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50 YEARS OF ALABAMA ARCHAEOLOGY:

PRESERVATION AND ACCESS TO RESEARCH COLLECTIONS

Introduction

In May, 2003, the Office of Archaeological Research (OAR), a unit of the University of Alabama Museums (UAM), received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (Grant PA-50138) to preserve and facilitate access to material culture collections from archaeological surveys and excavations throughout the state of Alabama . In 1984, OAR renovated the Erskine Ramsay Archaeological Repository (Erskine Ramsay) at a cost of approximately $179,000 and brought this facility into a condition exceeding the standards in 36 CFR Part 79, “Curation of Federally-owned and Administered Archaeological Collections”. New, uniform curation procedures were implemented at that time, also conforming to the regulation. All collections obtained since January 1, 1984 have been curated by these new procedures. A large backlog of UAM collections, however, remain in the laboratory awaiting rehabilitation to bring them up to current curation standards. NEH grant funding allowed the rehabilitation of eighty individual collections which can be divided into eight collection groups which are described below. These collections include 1,676 cubic feet of specimens and 533 folders of associated documents. Associated photographs were not covered by this grant, nor were any human remains.

The collections rehabilitated under NEH Grant PA-50138 resulted from professionally conducted surveys and excavations performed by staff of the Alabama Museum of Natural History (AMNH), at times under contracts managed by the UA Department of Anthropology. Just about all of the projects which produced the collections to be processed under this proposed project were baseline research: intensive, multi-year projects in areas which were previously archaeologically unknown. Walthall’s (1980) synthesis of Alabama prehistory clearly illustrates the impact these collections have had on our understanding of Alabama prehistory. Every chapter of Walthall’s work draws on information from these projects. The reports of all the major projects listed cited below and many of the secondary works appear in Walthall’s bibliography.

These collections are important for understanding the history of research as well as for archaeological interpretation. The collections are associated with a single institution, the Alabama Museum of Natural History, and two individuals. The four decades of archaeological work represented by these collections span the careers of Dr. Walter B. Jones, Director of the Alabama Museum from 1927 until his retirement in the 1960s, and David L. DeJarnette, who began as a Museum archaeologist in 1929, gaining a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology in 1956 and retiring in 1976. David DeJarnette is considered the founder of Alabama archaeology. His body of work, including nearly all of these collections plus many others, was a cornerstone in the development of Alabama prehistory. The students he trained are now in positions of professional leadership throughout the Southeast. Most of these students gained their practical experience working on the projects which generated these collections.

The dawn of scientific archaeology in Alabama is placed at 1932, when DeJarnette returned from the University of Chicago Field School. These collections began to be accumulated at this time. The field notes and forms and the methods and techniques they document form a historic record of scientific development in Alabama. This archive begins near the end of the era when excavation was viewed as a means of collecting objects for museum exhibit. It then traces the major questions and paradigms of Southeastern prehistory through four decades. Among these subjects are:

1. Development of stratigraphic excavation methods and artifact seriation as dating techniques,

2. The Midwestern Taxonomic System as a culture history device

3. The Direct Historical Approach to cultural interpretation

4. Determination of the antiquity of Native American occupation

5. Development of local and regional chronological sequences

6. The Cultural-Historical approach to cultural interpretation

7. Problem oriented research

8. Cultural Ecology

 

The collections reflect shifts in archaeological methods paralleling these theoretical developments. The earlier specimen collections include selected artifacts, hand picked as the dirt was shoveled or troweled. The collections became increasingly broad and systematic through time as soil was screened, fine-screened, or floated and an increasing variety of specimen or material types were recovered and retained. The associated documentation also increase. New types of field forms were added to the repertoire and more information was recorded for each excavated context. More detailed catalogs were created for the laboratory, and new types of analyses were conducted and recorded

 

The Collections

Short descriptions of the eight groups of collections covered by this grant follow in rough chronological order. Citations for the various projects are not included in these descriptions but each of the individual collection report contains a bibliography of papers, reports, and other results of the original project and any subsequent research on the collection.

Warrior River Survey . Given that the Moundville site was originally with the Alabama Museum of Natural History, it follows that the first major survey work by the museum was in the Warrior River valley, primarily focused on Tuscaloosa County , between the University campus and Moundville, which lies astride the Tuscaloosa/Hale County line. A total of 250 sites was recorded in the area, almost all in two episodes: 96 sites were recorded in July of 1933 and 128 were recorded in the spring and summer of 1937. Only 18 of these sites are located in Hale County , downriver from Moundville. This collection was never cataloged and no report was issued. Parts of the collection have seen recent use in studies of the number of farmstead or hamlet sized Moundville culture sites, their distribution, and temporal relationship to the Moundville site proper. Other portions of the survey collection were analyzed in an earlier broad study of Moundville culture site distribution in the Warrior River valley. The AMNH also conducted excavations at three outlying Moundville sites during this time. Excavations took place at Snows Bend and the White site in 1930 and at the Lon Robertson site in 1931.  

