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Digging Mississippi Mud

De Soto National Forest, Mississippi, 1999
by Joe Gould, PIT Tag-along

I’m 79 years old. I am not a “passionate amateur archaeologist.” However, a few months ago, my wife, Katie, heard about an archaeological dig that was scheduled for October 1999 in a locale about 70 miles north of our home in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. She sent in an application and was accepted as a volunteer. I agreed to tag along to help with paperwork (something I’ve done all my life) and, perhaps, be helpful in the lab.

On the basis of the information obtained earlier, FS Archaeologist Robert Reams had selected a site where test excavations had indicated that we could expect artifacts from periods ranging from 5000 B.C. to A.D. 1100. Site 22PE679 is situated in the De Soto NF, Perry County, Mississippi, just a few yards south of U.S. Highway 98 and a mile or so east of the Camp Shelby Impact Range. The noise of military jets making runs on the impact range and the constant rumble of trucks on the nearby highway prompted one volunteer to jokingly ask Mr. Reams why in the world the Indians would camp in such a noisy location. Mr. Reams promptly replied, “Easy access.”

Upon arriving at the site, Katie was teamed with young volunteer Aaron Miller of Massachusetts, a veteran of several earlier digs in the United States and abroad. Aaron proved to be a very capable teacher, and Katie and I learned quite a bit about the mechanics of archaeological excavation and the paperwork essential to later accurate analysis of unearthed artifacts. Before long, I was “spelling” the other two whenever they needed a break from trowel and scoop, and emptying and sifting buckets of sand (a process I referred to as an “earth-shaking experience”—which met with loud groans from nearby volunteers). In short, I soon found myself caught up in the enthusiasm of the volunteers, eagerly scanning the sifted material for flakes and chips, and ooh-ing and aah-ing over recovered tools, points, and pottery sherds.

The dig was scheduled for three consecutive weekly sessions, and the volunteer population varied quite a bit as other commitments pressed upon some of them. Some were present for the full period; others came and went. The volunteers ranged in age from 13 (a student whose volunteer father took him out of school for a half-day) to 79. Many of them were retirees, some were couples, some singles. Besides Mississippians, they included folks from Alabama, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Texas, and Virginia. An undergraduate student joined us for a “hands-on” experience in conjunction with a course in world civilizations, and a graduate student spent several days with us getting practical experience in his field of archaeology. Others included retired doctors, schoolteachers, a retired Navy captain, and our international observer (and dig mascot), Milo, the Chinese pug who accompanies his master, David Currey of Alabama, on all of his digs! On Thursday of the second week, we were joined by 22 fifth graders from Oak Grove Elementary School in Hattiesburg. They were quick learners and pitched right in with the volunteers, thoroughly enjoying their field trip.

The efforts of the volunteers turned up bag after bag of flakes, animal bone, and pottery sherds. Whenever a larger piece of pottery was unearthed, it was passed around for all to see and comment upon. Points were also of vital interest to the group, especially to the neophyte members. Overall, the project was a success. However, on the first day, when none of the diggers had found much more than a few flakes, one wag composed a bit of a doggerel verse:

We went on a Perry County dig
Hoping to find relics colorful and big
But our hopes were dashed with a thud—
All we dug was Mississippi mud.

After fieldwork was completed, Mr. Reams noted that more than 40 1-by-1-m units were excavated. Artifacts dating between 5000 B.C. and A.D. 1100 were found; of these, approximately 90 percent of the pottery and 65 percent of the stone tools date to the Middle Woodland period (A.D. 1–500).

Katie and I don’t own a trailer or an RV, nor do we own a tent. So, instead of using the facilities of nearby Lake Perry State Park, we took a cabin at Paul B. Johnson State Park some 32 miles from the site. As a result, we missed out on a lot of the after-hours camaraderie that many of the others enjoyed at Lake Perry, with the opportunity to become better acquainted with each other. I’m 79 years old. I am not a “passionate amateur archaeologist.” However, next week Katie and I will start shopping around for an RV or a trailer. Just in case!

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