Archaeologist John Connaway kneels on the edge of a Delta cotton field and sifts through time as a baking sun drops, yet heat still hangs over a sea of white.
Flanked by a massive Indian mound, he is surrounded by scores of pink marker flags jammed into mocha brown dirt peeled back a foot below the surrounding cropland. The pink flags tell a tale covered for over 1,000 years: post hole, trash pit, inner wall, and so much more. The ground gives Connaway its secrets, but the stories would remain hidden if not for farmer cooperation.
Despite nearly a century of mechanized agriculture, many Native American sites remain covered, particularly in alluvial regions with an extreme range of artifact depth. The possibility to preserve those sites is heavily dependent on help from U.S. farmers. Agriculture-archaeological relationships, once tainted by mutual suspicion, are protecting the past and allowing farmland to serve as a vast repository for history.
By the 1950s, agriculture technology and heavy equipment converged to allow producers to reach deep in the soil and flip ground. Sub-soilers rapidly destroyed Native American sites, cutting below the hardpan and ripping through burial grounds. Particularly when done in successive years at different angles, the remains were obliterated. “Years ago, the big turning plows would go down several feet and flip dirt in clods as big as a man’s head,” recalls Connaway, a renowned archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “I’ve seen whole Indian pots flipped up with a single clod.”
Subsoiling and deep-plowing have generally diminished in recent years, replaced by precision land leveling as a major threat to Native American sites. Land leveling transforms farmland toward better production, drainage and yield, but it annihilates Native American sites. “A farmer has a business to run, and often he can’t afford to slow down,” Connaway says. “But lots of times farmers find things and call me. We try to work fast and get out of the farmer’s way because time presses on everybody.”
The majority of Native American sites are concentrated within an acre or two, and Connaway says many producers are willing to help. Several years back, during land leveling, a farmer called Connaway after scraping across a Native American site at his field’s edge. Connaway arrived to see freshly exposed trash pits, house sites, and skeletons. “He went around it, let us get the burials out, and I spent three years excavating 50 house sites, 400 trash pits, and 150 people.”
“If a particular farmer doesn’t care about Indian history, there’s nothing I can do. However, so many, farmers have Indian artifact collections and are so proud of what they own,” Connaway notes. “Some farmers view Indian mounds as an extra acre to tear down for production. But again, so many others are very proud of having a mound and take excellent care of it.”
Connaway sometimes works with the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization with a primary purpose to preserve Indian sites. Jessica Crawford, Southeast Regional Director in Marks, Miss., says archaeology rarely disrupts land use for agriculture. She walks both sides of the agriculture-archaeology fence: Her husband farms adjoining land in Quitman and Tallahatchie counties. “I rarely have trouble getting permission from farmers to allow me on their land," she says.
Win-win for producer and preservation
The Archaeological Conservancy buys small tracts of land for preservation across the U.S. The organization holds the titles for research and educational purposes, allowing archaeologists to conduct research on the sites. Often, when the Conservancy buys Indian mound sites, it allows farmers to continue working the surrounding ground through no till. The 12-18” plow zone typically around mounds has been jumbled for years, and the ground is already disturbed. It’s no longer in stratigraphic layers, and the threat of loss is minimal. “In most cases, we’re glad to let the farmer keep working the land around the mound. It’s a win-win for farmer and preservation,” Crawford notes.
There are numerous examples of great cooperation between farmer, landowner, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, and the Archaeological Conservancy. Crawford encourages farmers to contact state archaeologists when finds are made. “A farmer’s priority is making money; not necessarily preserving remains. However, so many are understanding and serve as great caretakers of the past.”
“If you think you’ve got an Indian site on your land, please contact us,” Connaway adds. “We just want to preserve the story, because once it’s lost, it’s lost forever.”
Have you ever discovered artifacts on your land? Let us know in the comments.