Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Past Revealed Bit by Bit

Anthropology professor Dr. Thomas Foster and his students spent much of the summer in the searing Alabama heat excavating Apalachicola, the site of what was once the capital of the Muscogee Creek.

Anthropology professor Dr. Thomas Foster and his students spent much of the summer in the searing Alabama heat excavating Apalachicola, the site of what was once the capital of the Muscogee Creek.  The dark earth gave up a few of its mysteries, leading to more questions. The team carried away sherds, beads, buttons, buckles, glass and other artifacts in brown paper bags.

Students on the dig are taking an undergraduate course in archaeological field research. They work they do, including digging, examining and cataloguing the artifacts, prepares them professionally for work in the field.

The dig tested their physical and intellectual mettle. They spent hours in the sun, brushing away thin layers of dirt to unearth the past.

The pieces amazed them.

“The cool thing is, the further we dig – we are pulling larger sherds from the dirt,” said Danny Tolliver, who retired from the U.S. Navy and returned to school to study anthropology for his second career.

“One piece we pulled, you could see little cherries painted on this piece,” he said. “I thought that was really, really neat. It might have been a portion of a plate. Think about it, two hundred years ago someone was using that for something. We just have to figure out what it is.”

Some of the pieces they found are much older than Foster expected.

Among their most exciting finds was a fragment of an effigy in clay. It could be from the much earlier Mississippian Indians – the mound builders that flourished in the Southeast from about 900 to 1500 AD, Foster said.

The delicate face became clear as Foster turned it and turned it and turned it in his hands. “It was this carved face, very accurate, very human-looking face,” Foster said. “You don’t typically see those during the Creek period…. They are much more common about 500 years earlier.”

The artifacts are on campus now in the Antonio J. Waring, Jr. Archaeological Laboratory, where Foster is the director. They will be re-examined, catalogued and studied further.

It’s still early in his research, but Foster said he will likely have to update some of the articles he has written about the Muscogee Creek because of the older artifacts he found.

Much of the area, just over the Georgia-Alabama state line, is now covered with dense pines, but hundreds of years ago the Muscogee Creek thrived here. The people lived in rectangular homes up and down the Chattahoochee River, trading with English colonists and with the Spanish soldiers, who posted to small fort only a few hundred yards away from 1689 to 1691.

“I’m getting a much later assemblage of artifacts. I wasn’t expecting that,’ Foster said. “I was expecting to see more Spanish materials here.”

For a time, the village was the home of Chekilli, the chief of the Creek Confederacy. Chekilli and other Native American dignitaries traveled to Savannah to meet with James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony.

“This town is part of the founding of Georgia,” he said. “It’s relevant to Georgia history. It’s relevant to Southeastern history. It’s relevant to Native American studies.”

William Bartram, the 18th Century naturalist, traveled to Apalachicola in the 1770s, where native inhabitants took him to “the old town,” Foster said.

“He described mounds and ancient terraces from the old times. So they are here somewhere and some of the older pottery items that we are finding…. are probably an indicator of those time periods.”

Foster is spearheading the three-year, interdisciplinary research. The fields of archeology, geology, botany, archeozoology, dendrology and history are represented in the project.

“We are trying to measure a lot of different things at one time…. to see what they are doing with each other and what they are doing to their environment,” Foster said.

A $211,320 grant from the National Science Foundation is funding the project that explores how village life changed in a 150-year period, from the late 17th Century to the early 18th Century. UWG is the lead institution. Foster is working with researchers from Penn State, the University of Arizona and Columbus State University. He will also do oral histories of the Muscogee Creek Nation as part of the project.

The researchers are also examining the impact the native inhabitants had on their environment, for example the effect of forest fire on forest composition and the impact of slash-and-burn agriculture on the plant and animal communities.

“We can take that information from the past and apply it to modern environmental management,” Foster said.

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