Artifact of the Week – Carved Bullet

Southeast Archeological Center archeologists Rusty Simmons, Amelia Jansen, Edith Gregory, and Kevin Porter recently returned from a metal detecting survey at Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park. btn_cltsun1_animatedTheir work was focused around the Wallis House, located on a parcel recently acquired by the National Park Service through a donating by The Cobb Land Trust, Incorporated, the same organization that partnered with the Kolb Farm Coalition to facilitate the park’s acquisition of the historic Kolb Farm – the site of the bloody May 1864 Battle of Kolb Farm.

The Wallis House was built by Josiah Wallis about 1853 and abandoned upon the approach of General Tecumseh Sherman’s armies. It had been used as a Confederate hospital. During the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain served as General Sherman headquarters during the Battle of Kolb’s Farm and as Union ’s headquarters during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.

General Howard stands at the far left and General Sherman is seat in the center. Photo credit: wikicommons


The 5th Annual Tallahassee Science Festival


“Happy Anniversary” and “Happy Birthday” are still ringing in our ears. One after another, patrons of the 5th Annual Tallahassee Science Festival congratulated us on the National Park Service’s centennial (and SEAC’s semi-centennial) year!

clete-comparative-blurred-2Tim Roberts and Clete Rooney represented the Southeast Archeological Center at the Festival at Lake Ella on Saturday September 10th. Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth! SEAC’s was one of more than 125 S.T.E.A.M. (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) exhibits.

An estimated 5,500 to 6,000 people turned up for the event. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., it was nonstop public outreach! No time for breaks. No time for lunch. Not even time to sneak away and check out some of the other exhibits but we had a nice corner spot next to the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab.

Did you see us in the Tallahassee Democrat?

Besides some great schwag like stickers, tattoos, bookmarks, and pencils, our booth featured a prehistoric pottery analysis activity. img_2817The younger visitors tried their hand at refitting a couple of replica effigy vessels and weighing sherds on a triple beam balance. With so many people passing through and so many different exhibits to experience, the pottery analysis workbook turned out to be a bit time-intensive, but a few visitors completed the entire activity. Kids and their parents got a kick out of being able to handle sherds from pots made by Native Americans hundreds or thousands of years ago. Later in the day, students from Florida State and Florida A&M University stopped by to share their support for the National Park Service and inquire about volunteer opportunities, future employment, and what classes they should take in order to become professional archeologists.


All in all the event was a success. We’re looking forward to our next big public outreach event on October 22nd at the Saint Marks Stone Crab Festival and San Marcos de Apalachee!

Don’t forget!

4th graders and their families get FREE admission to all National Parks as part of the Every Kid in a Park program.

Download your Junior Archeologist Program workbook here.

SciGirls Summer Camp 2016

Some of Tallahassee’s newest female scientists may have found their calling last Friday. For the fourth year in a row, National Park Service scigirls logoarcheologists from the Southeast Archeological Center were honored to spend a day with the SciGirls summer camp  a two-week program for girls entering 6-9th grade designed to inspire middle and high school girls to pursue careers in science.

SEAC archeologists Satin Bowman, Mercedes Harrold, Hillary Conley, and Kathryn Miyar, and Megan Merrick of FSU getting the SciGirls psyched up for a day of archeology

mag lab logoThe camp is held in Tallahassee, Florida around the corner from SEAC in Innovation Park at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (the Mag Lab) and co-hosted by WFSU. SEAC archeologists Alexandra Parsons, Kathryn Miyar, Satin Bowman, Hillary Conley,
WFSU-logoand Mercedes Harrold, and Florida State University anthropology graduate student Megan Merrick taught the SciGirls about archeology and the importance of preserving archeological sites.

Mapping an artifact scatter with a grid over the mock site. Photo credit: SciGirls

A major theme for this year’s archeology day at SciGirls Summer Camp  was unauthorized excavation of archeological sites – looting.

The girls started the day off with a lecture about archeology and how archeological research is conducted. Then they headed outside to document a mock archeological site hypothetically damaged by looters. They  mapped and collected artifacts, and learned to take measurements using the metric system.

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The girls spent the next few hours in the lab analyzing faux artifacts and casts of human skeletal remains. Part of the focus was to help them develop and understanding of how removing artifacts from their context in the earth makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to answer  certain questions about the past.

Exploring skeletal differences in men and women

The human remains had been recovered from the back of the looters’ truck as part of the hypothetical looting situation that framed the lab. The SciGirls learned how to calculate the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI)  in a skeletal assemblage and used a complete, articulated skeleton as a comparative tool for identifying different bones.

During the lab exercises, the girls learned how archeologists use ceramic typologies to determine date ranges for sites, how the timing of tooth eruptions can be used to determine the age of subadult skeletal remains, and how features of adult skeletons can be used to determine whether the remains belong to a male or female.  The SciGirls also took a look at several reproduction and real artifacts and learned what kinds of research can be done on these items and what methods are available to archeologists. Lastly, the girls wrote a report documenting the site and the artifacts and considered how illegally removing artifacts from a site impairs our ability to learn about the past.