Mobile Bay-Gulf Coast. This series of collections comes from AMNH projects conducted along Mobile Bay and the Gulf Coast along with some from the adjacent lower Tombigbee River and Mobile/Tensaw Delta. The great majority of these collections result from Federal Relief-era projects. Survey by the Museum in 1933 and 1934 recorded 185 sites in Baldwin County . In 1940 and 1941, 32 sites in Clarke and Mobile Counties were recorded. During those same two years, 18 village sites or shell middens and 1 burial mound were excavated along the lower Tombigbee River and Mobile Bay . Test excavations were also conducted at the Bottle Creek site, the largest Mississippian mound complex on the lower Coastal Plain. A large block was excavated at Site 1Ba81, an extensive Mississippian shell midden in extreme southern Baldwin County and testing was conducted at a series of nine sand mounds in this same vicinity. Later collections were obtained from excavation of the D’Olive Creek site complex, two adjacent shell middens dating to the Protohistoric and Colonial periods Limited excavations were also placed in a large, late prehistoric shell midden on Dauphin Island . Excavations were also conducted at Fort Conde, a Colonial period fort built by the French and subsequently under English, Spanish, and American control.

Together, these projects provide the primary typological and chronological base for subsequent research and synthesis, and have yielded several topical studies as well. Most of these latter works concern ceramic typology and chronology or the settlement and subsistence patterns of late prehistoric, Mississippian, groups on the Gulf Coast , particularly as contrasted with Moundville.  

Chattahoochee Survey. This collection resulted from a 1947 survey in the Chattahoochee River valley from Phenix City, Alabama to the Florida state line. A total of 145 sites was recorded and limited testing was conducted at four prominent sites: 1Br14, 1He1, 1Ho6, and 1Ru61 .

Coosa River Drainage. This series of collections is from the Coosa River valley in eastern Alabama . The Coosa collections primarily date to the development of a series of dams along the Coosa and Tallapoosa Rivers built by the Alabama Power Company. The Museum conducted surveys on the Coosa River in 1954, 1956, and 1960, recording 587 aboriginal sites in Cherokee, Etowah, Calhoun , St. Clair , Talladega , Shelby , Coosa , and Elmore Counties . Testing or extensive excavations were conducted at 37 of these sites in the early 1960s. Some of these excavations were reported promptly, if only in summary or manuscript form. Others have been reported more recently. Still other Coosa Project sites and collections remain unreported. Survey was conducted on the Tallapoosa and Little Tallapoosa Rivers in 1974 prior to construction of Harris Dam. This survey recorded 70 sites. Excavations were conducted at a number of these sites in 1974 and 1975. Also included in this collection group are the Museum’s 1948 excavations at the Childersburg site and archaeological survey in Talladega County in conjunction with the Childersburg site excavation.

The Coosa River collections are among the most active research resources. Not only are site reports still being prepared, but there have been other research papers as well. The most prominent themes of this research are: 1) the nature of prehistoric societies at the juncture of three distinct cultural regions ( Tennessee Valley , South Appalachian, Inner Coastal Plain), 2) the impact of Spanish and early Colonial contact on Native cultures, and 3) the development and migration of the Upper Creeks. These collections and reports have also played the major role in a number of regional and/or topical syntheses and overviews.

North Alabama Project . The North Alabama Project is the largest collection group defined for this project. The collections resulted from survey and excavation projects conducted from 1960 to 1976 in partnership with the Archaeological Research Association of Alabama. The Research Association, no longer in existence, was a non-profit corporation organized to raise funding for archaeological research in Alabama . Excavations focused on bluff shelters and two series of open sites, primarily along upland tributaries of the Tennessee River with some additional work in adjacent uplands of the Tombigbee River watershed. This excavation program had two related goals. By 1960, it was becoming clear that north Alabama had perhaps the densest concentration of Paleoindian sites in the United States, documenting the oldest recognized occupation of the New World. Unfortunately, these sites were either exposed on mud flats along Tennessee River reservoirs or located on plowed and eroded hilltops in the areas surrounding the river valley. One goal of the research, then, was to locate undisturbed remains of Paleoindian occupation. Moreover, locating such remains at the base of a deeply stratified site, such as a bluff shelter, would demonstrate their antiquity. There was some consideration, though, that evidence of even older occupation might be found in the region. Sites along tributaries of the Tennessee River and the adjacent upper Tombigbee River in northwestern Alabama were yielding numerous finds of pebble tools. These pebble tools were morphologically and technologically identical to ancient tools then being found in African fossil man sites. Were these north Alabama specimens an indication of much earlier occupation here? Thus the North Alabama Project collections represent multiyear, problem oriented research into the peopling of the New World.

