Saturday, March 16, 2013

French Artifacts of Mississippian Life

In my particular corner of archaeology, we read the accounts written by the French during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to better understand what life was like in colonial communities, and also to get a glimpse of native traditions and beliefs that were not written down by those who practiced them. Both the French and native traditions of the period were a mixture of the ancient and the then-modern.

There are some observations by the French, made in the southern Mississippi River Valley during the early eighteenth century, which provide particularly elusive glimpses of something that was more ancient than modern at the time. These accounts record the last echoes of Mississippian cultural practices that dated back to the eleventh century, and which were largely abandoned and forgotten in native communities by the time of the arrival of Europeans in North America. In a way, what the French saw at a village in modern-day southwestern Mississippi was a view back into time - even then.

Temple mound at the Grand Village of the Natchez.
Some of my favorite passages relate to a temple that sat atop a flat-topped mound at the Grand Village of the Natchez. Inside was a sacred fire that burned day and night, as well as a number of baskets inside of which were kept the bones of the previous leaders of the community, who were known as the “Suns”. The descriptions of the temple, made just before the ancient practices that constructed them came to an end, provide views that we can never really approach when we dig into the ground.

“There is no window, no chimney, in this temple, and it is only by the light of the fire that you can see a little, and then the door, which is very low and narrow, must be open… The old man who is the keeper keeps the fire up and takes care not to let it go out. It is in the center of the temple, in front of a sort of mausoleum…This would be rather graceful were it not all blackened with smoke and covered with soot. There is a large mat, which serves as a curtain to cover a large table… on which stands a large basket that is unlawful to open…”

“I saw a number of little earthen pots, platters, and cups, and little cane baskets, all well made. This is to serve up the food to the spirits of the deceased chiefs...”

“The interior of this temple is divided into two unequal parts by a little wall which cuts it from the rising to the setting sun. The part into which one enters may be 20 feet wide and the other may be 10, but in this second part it is extremely gloomy… There is nothing remarkable in the inside of the temple except a table or altar about 4 feet high and 6 long by 2 broad. On this table is a coffer made of cane splints very well worked, in which are the bones of the last great Sun. The eternal fire is in the first part of this temple. In the other and more secluded part nothing can be distinguished except two planks worked by hand on which are many minute carvings which one is unable to make out, owing to the insufficient light.”

Mississippian figurine (wood) from the Spiro Mounds.
There are also a few drawings of what the French saw at Natchez. The image below is particularly haunting. It illustrates the funeral of the “Tattooed Serpent”, who was the brother of the spiritual and political leader of the Natchez nation. Note how the route of the funeral procession is depicted with a simple looped line. What kind of artifact from the ground could provide such a view? Meanwhile, eight villagers are ritually strangled as the body passes by, on its way to the temple on top of the mound. It is difficult to overstate the value of these accounts and drawings today.

The funeral of the Tattooed Serpent.
The site of the Grand Village is still there today. The mounds on which the temples stood are covered in well-mown grass, and the place is now a quiet park. Follow the Natchez Trace, one of the oldest roads in the country, to where it meets the Mississippi River.  Stand on the low mounds and remember the fire that burned day and night.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Words They Used

Particularly for an archaeologist, it can be a lot of fun to know a linguist. My friend Michael McCafferty studies, among other things, the language of the Miami and the Illinois, which was the native tongue of the region from about 1600 to about 1750. Population decline amongst the Illinois (and the increase in French settlers) favored French as the local language by the mid-1700s. This was exchanged for English after the arrival of significant numbers of American settlers after 1800.

Michael provides me occasional insights into the language of the Illinois, which help interpret what we find in the ground, or which simply breathe a little life into the physical remains of the past. Below are a few things he has shared with me. (The Illinois words have been reproduced here in the way the French missionaries wrote the language.)

In Illinois: cacar8gana
In French: os de Cerf pour faire des pierres a fl.
In English: deer bones for making arrow stones

In Illinois: irenakic8a
In French: pot de terre fait par les sauvages
In English: earthen pot made by the wild ones

In Illinois: nitchingasichima achiski8akic8a  
In French: je presente au feu la gueule du pot de terre pr le seicher
In English: I introduce the neck of the earthen pot to the fire to dry it

In Illinois: 8apakic8nessa ("little white pot")
In French: de fayance  
In English: (French) faience

In Illinois: atehiminanghigi areni tchipacamina8e nipinirakinchi
In French: avec des fraise on fait une eau qui est coe une Espece de vin
In English: with strawberries they make a water which is like a kind of wine

In Illinois: nanta8a8ia am8i (literally ‘timber rattlesnake shit’)
In French: charbon de terre  
In English: coal

Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Little Bowl in the Fort

Native American pottery fragment from the third Fort de Chartres.

