SEAC Zooarcheologists Combine Sciences to Study the Past


In as much as archeology stands alone as a professional and intellectual pursuit, it is privileged to also be a sort of axis discipline that relates data from other fields of study to the human past. Like any strong field of inquiry, archeology draws on multiple lines of evidence derived from the results of its own diverse suite of research methods and those of other disciplines.

In some cases, these other disciplines are tied directly to a subfield of archeology. Zooarcheology is a particular case in point. Zooarcheology combines anthropology and archeology with zoology, biology, ecology, and climatology to study the past relationships between people and animals.

SEAC Zooarcheologists Alex Parsons and Brian Worthington are practiced experts in highlighting not only how past peoples interacted with animals but also how different animals can teach us things about the nature of the past environments in which people lived.

Brian works in the Regionwide Archeological Survey Program division at SEAC. Recently, he has been analyzing and describing the entire faunal collection from SEAC’s investigations at Cape Lookout National Seashore (CALO) in North Carolina.  Some of the research questions guiding his studies include determining the different time periods during which people have lived on the Outer Banks, comparing historic and prehistoric adaptions to island life, determining the different environments prehistoric and historic populations exploited for food and raw materials, and exploring the different methods and technologies of hunting and gathering.

Great Auk

Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis)

Brian says it was particularly exciting to identify specimens of the extinct great auk (Pinguinus impennis) in historic and prehistoric contexts at Cape Lookout, and other very rare, related bird species like the little auk or dovekie (Alle alle) and razorbill (Alca torda).

The kinds of animals present in the collection offers clues about the possible over-exploitation of certain species or environments. For example, if more large grouper specimens show up early on but smaller grouper is more common later, this may suggests that people were forced to settle for smaller grouper after they over-fished the large grouper. Similarly, people may be forced to venture farther afield for food when the abundance of inshore species decreases from over-exploitation.

Comparative collections are one of the most important tools in zooarcheology. These collections 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 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.

Dr. Alex Parsons is a zooarcheologist in the NAGPRA and Applied Science division at SEAC. She has recently been spending much of her time developing a comparative collection of a kind of clam called a quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) from the brackish sound on the east side of Cape Lookout. Once complete, the comparative collection will be used to study the shells which make up the middens (piles of prehistoric garbage) at CALO.

a shell mound at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Shell mound/midden at Cape Lookout National Seashore

Follow this link to a short video by Dr. Parsons explaining how to tell time with shells!

One of Alex’s research objectives is to determine whether prehistoric Native Americans at CALO were creating the shell middens year round or during specific seasons. Throughout their lives, clams grow rings much like trees. To determine the season in which a group of clams died, a zooarcheologist must know what the rings that form during different seasons look like. Each year, a clam grows a set of two rings, one translucent and one opaque. The translucent ring is a response to seasonal stress. In warmer, southern climates, this stress is induced by hot summer temperatures. In the cooler, northern climates, cold winter temperatures cause the clams to grow their translucent ring. CALO is located near threshold between these different seasonal growth patterns so determining what season a group of clams died becomes extra tricky.

Cut quahog shell section

Cut quahog shell section

That’s why a larger than usual comparative (or “baseline”) collection from the local area is necessary. To build the CALO quahog comparative collection, 40-50 clams were collected each month for two years. That’s between 960 to 1200 clams! Once these are cut and measured, Alex will move on to cutting and measuring the hundreds of archeological clams collected from the CALO middens.

Archeology has the potential to fill in gaps in written histories and to tell the story of peoples whose histories have been lost or have gone unrecorded. Zooarcheologists, by studying archeological remains through the lens of anthropology in conjunction with zoology, biology, ecology, and climatology, flesh out the contexts of past human life and how people and other animals experienced the world in which they lived.

Don’t forget to check out Alex Parsons’ and Brian Worthington’s 15 Questions With an Archeologist

Fort McPherson Meets the Forks of the Road: The Nexus of Slavery, Freedom, and Resistance In Civil War-era Natchez, Mississippi.


Click HERE or the image above to listen to SEAC’s first feature podcast episode about Fort McPherson and the Forks of the Road!

Fort McPherson, in Natchez, Mississippi, was a Civil War fort built primarily by United States Colored Troops (USCT). The fort became a major recruiting center for the USCT, which was comprised especially of African American slaves who ran away from the places where they had been held in bondage. Many of the men who made up the ranks of the USCT at Fort McPherson had previously been sold as slaves at the second largest slave market in the history of the Deep South – the Forks of the Road – situated on the outskirts of Natchez. Together, these two sites, located on opposite ends of the city, help to tell a story enslavement, self-emancipation, and active resistance by African Americans, without whom the outcome of the bloodiest war fought on American soil may have taken a different turn.

