June 6, 2015

Excavation of Prehistoric Indian Mounds in Catahoula and Avoyelles Parishes - 1939

Monroe News Star - 1/29/1939

The following article appeared in the January 29, 1939 issue of the Monroe News Star:


Old Home Sites Being Probed In Catahoula And Avoyelles By Scientists

A group of WPA workers, digging for prehistoric relics in the famed Indian mounds of central-eastern Louisiana, have traced the history of mankind in the Mississippi valley back almost 1,200 years.

Directed by Professor J. A. Ford of Louisiana State University, these workers assigned to the WPA archaeological survey have thousands of archaeological artifacts to show for almost a year of labor; bits of broken pottery, projectile points or arrowheads, beads, skeletons and hundreds of photographs and observations.

"The Indians who habitated the Mississippi valley when white men first came here around 1700," explained Professor Ford, "were living in what we now identify as the Natchez period.  The people before that were never seen by white men, therefore their history can be obtained only through the study of relics of their civilization."

"Archaeologists have estimated that the Natchez period extended from 1500 to 1700 A. D., and the Marksville period, from about 800 to 1000 A. D."

"We have found pottery and other relics which we have established as belonging to the early Marksville period."

The WPA workers are now excavating at sites in Catahoula and Avoyelles parishes.  In Catahoula parish they have found an Indian burial mound and garbage pit from the early Marksville period from which they have uncovered 118 fairly well preserved skeletons.

From their study of the artifacts, the archaeologists have established these facts: that the people of the Marksville period were slender and small of stature, apparently showing a Mediterranean strain; that they were farmers; that their houses were made of wood, built into slight excavations and covered with dirt; that they buried their dead.

They may have been warlike, or at least lived in fear of attack, because the searchers have found traces of fortifications around what presumably were Indian villages.

By the time of the Coles Creek period, however, the attitude and characteristics of the people had changed.  For instance, in mounds which contained relics definitely identified with the Coles Creek period, the WPA workers found no traces of fortifications.  Instead of burial mounds, they found what appeared to be crematoriums.  There also was a distinct difference in style and art.

From a mound in Avoyelles parish, the WPA workers uncovered traces of what appeared to be a ceremonial square.  It was surrounded by the remains of six rectangular pyramids.  Scientists can only guess that atop these pyramids were thatched temples, adorned by three wooden birds.

"The first white men told of finding similar pyramids," explained Professor Ford. "With these new discoveries we can guess that the custom dated back into the Coles Creek period for several hundred years.  It is also significant that bits of pottery identified with this period were decorated with the picture of a bird."

Interesting discoveries in Avoyelles parish were the remains of two villages, about a mile apart, which obviously belonged to two prehistoric periods.

The first belonged to the Marksville period.  It was built on what once were the shores of a lake, probably cut by the changing course of the Mississippi river.  The village must have faced a high bluff with fortifications on three sides.  A mile away the WPA workmen found traces of another village, which belonged to both periods.

"There was the transition from one period to another," explained Ford.  "Some of the artifacts we found belonged to the Marksville, others to the Cole Creek period. In this mound we found the ceremonial square, the crematorium and the pottery and beads."

The excavating and laboratory work on the archaeological survey project is exceedingly exacting.  When a mound is located it is carefully surveyed in five-foot squares.  The stakes which mark these squares are numbered.  The excavators literally peel off five foot slices of earth.

As each discovery is made, no matter how minute, it is carefully located on a contour map, photographed and surveyed.  Strata of the earth is carefully studied.  As articles are removed from the mound they are given a symbol by the archaeologist supervising the work and sent to the laboratory in New Orleans.

There they are analyzed, classified and card indexed.  Bits of pottery from the same classification are pieced together.  The contour maps sent from the field are transferred onto larger maps.  Draftsmen make blue prints and charts by the dozens.

Bit by bit the story of prehistoric man unfolded.

"We have located hundreds of mounds in Louisiana," said Professor Ford. "We hope to excavate the sites in Catahoula and Avoyelles parishes before the spring floods.  Then we will go into north Louisiana.  We hope to outline a fairly comprehensive history of the Mississippi valley, of which we now know very little."

The jobless men and women who have been given work on the archaeological survey come from varied trades and professions.  They are clerks, statisticians, draftsmen, artists, photographers.  Mostly they are laborers, recruited from WPA projects in the vicinity of the mounds.  They have been painstakingly schooled and after several months' work, have become very proficient.

They are finding it interesting work.  But one man, who was assigned to an excavation crew working on a mound near Catahoula lake, asked for a transfer.

He wrote the WPA employment office in Alexandria:

"It ain't right to bother all them dead folks.  That place is ha'nted."

Monroe News Star - 1/29/1939

Earlier posts on the Indians of Catahoula Parish can be found at the links below:

No comments:

Post a Comment