Secrets Buried Beneath Farmland

April 23, 2016 02:23 AM
 
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Cooperation between agriculture and archaeology vital to preserve American Indian history

Archaeologist John Connaway kneels at the edge of a Delta cotton field and sifts through time. In a massive American Indian mound, he is surrounded by scores of pink marker flags jammed into the earth a foot below the surrounding cropland. The pink flags tell a tale covered for more than 1,000 years: post hole, trash pit, inner wall and more. The ground gives Connaway its secrets, but the stories would remain hidden without farmer cooperation.

Despite nearly a century of mechanized agriculture, many American Indian 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 farmers. Agriculture-archaeological relationships, once tainted by mutual suspicion, are protecting the past and allowing farmland to serve as a repository for history.

By the 1950s, heavy equipment allowed farmers to reach deep into soil and flip ground. Subsoilers destroyed American Indian sites, cutting below the hardpan and ripping through burial grounds. Particularly when done in successive years at different angles, remains were obliterated. 

“Years ago, big turning plows would go down several feet and flip dirt in clods as big as a man’s head,” recalls Connaway, archaeologist with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. “I’ve seen whole Indian pots flipped up with a single clod.”

Deep plowing has diminished only to be replaced by precision land leveling, also a threat to American Indian sites. “A farmer has a business to run, and often, he can’t afford to slow down,” Connaway says. “We try to work fast and get out of the farmer’s way because time presses on everybody.”

The majority of American Indian sites are concentrated within an acre or two, Connaway says. For example, several years ago, a farmer called Connaway after scraping across a 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,” he says.

“If a particular farmer doesn’t care about Indian history, there’s nothing I can do. Some farmers view Indian mounds as an extra acre to tear down for production. However, so many farmers have Indian artifact collections and are so proud of what they own,” he notes. 

Connaway works with the Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization that strives to preserve American Indian sites. 

Archaeology rarely disrupts land use for agriculture, says Jessica Crawford, Southeast regional director in Marks, Miss. She walks both sides of the agriculture-archaeology fence: Her husband farms adjoining land in Quitman and Tallahatchie counties. 

The Archaeological Conservancy buys small tracts of land for preservation, allowing archaeologists to conduct on-site research. Often, it allows farmers to continue working the surrounding ground through no-till. “In most cases, we’re glad to let the farmer keep working the land around the mound. It’s a win-win for the farmer and preservation,” Crawford notes.

Connaway asks farmers to contact their state archaeologists when finds are made. “We just want to preserve the story because once it’s lost—it’s lost forever.” 

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