Fort McPherson Meets the Forks of the Road: Podcast Transcript

“The Civil War-era Fort McPherson is part of the unique nexus of enslavement, antebellum freedom, self-emancipation, and resistance expressed in the history and cultural landscape of Natchez, Mississippi.

Named for Union Army Major General James Birdseye McPherson, the earthen fort was built in 1864 primarily by the 58th, 70th and 71st Infantries and the 6th Heavy Artillery regiments of the United States Colored Troops.

It sits on the high bluff overlooking the Mississippi River encompassing 1500 acres on the north side of the city between downtown and the Natchez City Cemetery. Deep ravines lie to the north and east. Though orders were given following the war in 1865 to demolish the outer fortifications, some earthworks are visible on the landscape today. Indeed, some stand in dramatic contrast to natural topography.

There are currently no exhibits identifying Fort McPherson or the central role of self-emancipated African-Americans in the construction and garrisoning of the fort as members of the United States Colored Troops. Interpretation of African-American heritage in the city focuses on oppression and enslavement at the Forks of the Road, the atypical but extraordinarily documented mid-nineteenth-century life of the free African-American businessman William Johnson, the mention of servants in antebellum home tours, and persons and events of more recent history such as Madame Nelly Jackson, the tragic 1940 Rhythm Nightclub fire, and the famous twentieth-century African-American author Richard Wright .

Visitors from all over the world travel to Natchez year-round and in great numbers during the Spring and Fall Pilgrimage to tour the antebellum homes for which Natchez is so well known. A number of these properties are located within Fort McPherson and were used to house Union officers during the occupation of the city beginning on July 13th 1863 less than 10 days after the fall of Vicksburg.

Local traffic and pedestrians regularly travel along these residential streets with no knowledge of the fact that their drive along Linton Road takes them directly into Fort McPherson’s inner fortification or that the hill they jog past every day along B Street near North Commerce is actually the remains of Battery Gresham. There is no indication to visitors at the City Cemetery, where some members of the 58th Infantry are buried, that the contoured elevations along the southern edge of the cemetery are remains of the northern edge of a Civil War fort.

In addition to building the fort, US Colored Troops at Natchez were responsible for countering confederate guerilla actions and emancipating the enslaved. Detachments of soldiers from Fort McPherson fought locally important skirmishes at Vidalia, Louisiana just across the Mississippi River from Natchez, and at Gillespie’s Plantation, and Buck’s Ferry, among others. The soldiers discipline and resolve brought success in battle and earned the respect of their white comrades and officers.

As a place of African-American freedom, power, and patriotism, the fort presents a sharp contrast to the Forks of the Road.

The Forks of the Road site, listed on the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, was the second largest slave market in the Deep South. In the 1830s, the market was intentionally situated just outside of the antebellum city limits to comply with legislation prohibiting interstate slave traders from housing their slaves within the city .

A contraband camp was established at the Forks of the Road to accommodate the thousands of self-emancipated slaves who flocked to the protection of the Union army in Natchez. Though conditions were far from idyllic, the former slave market had still been transformed from a place of unjustified suffering into a beacon of salvation.

Many formerly enslaved men of military age and fitness joined regiments of colored troops raised at the fort.

This historic interplay of Fort McPherson and the Forks of the Road is poignantly expressed in a letter written by a Wisconsin soldier stationed at Natchez to the Milwaukee Daily Sentinel published on February 17, 1864:

“Our first quarters were in a long range of barracks used for a number of years as slave pens. Very many of the men composing the regiment had been sold in them; brought from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and other slave States, in large gangs ironed, they were placed in these dungeons until a sale could be affected. These buildings were situated in [the] outskirts of the city and owned by an Irishman. The worst secessionists [sic] in the whole country. As the position was very much exposed, we were ordered to construct barracks within the fortifications and to tear down these slave pens to obtain lumber to build them. This order was received just at evening and was hailed with the wildest enthusiasm by these men who had been chained, gagged and whipped, and suffered tortures unutterable within these same walls, and through that long night they worked with a terrible earnestness and the morning sun saw the slave pens of Natchez leveled to the ground, never, it is hoped, to be again reconstructed. During this work many a thrilling reminiscence was recalled of the cruelty of traders, of sad partings of husband and wife, of inhuman fathers selling their own children, and a thousand other incidents illustrating the detestable state of society at the South,”

January 25th 1864

Recognition of an African-American heritage site in Natchez not primarily focused on enslavement and oppression as the Forks of the Road is, or focused on the anomaly of slave-owning antebellum freedmen in Mississippi like the William Johnson National Historic Site is, but a site instead focused on the strength, solidarity, and honor of self-emancipated African-American Civil War soldiers at Fort McPherson can be a source of pride not only to the people of Natchez but to all Americans.

Today, removed in time by a brief 150 years, it is important for us to reflect on this underserved history lest we forget the struggles that have brought our society to its present state and will no doubt influence our future as we perpetually re-evaluate what it means to be an American.”