Mapping Through Georgia

There is a hopeful article in the November/December issue of Archaeology that details how modern archaeologists can obtain knowledge of vanished American Indian cultures without disturbing sites that may contain human remains.

At what is now Etowah Indian Mounds State Historic Site in what is now the state of Georgia, archaeologists have eschewed the digging of hundreds of thousands of test pits, which traditional archaeological methodology would consider necessary to fully assess what might lie concealed here, beneath 500 years of flood- and plow-scoured land.

Instead, an archaeological team moving over the surface of the earth utilized sophisticated portable sensors to map a shrouded underground city of more than 140 buried buildings, “without turning a single shovelful of earth.”

A truncated version of the piece in the print magazine is available here. Official state information on Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site can be found here.

“Etowah” means “Mother Town” in the Muscogee tongue; the historic site presents a trio of massive earthen mounds along the banks of north Georgia’s Etowah River. The tallest of the three is roughly the size of a six-story building, and is one of the largest surviving structures built by the Mississippian peoples, who occupied an area ranging from eastern Oklahoma to northern Florida from roughly 1000 to 1500 CE.

It is unknown why these peoples in 1500 CE abandoned these settlements, though the time of their departure roughly coincides with the guesstimate of several recent historians and epidemiologists as to when infectious diseases that were introduced to the continent by Europeans—and to which native peoples had no natural immunity—most probably reached the region.

For more than 500 years, thousands of people dwelt here, where today only the three mounds are visible above the surface of the earth. Computer-enhanced images produced by sensors both handheld and wheeled along on carts reveal that in the earth below lie plazas, homes, hearths, and fire pits. This was a “large, planned communit[y],” one with “intensive agriculture, extensive trade networks, sophisticated chiefdoms, and hierarchical societies.”

The same European penchant for technology that helped to doom this continent’s native peoples now makes it possible that submerged remains of those peoples’ pre-European existence may be viewed, mapped, and (somewhat) understood without resorting to Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel.

Ground-penetrating radar and other subsurface-mapping tools have long been used in a variety of industries and by archaeologists in Europe, where massive stone structures are relatively easy to detect. Prehistoric American sites—often little but wood, burned clay, scattered artifacts, and other subtle features—have proved harder to map. But as computational power, data collection speed, and the ability of software to analyze subtle variations in soils have increased, the technology has become more useful.

For [the Etowah] team, the best tool has proved to be a gradiometer, a device that detects minute differences in magnetic fields where soils have been disturbed by foundations, post-holes and pits—or when wood or other organic material has burned. In many cases, the signatures of such objects persist long after they have rotted away. At Etowah, magnetic anomalies allow archaeologists to “see” not only the plow furrows left by farming, but the outlines of buildings, plazas, and hearths built more than five centuries ago.

Mississippian peoples often interred their dead in the floors of their dwellings. That fact makes excavation at this site problematic, as the descendants of the Etowah—the Muscogee, or Creek—are, like most American Indians, not much given to disturbing their dead.

While Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, under current law, retains sole authority to permit excavations, “the agency,” says archaeologist David Crass, “would never do so without full and free consultation between the state, descendant tribes, and the archaeologists involved.”

Joyce Bear, manager of cultural preservation for the Muscogee Nation, says “what we’re learning is a wonderful thing for our tribes. And we’re especially pleased that [the] team [is] doing it without excavation.” Bear has said that “small, limited excavations” might yield further information, but neither she, the archaeologists, nor the state, are in any hurry to go there.

Progress comes in steps. Sometimes those steps seem tiny. But they’re still steps. This is such a step.

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