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Upcoming Archaeology Events in Alabama:
AAS Winter Meeting to be held at Landmark Park in Dothan, Alabama on February 8, 2014. Details will be forthcoming.
Figuring out things that come to the Alabama Archaeological Society
About once every two or three months, it is not unusual for me to receive emails from people trying to identify an artifact or two - or more. Usually I relay a little information about the artifact type, its age and where they might find more information. Occasionally, someone brings an artifact or a frame with projectile points or even a bucket of artifacts to an AAS chapter meeting. Last summer, when I presented a PowerPoint-aided lecture on the use of remote sensing in archaeology to the Cullman Chapter of AAS, Robbie Camp, the chapter president, showed me an engraved palette in his possession. As told to him, the palette was found in a garden bed in the Dothan area of southeast Alabama.
Upon first look the palette – real or not - is fairly impressive. The stone is a ¼ inch thick and is 9 inches by almost 12 inches in size with an engraved or repeatedly scored design that measures 6.5 to 7.5 inches in diameter. The design, however, is not typical of the palette designs or vessel decorations seen in southeastern prehistory; it resembles one of those Celtic knots famous for the interlaced patterns. The actual scoring or engraving of the interlocking design is a little irregular – in some places it is deep and thick and in others it is very thin and shallow – but that might be expected from an unfinished product. In addition, the rock itself appears to be a lamellar or layered (sedimentary) shale or siltstone -- or very weathered limestone – also not typically used as a palette. Although ‘Robbie’s Palette’ is impressive, we were pretty sure it was not authentic – that is, not prehistoric or Native American-made, but I wanted to get do some research and more expert opinions since I haven’t had much personal experience with this particular artifact type.
A check of the archaeological literature reveals that although palettes have been found throughout the southeast during the Mississippian period most of them appear to have come from either Moundville or Etowah. (The Mississippian period occurs as early as 850AD to as late as 1700AD – depending on the location; in Alabama, we normally refer to it as 1000-1450AD). The palettes from Moundville have been well described by CB Moore in 1905 and 1907 and as recently as 2009 by Jim Knight (Univ. of Alabama). The palettes of Etowah were the subject of a recent article in American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology (Steponaitis and others 2011). (Incidentally - probably the most famous palette is the Rattlesnake Disc - the State Artifact of Alabama.)
The palettes of Moundville and Etowah are both similar in size and shape with common decorative themes found in Mississippian art. Both appear to be locally made - that is, the material used was common to the Moundville or Etowah general region. When these palettes were first described in the late nineteenth century, they were believed to be plates for holding food or calendars for marking time. In 1905, CB Moore however, suggested their use as palettes for mixing paint. That interpretation still holds today. Residue from colorful minerals has been found on many palettes, suggesting a functional use – not as a mortar for grinding mineral but to hold the minerals or ‘paint’. Their function was perhaps spiritual and symbolic – used in rituals or ceremonies.
I also emailed photographs of Robbie’s Palette to several other archaeologists in Alabama. Everyone agreed the design was certainly not one that resembled palettes that had been previously found. The best clue was offered by Hunter Johnson (Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, Huntsville). While at the University of Alabama, Hunter worked on a palette manufacturing site in Tuscaloosa that contained masses of broken palettes, palette fragments, and sandstone debris; he noted that he had never encountered a palette with the interior design completed before the exterior portion or rim of the palette was finished…. Robbie’s Palette has a finished interior (the engraved interlocking design) but the rock itself is not ground or polished to a finished edge.
In addition, I also asked a geologist and a soil scientist to examine the palette material itself since it didn’t appear to be sandstone to me. Both indicated it was clearly not sandstone or limestone but mudstone. Mudstone is frequently encountered in early clay deposits that have been exposed along eroded creekbanks. It is a general term that includes claystone, siltstone,
shale and argillite. It is significantly softer than sandstone and thus much easier to score or engrave.
So . . . It seems to be the consensus among several Alabama archaeologists that ‘Robbie’s Palette’ is not of prehistoric origin or use. There are just too many red flags to point to this particular palette as an authentic Mississippian period artifact:
(1) The shape is not typical of southeastern palettes;
(2) The engraved design is not typical;
(3) The material itself was not typically used in the manufacture of palettes; and,
(4) The edges have no definite shape and yet there is already an interior design (although it is not completely finished or polished).