Learning about tooth eruption rates in children. Photo credit: SciGirls

Unauthorized excavation and looting are serious problems in the practice of archeology. While federal and state governments have been intensifying their enforcement of laws protecting archeological sites and punishing perpetrators, one of the best ways to combat these kinds of violations is through education of the up-and-coming generation. The SciGirls camp was an excellent opportunity to reach out to the future leaders of tomorrow to instill a deeper respect for our cultural heritage and the recognition of the irreversible damage caused by looting.


This year the SciGirls worked really well as a team. We were especially impressed with their questions about archeological and osteological methods! We also lucked out and had no rain. The girls got a little dirty, but stayed dry. We’re already looking forward to next year’s Archeology Day at SciGirls summer camp!

For more on what SciGirls Summer Camp is all about, Check out the SciGirls Blog!

Registration for SciGirls 2017 opens in JanuaryCheck out the Mag Lab’s Page for more information.

Check out Trowel Blazers to learn more about women archeologists who’ve made impacts in the field!

The Dirtiest Job at SEAC?

Southeast Archeological Center zooarcheologist Brian Worthington has moved his maceration operation to Goodhope Farm with the permission of Human Remains Dog handler Suzi Goodhope, of course.

buckets field and horse
The buckets in the foreground contain the decomposing remains of animals whose skeletons are bound for the SEAC zooarcheological comparative collection

SEAC archeologists were recently at Goodhope Farm excavating two horse skeletons with the help of Florida State University anthropology professor Dr. Geoffrey Thomas and his students. Meanwhile, Worthington was tending to his collection of five gallon buckets containing the putrefying remains of various critters whose skeletons will be added to SEAC’s zooarcheological comparative collection. When the buckets were open, one could smell them downwind everywhere on the property!

Buckets Screen Capture

Maceration is the rather grizzly process of removing all of the soft tissue from an animal skeleton by submerging it in water 

Before beginning the process, the animal is weighed and a variety of measurements are systematically obtained. Some measurements are derived from zoology while others are specific to zooarcheology. They were first adapted for zooarcheology by Dr. Elizabeth S. Wing, Curator Emeritus at the Florida Museum of Natural History and Professor Elizabeth J. Reitz at the University of Georgia. Other data including locality, sex, age, and collection date are also recorded for each animal.

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Next, as much of the flesh as possible is cut away from the carcass and the organs are removed. It is good practice to soak birds before defleshing to prevent a feathery mess. The skin and viscera are weighed, followed by the cleaned skeleton. The mathematical difference between these weights is an estimate of the amount of the meat provided by the animal.

The fish were sealed in individual tagged bags

Fish, in some cases, are placed into the bucket whole to recover the scales, which can be diagnostic, along with the bones.

Summer is the best time for macerating because the high temperatures promote the growth of bacteria that break down soft tissue. The buckets are kept outside for obvious reasons, and to keep the smell down, some of the water in the bucket can drained and fresh water added after a few days. Ideally, the temperature remains relatively constant.

chicken turtle maceration
Brian pouring a chicken turtle out of a maceration bucket

The carcass remains in the bucket of water until the great majority of the tissue has detached from the bones; this took about three weeks for the bluefish, kingfish, grouper, surgeon fish, barracuda, cod, loon, wood duck, coney, chicken turtle, channel catfish, osprey, and beaver in Worthington’s buckets.

The contents of the buckets are poured through a screen 1/16 inch or finer, or a paint strainer mesh bag. The skeleton is transferred to a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water to disinfect it, remove the smell, and dissolve any small bits of flesh that may still cling to the bones. It remains in this solution for no more than 24 hours because the hydrogen peroxide can begin to damage the bones themselves.

Peroxide 1
Hydrogen peroxide bubbles as it disinfects the macerated bones

In some instances, the macerated skeleton may also need to be de-greased by submerging it in acetone for anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Small holes drilled into the larger bones of larger mammals can facilitate leaching the marrow.

Note the neatly labelled containers in Brian’s personal zooarcheological comparative collection

When the defleshing and degreasing is complete, each skeleton is assigned a unique catalog number which is entered into a database. Each bone is labelled with the catalog number. The box containing the skeleton is also labelled with the catalog number as well as the genus, species, and common name of the animal. The specimens in SEAC’s collection are organized by taxonomic order.


Dermestid beatles defleshing a human skull. Source: Wikicommons

Maceration is not the only method of preparing faunal specimens for the comparative collection. Fire ants have been used to deflesh skeletons. But, they bite the hand that feeds them, so to speak, and they have a tendency to displace small skeletal elements. Colonies of beetles of the family Dermestidae are considered to be one of the most effective agents for cleaning smaller animals.