Archaeologists spend a lot of time talking about pottery. This humble little fragment from our recent work at Fort de Chartres is an illustration of why that is.

Ninety-nine percent of the ceramics we find at eighteenth century sites in Illinois are European products – mostly French wares before 1750. French merchants and colonists brought these here. The Native American residents of Illinois had ceased to make pottery by this time, and were using brass kettles and the occasional piece of French faience. The dominant indigenous group during the occupation of Fort de Chartres was the Illinois nation. By the time the third fort was constructed in 1732, the Illinois had been without a native pottery tradition for about 50 years. The last evidence for their manufacture of pottery (called “Danner Series) was in pre-1680 contexts in the upper Illinois River valley.
Danner Series sherd from the 17th century Zimmerman site, in the upper Illinois River Valley.
By the 1680s or 1690s, the Illinois were no longer making clay pots. The reason for this is complex. The old chestnut has been that they traded in their ancient practice of pottery making for shiny new brass kettles, which were more durable. However, a closer look at the seventeenth century villages of the Illinois reveals that for one or two generations, brass kettles and old-style clay pots were used at the same time. The former did not immediately replace the latter. Instead, the end of pottery-making seems to have followed population decline and social disruption. In other words, brass kettles didn’t destroy clay pots; warfare, disease and resettlement did, at least in Illinois. 
European brass kettle.
This brings us back to the tiny sherd found this fall at the fort. It is of native manufacture, but it was not made in Illinois. It was made in the southern Mississippi Valley, probably by the Natchez. There are references in the historical record to “Indian pots full of oil” brought up from the southern part of the valley, where indigenous pottery traditions were still alive and well during the eighteenth century – and where French brass kettles were also in use. 

Eighteenth century Natchez bowl.
This little vessel would not have been big enough to use to ship bear’s oil upriver, however. It was probably a little bowl or small bottle, decorated in a pattern of incised lines. It probably came to Illinois as part of someone’s personal possessions. It was also one of the last pieces of traditional pottery in use in the central Mississippi River valley, where Native American ceramics had been made for over 2000 years prior to the arrival of the French.

Such artifacts can be the tips of enormous historical icebergs….

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Garden by the Fort

This post will begin to describe the results of our 2012 archaeological testing at the site of the 1732 Fort de Chartres, in Randolph County, Illinois. The fort was built by the French to provide a military and governmental center for the Illinois Country colony. It was the third of four versions of the fortification.
Like most French colonial forts of the period, this version of Fort de Chartres was of the “Vauban” plan, consisting of central square area flanked by four diamond-shaped bastions. The central area housed most of the buildings associated with the fort (as well as the parade grounds), while the bastions provided defensive views of the walls of the fort and also housed specialized buildings. The walls of the fort were constructed of wooden poles set into deep trenches. The outlines of those trenches are still visible in the subsoil today, and allow us to accurately map the size and shape of the structure.

Our work at the site exposed the northeast bastion of the fort.  The base map above shows the features that we encountered there. The tan color represents areas of subsoil exposed by our test units and trenches. The black lines represent wall trench features. The gray shapes are pit features, and the small red shapes are posts.

In appreciation of the hard work provided by the good folks at the Fort de Chartres Heritage Garden (who demonstrated eighteenth century colonial culinary traditions at the Winter Rendezvous), I will begin with something unusual that we found outside of the limits of the fort.

As you can see in the second plan map (below), there are a series of narrow, perpendicular trenches that are anchored to the very tip of the bastion of the fort. These were very shallow features that could only have supported short, narrow posts - such as those that one would expect on low fencing. Such a fence would not have been sufficient to contain large animals, and instead, I am of the opinion that these trenches reflect a produce garden that was situated just outside the northeast bastion of the fort.