That being said, it is a nice piece of artwork well worth the $25 that Mr. Camp paid. Plus, now it offers Robbie Camp and me an opportunity to discuss a curious and unusual artifact as well as discuss its “authenticity” as a Native American Indian artifact.
(This is a slightly modified reprint of a 2012 Stones and Bones AAS newsletter article.)
2013 Personal Communications, Greg Brannon and Bill Smith.
2012 US Geological Survey. http://tin.er.usgs.gov/geology/state/sgmc-lith.php?code=2.1.1
2011 VP Steponaitis, SE Swanson, G Wheeler and PB Drooker, “The Provenance and Use of Etowah Palettes,” American Antiquity 76(1), pp 81-106.
2009 VJ Knight and VP Steponaitis, “A Redefinition of the Hemphill Style in Mississippian Art” In Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism and the Art of the Mississippian World, edited by GE Lankford and others. University of Texas Press.
1905 CB Moore. Certain Aboriginal Remains of the Black Warrior River. Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. (Also available in edited versions from Univ. of Alabama Press www.uapress.ua.edu/product/Moundville-Expeditions-of-Clarence-Bloomfield-Moor,832.aspx and Capitol Book and News www.capitolbook.com/Clarence_Moore.htm).
View a large version of this artifact here. palettelarge.jpg
Here are some Weblinks to current ongoing excavations in Alabama
http://www.museumoftheblackbelt.blogspot.com/ - Fort Tombecbe excavations, an early French Fort on the Tombigbee river.
http://moundvilleplazaproject.wordpress.com/ -Current work being conducted at Moundville using remote sensing techniques.
http://pensacolacolonialfrontiers.blogspot.com/ - Spanish site in Florida just south of Atmore (Mission San Joseph de Escambe, 1741-1761)
http://freetravelwithus.com/Alabama/Moundville/Moundville_Page.htm a great video about Moundville can be found here.
New Website and Organization to Help Protect Alabama's History
The Coalition to Protect Alabama’s History (C-PAH) is a non-partisan, grassroots organization dedicated to protecting Alabama’s irreplaceable cultural heritage. C-PAH's primary mission is to educate citizens and lawmakers about the importance of preserving the unique remains of Alabama’s history found in its archaeological sites, both on land and underwater. Check out the website at http://www.c-pah.org/
This letter was received by the president of AAS, Teresa Paglione, and other members of AAS and AHA. AAS also urges our legislators not to forget to fund our historic and cultural agencies throughout the state. Rather than repeat what is in Dr. Olliff's letter, it is presented here in full. Even though this posting is a little late to influence this year's legislation, we can start now by reminding our 2012-2013 representatives that we are paying
attention to their actions it comes to Alabama heritage!
Alabama Historical Association
April 17, 2012
At the 2012 Alabama Historical Association Business Meeting, Dr. Ed Bridges asked us to act in the interest of Alabama History by urging our legislators to not starve historical and cultural agencies in the state. As you know,
Governor Bentley's General Fund Budget severely reduced or eliminated funding for many such agencies, though the savings are not significant. The House has passed a version of that budget, threatening to leave a number of state agencies adrift.
Certainly we can debate the role of government and the shortfall in the General Fund. But if the state starves these historical agencies, they will die and not return when times get better. State agencies cannot run on the
kindness of private contributions, and they are not commercial enterprises that can sell a product or service. We might offer the AHA as a counter-example, but it took since 1947 to build the current AHA infrastructure and without the significant-and hidden-contributions of state agencies (particularly universities) the AHA would be unable to provide more than a short annual business meeting. A state agency cannot operate this
way; the people would not allow it, and rightly so.
So please contact your legislators. Ask them to support Alabama History by restoring funding or finding alternative funding for those agencies that have seen their appropriations stripped or eliminated.