Dermestes maculatus. Source: Wikipedia
However, these critters are high maintenance and can pose a danger to curated organic artifacts. According to Worthington, some dermestid beetle colonies can even develop a preference for particular animals and grow picky about what they eat.

tupperware bones crop
The submerged deer was less decomposed

Besides the specimens macerated in the buckets, two deer and a sheep buried at Goodhope Farm were excavated. The deer had been placed in Tupperware containers. One container was filled with water. The other container had been filled but was disturbed by some living animal. It was resealed but never refilled with water. Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of soft tissue remained with the submerged skeleton along with a strong odor of decay while the dry skeleton was relatively clean and odorless.

Like the specimens in the maceration buckets, the contents of both containers were rinsed on 1/16 inch screens. The bones were placed in buckets to be soaked in hydrogen peroxide solution.

skull into bucket.JPG
Brian and Dr. Mike Russo rinsing deer bones before placing them in hydrogren peroxide
bone from tupperware 1
Note the adipocere in the screen with the deer bones

Even when most of the flesh had decayed, a brittle, white material resembling limestone was found with the skeletons. This substance was adipocere formed by the decay of fat.

Serenaded by Eric the sheepdog, the archeologists used shovels and trowels to excavate the grave of a sheep, donated by Meaghan Thacker, which was marked with wire. Its carcass was buried with a sheet had been used to drag it to its grave. When the sheet was spotted during excavation, the archeologists began screen the soil matrix through 1/4 inch hardware cloth. The archeologists ended up with more than they bargained for. The sheep was apparently pregnant when it died.

Andrew McFeaters prepares to excavate the sheep

The skeleton of an unborn lamb was found with the sheep.

brian lamb id crop
Brian identified lamb bones among the sheep bones

All of these skeletons will be joining the SEAC zooarcheological comparative collection along with the horse skeletons excavated at Goodhope Farm.

What do you mean you haven’t you seen SEAC’s video of the horse excavation?!

ICYMI click here

  • None of the animals in SEACs collections were culled specifically to be added to the zooarcheological comparative collection.

Human Remains Detection Dog Handler Donates Skeletons

The National Historic Landmarks and External Contracts division of the Southeast Archeological Store-4-PatchCenter partnered with Human Remains Detection (HRD) dog handler fsu_seminoles_logo_fsu_sameSuzi Goodhope, and Florida State University Professor Geoffrey Thomas along with several of his students to help expand SEAC’s zooarcheological comparative collection.

Specimens in SEAC’s zooarcheological comparative collection.

Make no bones about it, comparative collections are one of the most important tools in zooarcheology. These assemblages are made up of the shells and complete skeletons of animals about which much is known; for example, when, where, and how the animals lived and died. By comparing these modern specimens with archeological specimens, zooarcheologists can go beyond simply identifying what species are present in an archeological faunal assemblage to answering questions about whether a particular specimen is from a male or female, what kind of environment the animal lived in, how old it was when it died, and much more.


About six years ago, after old age and illness had taken their toll, two of Suzi Goodhope’s horses, Pascal and Patriot were euthanized and buried in separate graves on either side of a pasture fence. Goodhope’s “cadaver dogs” specialize in locating historic human remains and part of their training and conditioning involves distinguishing between the scents of dead human beings and non-human animals. The buried horses, as well as burials of two deer and a sheep were used as part of the dogs’ training. Goodhope offered to donate the skeletons to SEAC for our zooarcheological comparative collection provided that she didn’t have to excavate them herself, of course.

Did you know that Suzi and her HRD dog Shiraz have worked closely with SEAC on several occasions  including the recent project at the Thomasville Civil War Prison Camp?

Excavating articulated skeletons is a rare opportunity even for professional archeologists. Dr. Geoff Thomas saw Goodhope’s offer as an occasion for students, with shovels, trowels, brooms, and brushes, to excavate the horse skeletons using methods employed by archeologists and forensic anthropologists.

Between May 9 and June 17, 2016, Thomas and FSU anthropology professor Dr. Tanya Peres had led 16 students in a field school at Mound Field (8WA8), a 1400 year-old prehistoric archeological site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. SEAC provided technical support, logistics, and volunteer recruitment.

Despite identifying and excavating numerous prehistoric features at Mound Field, no human remains were encountered. Goodhope even brought Shiraz, a Belgian Malinois and her most experienced dog, to the site but she was unable to locate any evidence of human remains.

IMG_4179Did you known that Mound Field is the second site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge to host an FSU field school? Learn about the other site – Byrd Hammock – here!

FSU undergraduate anthropology students Emilee McGann, Alexa Pannavaria, Jessica Knight, Bridgett Borders, Ashley Brady, and Mason Pope had participated in the Mound Field field school. They volunteered to help excavate Goodhope’s horses for some hands-on experience with faunal remains.