The zenith this research was the excavation of Stanfield Worley Bluff Shelter in Colbert County, northwest Alabama in 1960-1963. Stanfield Worley was the first site excavated by the North Alabama Project. Information gained from Stanfield-Worley has been cited in virtually every summary of eastern North American prehistory. To quote Walthall (1980:44), “Stanfield-Worley is one of the most important prehistoric sites excavated in Alabama. The cultural material from the stratigraphic zones illuminate (sic) the evolution of prehistoric societies in northern Alabama over a period of almost nine millennia”. The 1960 and 1961 excavation seasons were reported by DeJarnette et al. Oscar Brock used the Stanfield-Worley site assemblage and other materials in his study of the transition from Paleoindian to Archaic lifeways. The smaller, third season excavation has never been published but Goldman-Finn has recently reexamined the earliest artifacts, the Dalton/Big Sandy component, from the entire excavation. A Master’s thesis by Asa Randall at the University of Florida examined the Big Sandy points from Stanfield Worley and other sites in an attempt to measure and account for the stylistic variability among these artifacts.

During 1961 and 1962, excavations were also conducted at four large open sites in the Tennessee River uplands in Colbert and Franklin Counties. These excavations were aimed at collecting information on the pre-ceramic occupation of the Tennessee River uplands. Excavation of the sites revealed that their occupation began much earlier than that at the shell mounds along the river, but included substantial shell mound period occupation as well. The sites evidenced a change in tool kits and animal remains marking a change in site function during shell mound times. In addition, the presence of shell middens at the upland sites seemed to correlate with more permanent occupation as opposed to non-shell sites showing repeated use as a campsite.

In 1962, the focus of the North Alabama project moved eastward to a region known as Sand Mountain. From 1962 through 1965, excavations were conducted at a series of nine Sand Mountain bluff shelters in Marshall and DeKalb Counties. These were the first sites excavated in DeKalb County and the first sites excavated in Marshall County since the relief-era projects along the Tennessee River. Due to depositional and cultural factors, the earlier work along the Tennessee River yielded virtually no information on the pre-ceramic occupation of northeastern Alabama. The Sand Mountain sites documented a continuous record of occupation dating back to Paleoindian times. The Sand Mountain collections remain the best available record for studying the early occupation of this region.

The next phase of the North Alabama project moved back to northwestern Alabama. Work by amateur archaeologists and collectors in the early 1960s had documented the presence of a pebble tool assemblage on sites in this region. These tools bore a remarkable similarity to pebble tools found in the Old World Paleolithic period. The Archaeological Research Association of Alabama sponsored this phase of work in order to determine whether the Alabama pebble tools could date to an early, as yet unrecognized, cultural horizon. Some of the largest pebble tool sites were located in the Buttahatchee River valley of Lamar County. This area is located adjacent to the Tennessee River drainage and along the innermost portion of the Coastal Plain. This region was chosen for the initial investigation. Survey work during the fall and winter of 1965-1966 located and mapped 31 sites in the Buttahatchee River drainage. Two of these sites were excavated in the summer of 1966. Unfortunately, no pebble tools were located in a specific cultural context at the Buttahatchee sites.

Failure to find pebble tools in a definable context at the Buttahatchee sites led to a return to excavation of deep, stratified bluff shelters. In 1968 and 1969, excavations were carried out a two large bluff shelters in Franklin County : Sites 1Fr323 and 1Fr324. These sites were located at the head of the hollows on either side of a small ridge spur along the southernmost border of the Tennessee River drainage, and just along the boundary of the Coastal Plain. The largest excavation was carried out at Site 1Fr323. The deposit was deepest at this site and there was more evidence of early occupation here. The first season at 1Fr323 provided part of the information for Stowe’s M.A. Thesis on the prehistoric cultural ecology of northwest Alabama. The second season remains unpublished. Site 1Fr324 served as the subject of an M.A. thesis by Hollingsworth which was subsequently published.

The final effort site investigated by the North Alabama project was the LaGrange bluff shelter in Colbert County. Excavations were conducted at LaGrange in 1972 and again in 1975. This site was chosen for excavation because it overlooked a portion of the Tennessee Valley where there were numerous surface finds of fluted Paleoindian points.

