There is the argument that picking up artifacts from the surface of a site does no harm because the artifact is already out of context. While the specific context of that item may be lost, knowing which site the object came from is critical in piecing together information about the cultures and lifestyles of prehistoric and historic peoples. Archeologists, both avocational and professional, are trained to keep careful records and archive the information in proper repositories. Landowners who take the time to record where an artifact is found can greatly aid archeologists in the documenting of sites, which is great for everyone interested in the Delta’s history.
With new farming practices such as precision leveling, archeological sites can be destroyed in an afternoon with heavy equipment. This means that we rely more than ever on landowners and interested and engaged citizens to let us know what is happening to sites. In Arkansas, archeologists from the Arkansas Archeological Survey have worked with landowners, levelers, and concerned citizens to document Native American sites before and during leveling. While it is not the ideal way to study a site, with the cooperation of these groups, we are able to conduct archeological excavations, take photographs, and make maps of some of the features of the sites and the general topography of the area.
Arkansas and Mississippi have regional archeologists who can help those interested document archeological sites. The Mississippi Department of Archives and History has staff archeologists, one of whom is located in Clarksdale. The Arkansas Archeological Survey is a state organization with 11 research stations scattered across the state. Five of these stations cover the Mississippi Delta. Arkansas also has a volunteer organization for people interested in learning about and participating in archeology, known as the Arkansas Archeological Society. Every June, a two-week training program is held during which people from all over the country converge in Arkansas to excavate a site and learn about excavation and lab methods, as well as take a variety of other courses, such as site survey, ceramic analysis, faunal (animal bone) analysis, and many more.
We know that there are many more people like Terry Smith who love Delta history. We hope you will consider working with your local archeologists. Your knowledge is invaluable. Concerned citizens and landowners have contributed a vast amount of information about the prehistory and history of the Delta. Communication is key to learning about and preserving the cultural heritage of the Delta. This history belongs to all of us and can only be celebrated if everyone works together to save and record as much of the Delta’s past as we can.
To learn more about the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, you can visit their website at www.mdah.state.ms.us. To learn more about the Arkansas Archeological Survey and the regional archeological research stations, visit their website at www.Arkansasarcheology.org.