Andrew McFeaters sets up the GPR used to pinpoint the location of the horse graves.

The work began on June 20th when SEAC archeologists met Goodhope at her property near Havana, Florida. She pointed out the horse graves, visible on the surface as shallow depressions, and a ground penetrating radar, or GPR, was used to pinpoint their locations. A backhoe was hired to remove the fill from each grave down to a level just above the horses’ remains.

SEAC archeologists Dr. Mike Russo, Jeffrey Shanks, Andrew McFeaters, Tim Roberts, and Thadra Stanton were onsite to help Dr. Thomas guide his students through the process of exposing, photographing, mapping, and excavating the skeletons destined for the SEAC zooarcheological comparative collection.

Patriot’s remains were encountered at the water table making for a very mucky excavation and preventing the students’ ability to excavate his complete articulated skeleton in situ.

Patriot’s grave.
Everyone was surprised as the amount of hair and soft tissue among Pascal’s bones.

Most of the students’ time on site was spent removing fill above Pascal’s grave with shovels. When the outline of the grave became clear, they laid in a 2m x 2m unit and exposed the skeleton with trowels excavating in arbitrary 10 cm levels.

Pascal’s remains were encountered just above the water table allowing the students to expose most of the skeleton. The vagaries of preservation often get the better of best laid plans. Along with the bones, quite a bit of hide, hair, and adipose were still present along with the lingering smell of putrification. The students remarked that the smell, and the sounds of troweling the saturated soil were the most off-putting parts of the experience.

Dr. Geoffrey Thomas helping students practice plan mapping.

After the majority of the skeleton was exposed, students practiced drawing a plan map of the feature. Each element was removed and arranged anatomically to be sure that the entire skeleton had been recovered. The bones were placed in black plastic garbage bags and brought back to the lab.

The bones were removed and arranged in anatomical order to be sure all elements were accounted.

On the loading bay at SEAC, archeologists placed the bones in a 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide overnight to disinfect the specimens and remove any remaining tissue. Then each bone was scrubbed and rinsed in fresh water and left out to dry. The two skeletons were assigned distinct catalog numbers. Each bone will be labelled with the catalog number. Each skeleton will be placed in a container labelled with the catalog number, and the scientific binomial and common name.

The disinfected bones were dried in the sun.


Goodhope has generously allowed SEAC zooarcheologist Brian Worthington to move his maceration operation to her property. Stay tuned for more on this rather grizzly method of preparing animal skeletons for zooarcheological comparative collections….


Check out this excellent video on the FSU field school at Mound Field!


Artifact of the Week: HMS Fowey 9-Pounder

9 pounder cannon from the HMS Fowey

The Southeast Archeological Center manages more than 9 million artifacts in its collections. The largest object is a nine-pounder cast iron cannon recovered from the HMS Fowey shipwreck site at Biscayne National Park in 1983.

The Fowey is a British Navy frigate that sank in park waters in 1748. Two nine-pounder cannons were recovered, one during an underwater archeological project conducted by SEAC and the other by park staff shortly afterward. The two guns initially underwent conservation treatment at the Florida State Conservation Research Laboratory in Tallahassee.

After several years of outdoor display at Biscayne National Park, the two guns were retreated at the Texas A&M Conservation Laboratory and park staff then loaned one of the guns to SEAC for management and preservation in the Center’s storage facility in NPSCentennialLogo2005. The other cannon is currently on exhibit at the Biscayne National Park Visitor Center.

The cannon stored at SEAC has now been loaned to the Coral Gables Museum as part of an NPS Centennial exhibit of museum collection items from South Florida National Parks called This Land is Your Land that will continue through January 8, 2017.

Watch as SEAC archeologists bid a fond farewell to the cannon!

Featuring: Just Gone by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band licensed under a Public Domain / Sound Recording Common Law Protection License.

Check out Biscayne National Park archeologist Charles Lawson’s on-site description of the HMS Fowey!

Artifact of the Week: Lead Ball

Two views of our Artifact of the Week, a lead ball that appears to have been chewed by human teeth. Cinnamon Bay, St. John Islands, Virgin Islands National Park. SEAC Accesssion 156
Civil war surgeons kit: a box of reasons to bite the bullet? Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Quadell.

“Bite the bullet.” If you’ve never heard this phrase then you’ve probably lived a charmed life. The idiom generally refers to enduring something difficult, unpleasant, or painful, and unavoidable. Its etymology usually involves a military inevitability or unpleasantry.

