Melanie Wing asked whether there was a ditch on the fourth side of the structure and she also wanted to know more about a bead…


We spent a little time during our last day in the field searching for evidence of a ditch feature on the south side of the building but the single small test we excavated did not show definitive evidence of such. This leaves Melanie’s question open but it stands to reason we will eventually determine the “casa grande” was completely encircled by a ditch.


It isn’t common to see ditch features closely surrounding Native buildings but there may be some good reasons for this one we have discovered. I suspect the ditch was a source of soil that was banked up around the walls of the building; this was not an uncommon practice. The ditch would have also served to accentuate the special nature of the structure, setting it apart from the general living space and perhaps enhancing its appearance.


As for the opaque white glass bead: simple white or blue beads are notoriously difficult to date on their own. But as we archaeologists say constantly, context is everything. In other words, although simple white beads were made and used for a very long time, from at least the early sixteenth century into the modern period, recovery of one on a site with a relatively “pure” early sixteenth century component indicates that it too dates from that time. Later on we may learn differently but at this point the bead doesn’t disrupt the overall pattern that is emerging.


Thanks for your great questions!


Friday, 24 July, 2009


Lab work is about to begin!

Lab work is about to begin!

It’s sobering every morning to peep into my lab and see the tabletops and counterspace no less clear of bags. We hauled a few hundred parcels of artifacts and special samples back from the field and they’re waiting in patient ranks for the next phase of work to begin. But I’m happy to say, after nearly a month now, that we’re poised to plunge into the job of processing and analysis.


And this is where the real work of archaeology begins. Fieldwork is a vital step; it remains the most traditional way we collect raw material for study. But all of the grubby potsherds and scraps of bone and even the glittering glass beads would maintain an uncomfortable silence if we neglected to wash them, catalog them, subject them to close examination, and then compare them with material from other excavations. This is a way of saying that, yes, the artifacts have a story to tell, one that surely will take unimagined twists and turns, but they tend to give up their secrets rather grudgingly.


Part of my time back at the museum has been devoted to arranging for the sophisticated kinds of analysis that form our modern archaeological arsenal. These days it is possible to wring information from even the smallest of artifacts with the use of laser imaging, “ray guns” that determine the chemical composition of objects without having to sacrifice a sample, and lab processes that can tell us the age of teeny-tiny bits of organic material. These kinds of tests will be especially helpful as we contemplate the origin of the European objects.


So sit tight and stay with us over the coming months. I can assure you that we’ve barely begun to understand the real meaning and impact of our findings.

Friday, 26 June, 2009


Yesterday the tempo picked up and the volume rose; cymbals crashed, horns blared, and cannons bellowed. And with it we were swept up by a general crescendo, at least of an archaeological sort… if we can liken our two-month process to a grand musical composition.


Suddenly, patches of discolored soil made perfect sense, scatters of potsherds began to come together, arrangements of postholes resolved into walls, undulations in the layer cake of soil had a story to tell, and it all turned on the hub of that great big hearth.


With just a little imagination, in the haze of a south Georgia summer day, the bulk of the council house loomed large again, ghostly forms of Native people and intrusive Spaniards moved past, a scent of smoke was in the air, murmurs in an unfamiliar tongue were on the breeze, and…


That’s when you know you’ve done your job. Enough pieces of the puzzle are joined to allow for a fleeting moment of time travel, that sense of being there, of understanding – albeit imperfectly – what the existence of a group of long-gone people was like. Long-dormant traces of breathing, thinking people were alive again… What a privilege.


So what was it that enabled the moment? It was the cumulative effect of weeks of constant observation, of endless mind-wracking to bridge the gulf between meager evidence and a slice of the human experience, and sufficient exposure of an ancient surface to gain a glimpse of interconnected pieces. And now we begin to taper off, focusing less on moving earth than compiling a permanent record of results. Soon we’ll put our old friend to bed again, and hope for the opportunity to draw it out of its centuries-long slumber during another season.

Monday, 22 June, 2009


It is a generally accepted rule in archaeology that you are bound to make the most surprising discoveries in the last days of fieldwork, if not on the last day itself. So here we are, not more than ten days from wrapping up, and – BOOM – we’re hit with all kinds of jolts. I shouldn’t be surprised I suppose, given all the times this truism has held, but sometimes, no matter how steady you think you are…


On Thursday past we began to see a large “anomaly” in the soil northward of the main area we’re finding evidence of the Casa Grande. The swirly, busy character of the deposit was familiar. It happened to be the kind of soil that fills a very large and somewhat mysterious ditch feature running parallel to the east side of the structure. I recognized that particular ditch in 2007, struggled to explain it ever since, so fully intended to give it attention this season – but no time so far. Then this – an apparent companion ditch running parallel to the north side of our building!


Hmmmm. Could it be? Is the Casa Grande bounded on all sides by a large ditch, sort of in moat-like fashion? I decided to put that notion to the test today. Having now recognized that the other two ditches measure almost exactly seven meters from the central hearth of the structure, I decided to excavate a test at the same distance to the west. And, yessiree, it looks like we have a ditch on the west side, too. Will we explore the south side and close the circle? Just give us a few more days.


