Archaeologists work to dig up history without using a shovel
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 07/01/07
Cartersville — From the visitors center at Etowah Mounds State Historic Site, the flat-topped pyramids of one of the Southeast's premier archaeological sites loom over the landscape — as imposing today as they were five centuries ago.
At their base, the broad, grassy plain sloping toward the Etowah River gets scant attention from the 32,000 people who visit the park each year. Mounds, after all, are what Etowah is about.
For most of the last century, archaeologists have been guilty of the same oversight. Like casual visitors today, they missed a lot, including the area where most of the people lived.
"The focus of early archaeology was to get stuff – important, exciting stuff," says University of South Carolina archaeologist Adam King.
"Everyone knew they were going to find stuff in the mounds, so that's where they dug." And spectacular "stuff" it was — showy feathered headdresses, stone effigies, intricately carved shell ornaments and embossed copper plates that King says demonstrate that, in its day, Etowah was a veritable "Athens of the prehistoric South."
"The problem is that the mounds were where the important people lived and were buried," King says. "For a place that has been excavated on and off since 1884, we know very little about the rest of the people who lived here."
To remedy that, he and his team or archaeologists have focused on what other experts ignored – the grassy plain where the common people of Etowah lived and worked.
In the course of three surveys at Etowah since 2005 – the latest concluded last month — the team has not yet turned a shovelful of dirt or unearthed a single artifact.
But, with an assist from modern imaging technology that "sees" beneath the soil without disturbing it, they have found some intriguing new clues about the people who lived here long before white men set foot on the continent.
The ancient mounds — three large earthen pyramids and three smaller ones — were built along the Etowah River starting around A.D. 1000. The site was inhabited for nearly 500 years.
The clay daub and other materials used in dwellings and other buildings has different properties from the surrounding soil. A map of the difference in the magnetic properties shows the buried footprints of a thriving village that was dominated by Mound A, which towers more than 60 feet above the plain.
"There is a lot out there," says King. "To the north of Mound A and to the west, we see dense clusters of houses arranged around little plazas. I think what we are seeing are little neighborhoods within the larger Etowah — exactly what I would expect in terms of a village."
King says the smaller buildings are less than 30 feet across, but there are also a number of much larger structures.
"We see some monster buildings out there behind Mound A and a couple between A and C. There is at least one big one that may be 30 meters (100 feet) on a side," he says.
Estimates of Etowah's population have varied widely over the years, but King says the density of dwellings he has encountered so far suggest that, at its peak, there may have been 1,000 people or so.
There was never much doubt that there was a village or some sort at the foot of the massive mounds. Artist's conceptions — including those on display at the park — all show a community surrounded by a moat, a defensive palisade and the Etowah River.
Hard evidence and details of the village, however, have been more elusive. King was surprised to detect tangible traces of the village that survived 500 years of repeated flooding of the river plain and a century of plowing by people who farmed it before and after the Civil War.
"It may be that periodic flooding covered the area with enough sediment to protect the site," he says. More mapping — currently funded by the Lannan Foundation of Santa Fe, a family foundation that supports indigenous cultural projects — lies ahead.
King estimates that it will take another year or two to completely map the entire 54-acre site, the first time that has ever been done. Using a variety of remote sensing techniques — ground-penetrating radar, magnetometers and electrical resistivity measurements — he hopes to develop an increasingly detailed view of what lies underground.
In a field where discovery and digging have long been synonymous, King wants to avoid the exuberant excavation — at times using a mule and a plow — that marked some of the earlier archaeology investigations at Etowah.
"We see how much information we can wring out of this place without ever putting a shovel in the ground," he says.
His cautious approach, however, stems from new cultural sensitivities as well. As the cultural descendants of the Muscogean-speaking people who once lived at Etowah, the Creek people have claimed Etowah as a sacred site and made it clear that they look with disfavor on any new excavation.
Tribal leaders are particularly opposed to any excavation that might disturb burials — a potential stumbling block in light of the fact that many Etowah residents may have been interred in the floor of their dwellings.
Despite the concerns, tribal cultural experts are working alongside the archaeologist in the efforts by King's team to use non-invasive methods — without excavation — to understand the "crown jewel" of Southeastern prehistory.
King — and the state of Georgia, which owns the site — hope the working alliance will pave the way for future cooperation if excavation is needed to resolve questions that remote sensing can't answer.
"Legally, the decision regarding any new excavations would rest with the Department of Natural Resources commissioner," says Georgia State Archaeologist David Crass.
"But DNR would not undertake excavations in the absence of consultations with the relevant tribes."
In the meantime, King plans to push the limits of new technology to "see" what, for now, he can't touch.
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