For example, it is often suggested that patients undergoing surgery without anesthesia (i.e. wounded soldiers in the field) were given a bullet to clench between their teeth as a way to cope with extreme pain. Other sources associate the expression with the mid-nineteenth century British phrase “refused to bite the cartridge” referring to native Indian soldiers who mutinied during Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this case, “biting the cartridge” refers to biting open a paper cartridge containing a lead ball and gun powder to load a rifle. The British army in the mid-nineteenth century greased their cartridges with pork or beef fat to keep them dry. Consuming pork is forbidden in Islam and consuming beef forbidden in Hindusim. It has been suggested that these matters of religious freedom directly influenced the Mulsim and Hindu soldiers’ refusal to bite the cartridge, and the punishment they received for their disobedience led to the military mutiny that precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857.

sepoy rifle load from guns_dot_com
Rifle loading instructions for Indian soldiers. Step 1 shows a soldier “biting the cartridge.”

Our Artifact of the Week wasn’t found in India but the West Indies. 

It is a lead ball that may have been chewed by human teeth

recovered in 1964 during  power line and water line installation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island at Virgin Islands National Park.

Another view of the chewed lead ball.

Unfortunately, some of the provenience data has been lost and the sampling procedure is unknown (Hanson 1969). A brass side plate for a musket was recovered from the same trench and the caliber of the ball is in the general vicinity of a musket ball. Another lead ball was found with a hole bored through it possibly to be used as fishing weight.

Two views of a lead ball with a hole through it also recovered durin gthe 1964 trench excavation at Cinnamon Bay, St. John Island, Virgin Islands National Park.
Source: Wikipedia

Were lead balls used as some sort of toxic, makeshift confection? Not likely. Lead poisoning may be one of the oldest known hazards of its kind. The ancient Romans knew that lead was toxic. Yet they used lead acetate or so-called sugar of lead as a food sweetener.   However, a soldier in the 1777 Battle of Walloomsac, New York wrote that he chewed a bullet to promote salivation (Sivilich 2016:109).

Of course, maybe the ball wasn’t chewed by a human being at all. Many lead balls chewed by rodents, pigs, and even deer have been found on battlefields. In some cases, the shape of the markings on the ball are a clue to the kind of animal that did the chewing (Sivilich 2016:102). For example, deer teeth can leave a horseshoe shaped pattern of impressions. Rodents often leave long parallel grooves from their incisors. Wild and domestic swine may leave markings similar to those made by human teeth but the size and depth of the impressions are usually greater. In fact, swine can flatten lead balls with their powerful jaw muscles, sometimes swallowing and partly digest them.

Battlefield archaeologist Daniel M. Sivilich conducted several experiments in which he chewed musket balls cast from lead alloy and 99.9 percent pure lead using different teeth. While this kind of procedure is not recommended given the dangers of lead poisoning, his results suggest that some lead balls were chewed by people.


Interested in learning more about historic ammunition?

Check out Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide (Sivilich 2016) featuring the work of SEAC’s very own Michael Seibert. Chapter 7 is devoted to chewed musket balls.

Though hardly more than speculation, it is possible that the military artifacts from the trenches at Cinnamon Bay found their way into the archeological record during the 1733 African revolt. Briefly, the 1730s were particularly volatile in the social and environmental history of St. John Island.

1848 notice of emancipation (Danish National Archives).

Marronage, the self-emancipation of enslaved Africans by running away, was especially high. Attempting to suppress marronage, the Danish government instituted extremely brutal methods for punishing disobedience among enslaved Africans and maroons. In 1733, drought, two hurricanes, and insect plagues decimated island crops and fresh water supplies dwindled. Combined, these developments strained inherently taut relations between Dutch planters and enslaved Africans.

Among the St. John maroons were African royalty, noblemen and women, and wealthy merchants who had been captured as prisoners of war and sold to Danish slavers in the 1730s. The revolt is believed to have been orchestrated by several these enslaved aristocrasts – Bolombo, an Adambe king, Aquashi, an Aquambo prince, and Kanta, an Amina nobleman. After a six month standoff, the rebellion was defeated by French and Danish soldiers, slaves from other islands, and a militia of free creoles. The abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies and the emancipation of enslaved Africans would not happen until 1848.

 This is the second post on uniquely used military artifacts from Virgin Islands National Park.

Check out the first: Grapeshot from Christiansted.


Video and other info about archeology at Cinnamon Bay from the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park

Explore the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park blog!


Sivilich, Daniel M.

2016 Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Hanson, Lee H., Jr.

1969 A Study of the Artifacts Recovered from Two Construction Trenches Through the Cinnamon Bay Site, St.John Island, Virgin Islands National Park. Manuscript on file at the Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.

SEAC Honored with 2016 Preservation Award


Two Southeast Archeological Center archeologists are named among the winners of a 2016 Preservation Award from the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation!

