Welcome back from the field everyone. As the academic year gets started, it’s time for me to start reading again and moving through my ever-growing folder of “To Read” articles. The one that has been staring me in the face since Erin, David, and I presented our paper on mound building at the AAAs in New Orleans is:
Sherwood, Sarah C. and Tristram R. Kidder. The DaVincis of dirt: Geoarchaeological perspectives on Native American mound building in the Mississippi River basin. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 30 (2011) 69-87.
And in my humble opinion, it was everything I’d hoped it would be!
For those of you that have not had the chance to read it, the crux of Sherwood and Kidder’s argument is that we need to view mounds themselves as artifacts to be studied, analyzed, and interpreted. More that just piles of moved earth, they argue that mounds took high levels of geotechnical knowledge on the part of their builders and high commitments of labor from the communities that constructed them. Their article focuses largely on a geoarchaeological approach to mound building that focuses on the soils used in the construction of mounds: where they are from, how they were gathered, how they were incorporated into the mound, and how all those characteristics affects both their social and engineering value.
Now for a few of my own thoughts… First, this article really made me wish I knew more about soils. I feel like this is common occurrence when I read new things now and yet I feel like adding a significant component of geoarchaeology to my degree-seeking process would make an already long time-to-degree much longer. How do we get around the challenges? Especially as funding is getting harder and harder to procure, can we always rely on paying specialists? What do we need to be doing in the field to collect data that can speak to these questions (even if we won’t necessarily get to it during our dissertation research)? At Feltus, we take micromorphological block samples from key transitions in our mound profiles and occasionally from within massive deposits to get at their character. We also take high resolution photomosaics of the profile so that if our in-field interpretation recorded on the profile drawing doesn’t work out… we can go back to the field data as easily as possible.
Above: Photomosaic from our Mound A trench in 2007. (We’re still working on the ones from 2012.)
My second thought is that this article masterfully combines a forward-thinking theoretical standpoint with a solid grounding in the science of soils. I find this inspiring and a great example of what a “data-heavy theory paper” can be!
And finally, a quote… “Simply put, not all mounds are alike and to treat them as if they have known similar histories, or that their shape is a clue to their functional history, is a disservice to the archaeological record.” This is what truly related to Erin, David, and my thinking on the consistent interpretation of platform mounds as symbols of hierarchy just because of their shape. The long history of platform mound construction and use (as nicely summarized by Lindauer and Blitz 1997) is really becoming a focus of my research and I would appreciate if any of you who know of good sources discussing early platform mounds or alternative uses of platform mounds world-wide would send them my way!