You can find contact information for your Representatives here:
And for your Senators here:
Marty Olliff, President 2012-2013
Alabama Historical Association
Check Back Soon for Information about Upcoming Digs and Public Archaeology Activities
Influential Archaeologist Rathje Passes Away
William L. Rathje, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona who pioneered the study of modern refuse as a scientific discipline, died at his home in Tucson, Ariz., on May 24. Officials said Rathje, 66, died of natural causes. Services have not been announced. Four decades ago, Rathje, then an up-and-coming young archaeologist and already noted for his work on ancient Mesoamerican civilizations, thought that the principles and methods of archaeology could also be used to extract information about contemporary behavior in society changes over time. http://uanews.org/node/47560
Selma Rotarians recently welcomed a Portuguese exchange group of five women which included a 27 year-old archaeologist Raquel Henriques (with green scarf in center of photo )
Pictured in photo: Selma Rotarians in back, Altson Fitts and John Nettles - L to R, Sofia Martins; Linda Derry, site director; Maria Jose Rodriques; Maria Paula Cortes Tavares and Ana Margarida Gomes .
Raquel’s one wish for her visit to Selma was to visit the Old Cahawba Archaeological Park, and her enthusiasm pulled her travel companions along for a special presentation and tour. In an attempt to make Alabama’s history relevant to these special guests, Linda Derry, the site director, mentioned the many Portuguese that accompanied Hernando de Soto on his historic trek through central Alabama. When shown a list of the Portuguese that reportedly joined the expedition, these modern visitors noted that they were very familiar with all the family names. In addition, one of these visitors was a cork farmer from Elvas - as in the Chronicle of the Gentleman of Elvas , which is an account of the trek published in 1557 in Portuguese. Many American archaeologists in the search for sites associated with the expedition have used a translation of this account.
In the visitor center, the women considered a replica of a 16th century helmet, explaining to the park staff why this would have been Spanish rather than Portuguese. Before the group left Old Cahawba, Linda encouraged archaeologist and historian Raquel Henriques to hunt for yet undiscovered documents about this great historical event in Alabama’s history when she returned home; Raquel, in response, discussed the many archives in her country that might contain relevant historic documents. The women plan to visit Fort Morgan later this spring before returning home to Portugal.
Linda Derry, Site Director
719 Tremont St.
Selma, AL 36701
Archaeological Community Protests Looting as Televised Entertainment Programs
Archaeologists are mounting a campaign against two new cable TV shows that they say encourage and glamorize looting of American archaeological sites. On 20 March, Spike TV will premiere a new show called American Digger, while a show called Diggers on the National Geographic Channel made its debut 28 February. Both shows "promote and glorify the looting and destruction of archaeological sites," Society for American Archaeology (SAA) President William F. Limp wrote in a message posted earlier this week to the SAA listserv. http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/03/archaeologists-protest-glamorizan.html
Response to Looting Television from Archaeology Southwest
The story of our shared past is best told not by individual objects, but through the understanding that comes from examining these objects in the context of their specific find locations, their relationship to surrounding objects and built environments, and their meaning within a much larger physical and cultural landscape. We believe that removing any ancient or historical object from its resting place must be a carefully considered act-even among archaeologists-and not one done for personal gain or private ownership. The past is not owned; it is shared. http://www.archaeologysouthwest.org/2012/03/01/statement/
Response to Looting Television from the Society for American Archaeology
SAA and other groups, such as SHA, have already prepared and sent strong letters condemning both of these programs to the production companies, networks, and others. Copies of the SAA letters can be found on the SAA website (http://bit.ly/w2MHJM and http://bit.ly/wzT7IA ). The letters provide details on why we are so concerned. Up to this point Spike TV has not responded to the public outcry. Leadership of National Geographic, however, has indicated that, while they are unable to stop the showing tomorrow on such short notice, they will place a disclaimer into the show that speaks to laws protecting archaeological and historic sites. They are also willing to enter into discussions with the archaeological community to determine how to raise awareness of the impacts of the use of metal detectors for treasure hunting.
Response to Looting TV from the Archaeological Institute of America Elizabeth Bartman, AIA President, sent letters to executives at National Geographic and Spike TV to express concern over the content of two new TV shows-Diggers (National Geographic) and American Digger (Spike TV)-that promote treasure-hunting and the unethical digging of archaeological sites. Below are the letters that were sent to the two organizations. http://www.archaeological.org/news/aianews/8256