According to the Florida Trust’s press release:

Outstanding Achievement: Byrd Hammock Archaeological Site, Wakulla County

The Byrd Hammock archaeological site includes significant remains of two prehistoric cultures including two village sites, each with its own burial mound. It is also a site that has been heavily looted, and without Federal law enforcement protection, was in danger of being destroyed and the information it contains being lost forever. Individuals significant to protecting the site are Dr. Michael Russo and Jeffery Shanks of the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center for their professional research at the Byrd Hammock site, the St. Marks Refuge Association, Inc. for successfully securing the donation of the site for the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, thereby affording it Federal protection, and the Rev. Lila Byrd Brown and family for their generous donation of 160 acres of land that includes 85% of this important archaeological site. Byrd Hammock is designated a National Historic Place.

russo and shanks

SEAC archeologists Dr. Michael Russo (left) and Jeffery Shanks (right) at Byrd Hammock

Did you know that the Byrd Hammock Preservation Project also received the Southeast Region’s Hartzog Park Volunteer Program Award?


Check out some other Byrd Hammock Preservation Project posts here!

Rockshelters at Mammoth Cave National Park

The view from within a cave at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ask a Southeastern archeologist if she studies cavemen…and she may tell you that she does! SEAC archeologists Robert Hellmann and Timothy Roberts have just returned from a week of site condition assessments at Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA).

MACA is part of the longest cave system in the world.

Tradition holds that enslaved cave guide Nick Bransford purchased his freedom by selling eyeless fish to park visitors.

It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve. The park includes approximately 53,000 acres of topographically diverse above-ground terrain and hundreds of miles of subterranean caverns with their own geological, social, and industrial history. Rivers, sinks, springs, creeks, and swallets water the land and the caves alike. The diverse range of plants and animals at MACA is a product of the unique environments protected by the park.

More than a half million people visit MACA every year to tour the caves, camp, hike, bike, and horseback ride. Unfortunately, some visitors engage in other, often illegal activities that damage, sometimes irreparably, natural and cultural resources within the park.

Disturbance caused by a fallen tree root ball at a MACA archeological site.

It is the mission of the National Park Service to “preserve, unimpaired, the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” The preservation and integrity of cultural resources, including archeological sites in National Parks are threatened by plants, animals, wind, and water. Burrowing critters can tear up archeological deposits from the top down and vice versa. A living tree’s roots can grow straight through archeological deposits. Trees can fall onto historic structures and the roots balls of falling trees can rip large sections of sites right from the ground. The adverse effects of flooding and erosion can almost go without further comment and wildfires present their own set of preservation challenges.

But by far, the worst and most preventable negative impacts to archeological sites are willfully caused by human beings.

Hand-carved sign at the entrance to Crystal Cave reads “Great Crystal Cave Discovered Dec 18, 1917 by Floyd Collins

In a previous post, we explored the juxtaposition of historic graffiti as a cultural resource and modern graffiti as destructive vandalism at MACA. But, as an eyesore that also contributes to ecological degradation, graffiti pales in comparison to looting. Revolutionary and Civil War battlefield sites across the Southeast have suffered from unauthorized excavations by selfish metal detectorists. Native American burial and sub-structural mounds have suffered from the wanton shovels of pot hunters.

Like prehistoric mounds, rockshelters are often beacons on the landscape. They are silent repositories created by the social and ceremonial activities of past Native Americans, and imbued by them with spiritual significance in the eyes of their living descendants. Unfortunately, these sites are also beacons for so-called relic hunters.

View from within a small MACA rockshelter.

While no prehistoric mounds have been identified at MACA, there are more than 150 rockshelters among the park’s documented archeological sites. During our recent round of site condition assessments we visited 18. They ranged in size from that of a covered city bus stop to that of a Broadway theater stage. Some are set high on steep ridges. Others are just above creek terraces next to spectacular waterfalls. Some are remote and others are accessible just off of park roads and hiking, biking, and equestrian trails. They range from being possibly unknown to any living people save archeologists, resource managers, and park law enforcement officers, to those regularly visited by hikers, illegally used a campsites, defaced by vandals, and attacked by looters.

Take nothing but pictures…

w250x249_THIEF OF TIME croppedThe damage caused by looting goes beyond the willful destruction of archeological sites in violation of the Archaeological Resource Protection Act; defacing government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1361; theft of government property in violation of 18 U.S.C. 641; disturbing human remains and funerary offerings in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

With rare exceptions, unauthorized removal of artifacts and excavation of archeological sites destroys context, the most important concept in archeology. This is like tearing pages out of a one-of-a-kind book, and becomes particularly upsetting at sites with the potential to contain intact stratigraphy.

A large rockshelter above a creek and alluvial terrace.

When diagnostic artifacts are stolen, features churned up and destroyed, and organic materials that can be radiocarbon dating are displaced, much of the potential information these objects contain can become essentially obsolete. The goal of an archeologist is not simply to find neat stuff but to understand the relationships between neat (and not-so-neat) stuff to answer questions about past human experience. The relationships are key, and context is the relationships.

Some rockshelters in Kentucky contain deposits extending more than 10,000 years back to the Paleoindian period; others have evidence of more recent historic uses. They provide excellent opportunities for testing hypotheses about past climate, settlement and mobility, subsistence, economic organization, trade and exchange and other big picture questions regarding change through time that archeology is especially suited to answer.