Trenches outside of the fort, as first exposed in excavation block.
This was a bit of a surprise, as the area around the fort (called the glacis) was meant to be kept clear for defensive purposes. However, Fort de Chartres was located in a rather sleepy place, militarily speaking. During the last years of this facility (which probably stood until the mid-1750s) most of the soldiers affiliated with the fort were actually stationed elsewhere. It would appear that those remaining in the fort, or perhaps some of the residents of the adjacent village, eventually set up a garden just outside of the bastion. A fragment of an unusual French stoneware pot or jug was found in one of the fence line trenches, and may have been used in the garden for watering or for other purposes.

What intrigues me about this find is that it is so unofficial. The little fence wasn’t part of the grand plan of the fort. Instead it represents both the everyday reality of needing to grow your own food, as well as the slow, quiet tide of village life that eventually overtook the site of the 1732 fort.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Back to Fort de Chartres part I

One of several storms approaching.

I have been lost in writing a sequel to the “At Home in the Illinois Country” book, this one focusing on seventeenth and eighteenth century Native American villages and French forts in the Illinois Country. For this reason, I’m afraid I haven’t spent much time updating the blog this summer. However, I finally got a break from the lab and the computer – as we spent another 2 weeks at the site of the 1732 Fort de Chartres.

This year, we opened a larger area, in hopes of exposing the plan of the northeast bastion of the fort. The project did just that – and we now have a good idea of how the fort was built, repaired, and what kind of activities occurred inside. The next few posts will focus on what we found. But first, here are a few snapshots of the 2012 work, and our dedicated volunteer crew. Thanks to everyone who leant a hand in the rain and the cold wind.

More to come….
Site view.
Jane profiling a pit feature abandoned before 1760.
Ron excavating one of the wall trenches that supported the bastion wall.
Robert mapping the wall trenches.
Margaret removing the redeposited remains of a fireplace.
A damp and dedicated crew, October 2012.

Crew pictures courtesy of Corinne Carlson...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ethnicity in Antebellum St. Louis

An Irish neighborhood in St. Louis, 1858.
        In St. Louis, the neighborhoods straddling Biddle Street between 6th and 12th Streets during the mid 19th  century were generally remembered as densely populated residential districts inhabited primary by working class Irish immigrants. During the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, particular areas of the neighborhood were known by informal names such as  “Kerry Patch” (referring to County Kerry in Ireland), “Castle Thunder” (a particularly scary tenement building), and “Clabber Alley” (referring to sour milk). Census information, however, indicates that these neighborhoods were also well populated by German immigrants.

I just finished a study of thousands of artifacts, dating circa 1840-1865, that were excavated in this neighborhood. One of the findings of the study is that this very ethnic part of the city doesn’t really look much different from other neighborhoods of the same period, at least through the lens of archaeological artifacts. Instead, what we see by the mid 19th century is essentially a mass-produced, mass marketed material universe, not unlike the one we know today.
Two mid-19th century pipes from St. Louis: A British pipe with thistle motif,
 and a personalized German porcelain pipe.
            There were only a few objects that, by themselves, speak of the unique heritage of the neighborhood. These include traditional redware food storage and cooking pots, German porcelain smoking pipes, and British-made smoking pipes decorated with traditional Irish and Scottish symbols. Even at a folk-object level, traditional symbolism was complex: an unusual folk pipe that might be attributable to German immigrant pipe-maker Henry Nolle, is decorated with a portrait of Napoleon.
A smoking pipe possibly made by St. Louis pipe-maker Henry Nolle, around 1845. 
        The lesson here is that our cultural identity has been largely untethered from the things that we buy in stores for a very long time.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Ancestor of Pepsi in Antebellum St. Louis

As I've been working on a report on a massive collection of artifacts from a Irish neighborhood in St. Louis, dating to the 1840s and 1850s, I thought I'd post a few more examples of relevant artifact types. Then I will return to the frontier and colonial periods of the region.
The first soda water bottle made for a St Louis merchant.
Made between 1845 and 1847.
Commonly recovered from archaeological mid-nineteenth century features in St. Louis are early soda water bottles. Soda water was first bottled in St. Louis in 1845, by druggists Rudolph and John Adams. A newspaper advertisement placed by the druggists in the spring of that year actually explained to local consumers that their product was “bottled by machinery in such a manner as to retain the fixed air perfectly, which renders it a beverage quite as delightful as being drawn from the fountain itself ”. 
Being the earliest form of the bottled, flavored soda pop that is so ubiquitous today, these products were also marketed for their health effects during the mid-nineteenth century (probably most often as relief for stomach complaints).