Jefferson County. The Jefferson County collections come from several sites listed below in different portions of Jefferson County, Alabama. All of the sites date to Late Woodland and Mississippian times, perhaps all dating, at least in part, to a single Terminal Woodland to Emergent Mississippian phase, the West Jefferson phase. Three sites excavated in 1973 prior to the construction of the West Jefferson Steam Plant by the Alabama Power Company are the type sites for the West Jefferson phase. Shortly thereafter, two small West Jefferson sites were excavated in the Cahaba River drainage. Pinson Cave, a Late Woodland ossuary in north central Jefferson County excavated in 1970 is considered by many researchers also to be of West Jefferson phase association. The site is clearly Late Woodland, but its exact association is uncertain. The largest Jefferson County collection is from the Bessemer site, which consisted of three mounds and a surrounding village area. In 1934, a portion of one mound was excavated by a University of Michigan field school in conjunction with Birmingham Southern College. The Museum completed that excavation in 1934 and 1935 and excavated the other two mounds in 1939 and 1940. There is a West Jefferson component at Bessemer and certain similarities of the Bessemer ceramic assemblage to Late Woodland ceramics have long been noted. As a result, the Bessemer site was long considered a very early Moundville site although its distance from the other Moundville sites and different environmental setting resulted in some concerns with this interpretation. We now have a better understanding of Moundville’s internal chronology and applying that to Bessemer indicates that the Bessemer site has a much longer history. The Bessemer site is now considered to be one site of an adjacent Mississippian chiefdom or polity showing some similarity to Moundville and perhaps being subject to Moundville dominance.

There are a number of active research questions involving West Jefferson. Foremost is the role West Jefferson played in the development of Moundville, Bessemer, or other Mississippian societies. Did these Mississippian societies develop from a common West Jefferson base? Alternately, are there distinct local variants of West Jefferson which developed into different Mississippian societies? To what degree were West Jefferson populations incorporated into or replaced by Mississippians? What processes transformed rather simple Late Woodland societies into complex Mississippian chiefdoms? What were the effects of changing to intensive horticulture from a broad hunting, gathering, and gardening economy? Due to its role in addressing answering these and other questions, West Jefferson has received intensive study ever since its definition. The collections noted above have served much of this work.

Protohistoric Project. The Protohistoric project was a multi-phase project to examine the twilight of prehistory and Native American occupation in the Warrior River valley. Research at the Moundville site established that the site was largely abandoned by approximately A.D. 1500. The population of the valley was much smaller and lived in small scattered farmsteads and hamlets. Some 100 years or so later, a remnant population had gathered into a few larger villages, perhaps for defense, perhaps for mutual support during a time of serious stress. Within another 100 years, the valley was abandoned. The Protohistoric project was directed at a better understanding of this decline and demise. The work was performed by Cailup Curren who began the project under DeJarnette in 1974, shortly before DeJarnette’s retirement in 1976. Survey work from 1974 to 1976 recorded or re-examined 21 sites in the valley that were either Mississippian mound sites or which had yielded evidence of occupation from the Protohistoric period to the 18 th century. Excavations were conducted at two Protohistoric sites during June and July of 1978, 1979, and 1980. Earlier excavations at two additional sites, conducted in 1935 and 1958, respectively, were reported for the first time by Curren.

The decline of Moundville appears to have begun just before first contact, but the effects of disease and depopulation rise sharply during the 17 th and 18 th centuries. These collections remain an important source of information on the early effects of European contact on Native American populations. The collections have also been used in an attempt to trace possible migration routes out of the Warrior valley.

Miscellaneous CRM. This group of collections includes material from five small projects conducted from 1968 to 1975. They include surveys and limited excavations for the Alabama Department of Transportation, a regional survey, and the survey of several plant sites.

 

Collection Reports

A short collection report is produced for each collection curated by OAR. The report begins with a brief history of the collection, including how the collection was obtained and from whom, a synopsis of the project which produced the collection, etc. This is followed by an account of the original analytical and/or cataloging methods. A discussion of the nature, size and organization of the collection as curated follows along with a description of methods used in its processing. The collection report ends with a bibliography of papers, reports, articles, and other reference materials from the project which originally produced the collection and any subsequent collections research.

The collection reports for the 80 collections rehabilitated under NEH Grant PA-50138 are posted on this website. The collection reports have been enhanced with photographs of the field work and selected artifacts along with some examples of field drawings, maps, and other information to further document the collection. The enhanced collection reports are in effect illustrated site or project mini-histories. These collection reports can also serve as a guide to or finding aid for the collections. As such, they should be useful to individuals seeking certain types of material for museum display, research, or other uses.

 

Summary

The archaeological collections rehabilitated under this grant form the basis for much, probably most, of what is known of the aboriginal occupation of a significant portion of the state of Alabama. The collections represent the survey of over 1100 sites and the excavation of nearly 100. The research potential of the collections, however, is scarcely touched. Most of the collections were reported only at a most superficial level, and some have never been reported at all. The majority of the collections came from sites which no longer exist. Many of the sites were in now inundated river valleys. Industrial development and urban development of coastal areas have destroyed many of the other sites. These collections can never be replaced. They must be preserved and made accessible.

 

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