MACA rockshelter with historic and prehistoric artifacts.

Even seemingly “simpler” questions about how people have used rockshelters through time would be nearly impossible to answer without archeological investigations.

For example:

What researchers are able to do with paleofeces is remarkable! While analyzing 100 specimens of prehistoric dried human feces from Salts Cave at MACA, archeologists Patty Jo Watson and Richard Yarnell (1966) identified wild strawberry seeds in the same specimens as hickory nuts and acorns, among other species. Since the berries were likely eaten immediately whereas the hickory and acorns could be stored with relative ease, this data strongly suggested that the end-user who created the coprolite visited the cave sometime in the late spring or early summer.

Thirty years later,
chromatography and radioimmunoassay were used to measure levels of testosterone and estradiol in

Example of paleofeces from Furna do Estrago. Wikimedia Commons.

both modern fecal reference samples and paleofecal samples from Salts Cave (Sobolik et al. 1996). That is to say, researchers can test whether a coprolite was made by a man or woman!

Other important insights from paleofeces analyses include the nature of health and nutrition, human parasites, and evidence for prehistoric plant domestication.

Park resource manager Larry Johnson accompanied us to two rockshelters where he had observed evidence of unauthorized excavations. He described looting as a pathology; a compulsive or obsessive behavior tantamount to an addiction. For some, the excitement is derived from the hunt for artifacts more than the objects themselves. He related stories from when he served as a park law enforcement officer and observed looters in plain sight so focused on collecting that they were unaware of his presence until he had announced himself.

SEAC archeologist Robert Hellamann and MACA resource manager Larry Johnson at a rockshelter with evidence of unauthorized excavation. Note the spoil piles from looter’s pits just below the center of the frame.
It is illegal to harvest wild ginseng at MACA.

One park employee remarked that it is almost as though there’s a fringe group of people who are essentially career criminals bent on stealing from the public for private profit. At MACA, illegal artifact collecting and the illicit antiquities trade often go hand-in-hand with littering, growing marijuana and illegally harvesting ginseng in the park, the possession and sale of illegal firearms, poaching dear and turkey, and the like.


Eastern Ratsnake
There are plenty of rattlesnakes at MACA, but this eastern ratsnake was the only serpent we encountered.

The disregard of law and public property, or at best carelessness and selfishness, that accompanies a relic hunting mentality apparently also seems to lend itself to conspiracy theories that somehow justify  the looting of sites. Of those shared with us by park personnel, my personal favorite revolves around the abundance of deer in the park. At one point, there were so many deer in the park that some were humanely captured by resource managers and released into Wildlife Management Areas. The conspiracy theory holds that the deer were being exchanged for rattlesnakes that were then dropped in crates with parachutes from black UN helicopters into the park. No one is quite sure how this patently false rumor was started…the Onion, perhaps?

A remote rockshelther hidden by vegetation.

Maintaining a park service presence at rockshelters is a challenge given the sheer number of them in the park, their wide distribution, and in most cases remote locations. Furthermore, park visitors are allowed to visit rockshelters. However, they are not permitted to remove, deface, or otherwise disturb the natural and cultural resources associated with a rockshelter…or anywhere else in the park.

America depends on you to serve as a steward of our cultural resources. Be a part of the solution: If You See Something, Say Something!

If you visit a rockshelter or other archeological site and see evidence of vandalism or disturbance, notify park staff. If you know someone who engages in these activities, let them not that it’s not cool and they are in violation of federal law.


During this trip, SEAC archeologist also evaluated the condition of a range of other site types including open-air prehistoric lithic scatters, historic homesteads and stores, and Civilian Conservation Corps camps. They even found time to map a newly rediscovered cemetery.

Check out this interactive online map of cemeteries at Mammoth Cave National Park!

Mapping Minyard Cemetery.


20160427_100811Read about one MACA visitor’s experience! 

Or check out MACA park ranger Cole Goodman’s #FindYourPark story!

Interested in more modern human habitations in Kentucky? Check out this award-winning blog!


Watson, Patty Jo and Richard A. Yarnell

1966 Archaeological and Paleoethnobotanical Investigations in Salts Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky. American Antiquity 31(6):842-849.

Sobolik KD, KJ Gremillion, PL Whitten, and PJ Watson

1996 Sex determination of prehistoric human paleofeces. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 101(2):283-90.


Artifact of the Week: Clay Pipe Fragments

_Figure 08-81 NATC A 27639 B 27638
A. Pipe stem fragment; B. Pipe bowl fragment

WikiProject_Scouting_fleur-de-lis_no_scroll.pngOur current artifacts of the week are a clay pipe stem and a pipe bowl fragment featuring an embossed fleur-de-lis recovered by SEAC archeologists during excavations at Fort Rosalie at Natchez National Historical Park. For many of us in the Southeast, the fleur-de-lis is an iconic symbol of Louisiana and the New Orleans Saints. Some may associate it with the emblem of the Boy Scouts of America. Traditionally, however, the fleur-de-lis is the symbol of French royalty.