And once again, I don’t know what it is about visitors, but the site coughs up unusual things when they’re around. Today two old friends were with us to volunteer and lo and behold we found the first glass bead in weeks. Not only that, it is a kind of bead that we’ve not seen on the site before, a very small, opaque, white one. When Andrew Vaughan opened up his balled fist, in front of a great big grin, I was disbelieving. This is not the kind of bead one would readily predict on a site of early Spanish contact but they’re not unheard of in such a context either. So here we are once more challenging the conventional wisdom about how things “ought to be” on a de Soto-era site.

Andrew Vaughan, big man with a tiny bead.

Andrew Vaughan, big man with a tiny bead.


Finally, I’ll neglect no longer the question that seems to be put to us most often these days: aren’t you hot out there (when the thermometer is hovering around 100)? Why, yes. It is hotter that two love bugs snagged in the grill of a log truck. And no matter what you do, you can’t be comfortable. All in all, you learn that human beings CAN function under mighty tough conditions and can do so at a pretty high level of performance. It’s all about mind over matter, paying no attention whatsoever to the forecast – especially the so-called “heat index”, drinking a heckuva lot of water, taking an occasional plunge in the river, and remembering that there is a cooler of ice cold reward at the end of the day. Cheers!

Wednesday, 16 June, 2009


James Stewart drawing the hearth.

James Stewart drawing the hearth.

We have one shot to get this story right. Archaeology by its nature is a destructive process.  As carefully as we go about it, there’s still no putting our sites back together exactly the way they were before our shovels and trowels intrude into them.


So a healthy view of our process is to liken it to a forensic investigation; very painstaking and deliberate. We have hardly touched a shovel the last few days. On a site as provocative – and perhaps controversial – as this one is, the burden of proof is especially great. If nothing else, the Jury of our Peers is a tough one and the members will expect nothing less than a thorough accounting of the evidence. I can hear it now: “Just give us the facts Blanton – all of them.”



Rachel Hensler mapping a posthole.

Rachel Hensler mapping a posthole.

And so we toil to document a fact pattern and preserve it through a seemingly endless series of records: notebooks, forms, scaled drawings, photographs, and special samples. Moreover, we know these records are our lasting legacy, the measure by which we will ultimately be judged as professionals. It is no one’s aim to become a case study for students in how NOT to assemble the supporting facts. Further still, it is our records that will form the body of evidence – or not – that future generations may mine to improve on our present efforts.


Alas, the earthmoving is simply a means to a larger end. The pencil is mightier than the shovel.

Inger Wood maintaining the archive.

Inger Wood maintaining the archive.

10 June 2009


I hardly know where to begin it has been such an eventful few days since the last post. But suffice it to say we’re relishing the fact that the labor devoted to reaching the most informative deposits is paying off.


A new focal point of the excavation is a large dome of gray ash, starkly visible against the dark brown remains of the burned building. It began to show itself over a week ago as just a small dappled patch of soil. Over the course of this week one of our team members, James Stewart, has devoted himself to revealing its full extent, now well over a meter in diameter.


Remarkable enough in its size and state of preservation, the ash deposit is a feature that merits great respect for other reasons. In the eyes of the Native people who built and used the large structure (we now refer to it as “casa grande”), the site of the ash was nothing short of the symbolic center of their universe, the place of a council fire around which all matters of important business were discussed and consummated. If the likes of Hernando de Soto paid a visit to this Indian community he and his army surely would have been the subject of official deliberations around the fire and, who knows, maybe he even enjoyed an audience there with the Indian leadership.


And almost right on cue today, in front of a crowd of distinguished visitors, the site produced yet another metal artifact. The object excavated by Andrew Vaughan is a small piece of sheet copper or brass, the surface of which bears traces of intentional work, perhaps decoration. Now, we cannot say whether the metal is of European or Native origin, but we intend to find out eventually with a series of tests that allow us to “fingerprint” the source. But in the meantime, the presence of the metal in the floor deposit of our large building serves to confirm the sense that it was a very special place. Metal of any sort, but especially copper or a copper alloy, would have been highly prized in the sixteenth-century Native world and, moreover, highly controlled by the Indian leadership.


Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Thursday, 4 June, 2009


Head scratching and long meditative pauses; I’m subject to more and more of those these days. The process of disentangling the thicket of clues in the remains of our large building is tedious – but, still, it is the sort of challenge many of us live for. All week we’ve been working to get our figurative arms around this thing, seeking to answer these kinds of questions: What did the building look like? What was it used for? How old is it? How and why was it destroyed? Will we get it right?


Imagine taking apart your neighbor’s compost heap – after it has been turned over with spade a few times – to tease out details of the household’s day-to-day existence. What we’re facing is not a great deal different. We’re confronted with the remains of a big, biodegradable building that has, in fact, thoroughly biodegraded. Then to complicate things further, the site was sliced and diced by a super-plow that prepares areas for pine tree planting.


But, hey, as they say, if you’ve only got lemons – make lemonade. So my goal now is to take advantage of the deep furrows that dissect the site by removing the sediment that has washed into them. In the process we’ll reveal a series of long cross-sections through the deposit that will offer an early glimpse of what we’re dealing with. Already we have a better idea of the thickness of the building-related midden and numerous “features” that exist inside the structure – things like large and small posts. With that information we’ll be better positioned to disassemble the veritable time capsule with a fair degree of control.


Through it all the crew continues to hold up well in spite of the usual tests. One member (who, incidentally, refused my offer of amputation) sports a grotesque case of poison ivy, everyone compares numbers and sizes of bug bites (a perverse brand of one-upmanship at lunchtime), but no one really complains. We recognize we’re privileged to do what we do – and that is the way it should be.