Woodville, Miss . — Professor Meg Kassabaum climbed a ladder down into the earth, where bits of pottery and charcoal and stripes of soil and sand sketch the story of the ancient Native Americans who once lived in the Mississippi Valley.
Her research team has spent the past four weeks at a site on Smith Creek not far from the state line investigating a transformative period in history. The site contains artifacts from two distinct cultures, which saw a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture, the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist said.
The two societies — the Coles Creek mound builders and later Plaquemine culture — also have their own social structures and distinctive artwork, which Kassabaum showed in pottery found in the recent dig, which was beginning to wind down Thursday afternoon.
Her team has explored three sites west of Woodville, Mississippi. Two of the digs have focused on a pair of mounds, while the third is in an area between them, an area the researchers call a central plaza that is now a family’s front yard.
They’ve unearthed arrowheads, animal bones from food, and pieces of a broken pipe. They’ve also found pottery, decorated, though not with human or animal figures. The Coles Creek people often slapped the still-wet clay with paddles bound in rope before their pots and bowls were fired, transferring the texture of the cords. The Plaquemine carved intricate geometric designs on their pieces, such as one find that shows an interlocking scroll pattern.
The mounds were likely constructed by the Coles Creek some time between 800 A.D. and 1000 A.D., though the site was probably inhabited by the Plaquemine for 300 years afterward, Kassabaum explained.
One of the mounds is believed to have been the foundation for a structure like a temple or communal building. Another nearby mound not under excavation was probably used for burial, while the third, partially eroded from the nearby creek, is a mystery, though Kassabaum said it could have been the foundation for a stage or open gathering space.