Two earthenware pipe bowls found at Fort Rosalie are marked with a fleur-de-lis .

Both of these pipe fragments and three additional fragments (two stems and one heel) appear to be made of the same material, a fine, sand-tempered earthenware, and may represent locally manufactured tobacco pipes. The stem fragments are heavy, and the only one with an intact bore measured 11/16 inches in diameter. The wide diameter of the stem and its relatively heavy construction are consistent with known examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century “reed stem” clay tobacco pipes (Noël Hume 1969; Murphy 1974, 1976, 2009).

During the last half of the sixteenth century, smoking tobacco in clay pipes became a popular indulgence in Europe. Inexpensive and sold in large quantities to people at all economic levels, clay pipes became commonplace and remained so until the beginning of the twentieth century.

We’re excited to share this draft 3D scan of one of the fleur-de-lis pipe bowl fragments! SEAC is in the beginning stages of applying this technology to our curation and interpretation. Megan-Suzanne Reed, an  Archeological Technician in SEAC’s NAGPRA and Applied Sciences division, is working on producing 3D scans of several other artifacts. Stay tuned for more 3D imagery and animation from SEAC’s collections!


Two 3D renderings of the fleur-de-lis pipe bowl. Top: “Matcap”; Bottom: “Classic”. Generated using Sketchfab

Please check out the absolutely excellent The Virtual Curation Museum blog for more images and information about 3D scanning!

A bit on Fort Rosalie…


Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville

Fort Rosalie was initially constructed in 1716 as a palisaded fort on a high bluff during the first Natchez War. This year is the 300th anniversary of the establishment of Fort Rosalie, and what most consider the founding of Natchez. Construction materials and corvée labor were provided by the Natchez Indians under the direction of Jean Baptiste LeMoyne, Sieur d’Bienville. The wooden fort was burned to the ground during the second Natchez War in 1729 and rebuilt as earthworks in 1733.

Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac

It is worth noting that the Louisiana governor, Antoine de la Mothe, sieur de Cadillac‘s refusal to smoke the peace pipe, or calumet, and renew alliances with the Natchez factored directly into the violence that precipitated building Fort Rosalie.

In 1763, the British took control of the fort renaming it Fort Panmure. In 1779, the Spanish took control of the Natchez District including the fort. The area was included in the territory transferred to the United States in 1795, evacuated by the Spanish in 1798, and by 1799 was no longer used as a military fortification.

One of John James Audobon’s 1822 paintings of Natchez. Note the Fort Rosalie earth embankment just to the left of the tree in the foreground.

John James Audobon noted in 1820 that the fort was the location of the town gallows and that the old moat was used for burying slaves. Recent collaborative archival research suggests that a considerable section of the fort was destroyed during a landslide in 1869 (Vincas Steponaitis, personal communication 2013).

davis dickson rosalie reconstruction
A view of Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr.’s 1941 Rosalie “reconstruction.”

Jefferson Davis Dickson, Jr., veteran, sports promoter, and entrepreneur, purchased the bluff top tract that included the Fort Rosalie site in 1939 or 1940. By 1941, a conjectured replica of the fort and Indian village had been constructed at the site as a tourist attraction. One of the log buildings that functioned as the gift shop for the attraction remains at the corner of Canal Street and DA Biglane Street and will be used in some interpretive, commercial, or administrative capacity by the park for the site. Check out the Historic Structures Report on the Old Fort Rosalie Gift Shop here!

old fat mamas bldg
The Old Fort Rosalie Gift Shop, part of Dickson’s reconstruction, now at 500 South Canal Street in Natchez, Mississippi.

Fort Rosalie is not currently open to the public but the park is working to change that. However, the fort isn’t the only site managed by the park…


Check out this blog and video discussing two other important historic archeological sites in Natchez! 


SEAC archeologist Rusty Simmons

Have you been following Natchez History Minutes?

Check out these informative videos on the park’s website and Facebook page!

The Natchez History Minute below is narrated

by SEAC’s very own

Rusty Simmons.



Mississippi Department of Archives and History. 1991    Fort Rosalie Site – Survey and Evaluation of Architectural Resources. Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Jackson.

Murphy, James L. 1974 Nineteenth Century Reed-Stem Tobacco Pipes from Mogadore, Ohio. Pennsylvania Archaeologist 44(4):52-60.

1976 Reed Stem Tobacco Pipes from Point Pleasant, Clermont County, Ohio. Northeast Historical Archaeology 5(1):12-27.

2009 A Moravian Clay Pipe from Grape Vine Town, Belmont County, Ohio. Ohio Archeologists 59(2):21-23.

Noël Hume, Ivor. 1969 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.