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ULM’s Greenlee leading study of land surrounding Poverty Point

Published June 7, 2017

By Mark Henderson
Special to ULM Office of Public Information

The untrained eye sees a pebble, about the size of a pea.

The trained eye sees in the pea-sized particle a piece of pottery, a tiny part of an intricate puzzle.

Dr. Diana Greenlee, Poverty  Pointstation archaeologist and University of Louisiana Monroe adjunct professor, has been working to put the pieces together since coming to ULM in 2006. Greenlee studied anthropology at the University of Washington and inquired about the ULM position on the advice of her graduate school adviser who retired and moved to Natchez, Mississippi.

The Poverty Point World Heritage Site is an archaeologist’s dream laboratory. The state park just outside Epps in West Carroll Parish was home to a sophisticated Native American Indian culture about 3,400 years ago. The site is known for enormous earthen mounds and ridges, and a large, flat plaza. The earthworks are unique in design.

Research indicates the Indians who built the mounds did not raise crops but relied on hunting, fishing and gathering wild nuts and fruits.

She believes the Poverty Point builders decided on the spot on the eastern edge of the Macon Ridge, which marks the western terminus of the Mississippi River plain, because “this setting is what we call an ecotone,” the cusp of two ecosystems. Both spearheads and fish hooks have been discovered on the grounds.

The ridge is the beginning of an upland, providing safety from flooding. Mississippi floodwaters never covered Poverty Point. The uplands also provided deer and wild foods the dwellers could forage.

But below Macon Ridge is the Mississippi River plain. It provided fish and other swamp-based foods.

The Mississippi River provided one more essential thing for Poverty Point. Trade. More than 78 tons of stone and ore were imported to the site from distances up to 1,000 miles away.

Much is known about Poverty Point. Even more is not. The land teases scientists with its mysteries. New research at Poverty Point is looking beyond the traditional boundaries of the World Heritage Site in hopes of revealing clues to the biggest mystery of all.

“The one big question,” Greenlee said, “is what happened at the end. Did they just go away? Maybe they depleted their resources. Or did they disperse into smaller groups? We don’t know.”

The answers come slowly and through a process of elimination.

Archaeologist Alisha Marcum of Nashville, Tenn., left, and Dr. Diana Greenlee, center, Poverty Point station archaeologist, record the GPS coordinates of an artifact found in a field close to Poverty Point World Heritage Site. This summer, researchers are combing more than 19,000 acres surrounding the site to gather more information about the ancient builders and visitors to the mounds and earthworks in West Carroll Parish.
Emerald McIntyre/ULM Photo Services
“We don’t know why they built the mounds,” for instance, Greenlee said. “We probably won’t ever know. But we know, through research, that they are not burial mounds and they weren’t platforms for buildings.”

Field research is more about eliminating hypotheses than discovering a holy grail.

The state of Louisiana owns and manages Poverty Point. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in June 2014. Poverty Point is also a National Historic Landmark and a National Monument. It is the largest, most complex archaeological site of its age in North America.

The original site plan had five mounds, six concentric C-shaped earthen ridges and a large, flat plaza. A sixth mound was added about 1,700 to 2,000 years later.

Historically, research at Poverty Point concentrated within the confines of the park. In February, ULM entered into a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism providing for $148,300 in funding for an archaeological investigation of the landscape around the Poverty Point World Heritage Site. Greenlee said the impetus for the project rose from the World Heritage process.

Researchers are fanning out to explore 19,422 acres in West Carroll and East Carroll parishes within a radius of about 5 kilometers from Poverty Point. The 5-kilometer radius is regularly used in archaeology as a common boundary for daily foraging among hunter-gatherers in a resource-rich environment.

Greenlee has been able to hire two archaeologists to work on the project, operate field schools and to purchase equipment. On this day, 14 students and a faculty member from Mississippi State University were cleaning samples in water and cataloging their findings.

The property being explored is privately owned. Most of it is prime farmland. The tilling, planting and harvesting have taken their toll over the years. Greenlee says there’s no way of knowing what has been lost. 

“You work with what you find,” she said.

With permission of the landowners, the researchers - professionals and students - head out to the fields.

“When we walk the fields, we look for artifacts. We flag each artifact and come back with GPS to log the location,” Greenlee said.

In areas where surface visibility is limited, shovels are used to scoop shallow samples. Among the content in the recent scoops of samples have been siding from an old home, some rubber but also slivers from tools and pieces of pottery.

The wet spring has slowed the gathering of artifacts, but the work will soon shift into high gear. In June, Greenlee is hosting ULM field schools. Students are also coming from the University of Southern Alabama and Binghamton University in New York. More than 30 students will take residence at the Poverty Point field school dormitory, which can house up to 40. 

Greenlee knows better than to expect a huge revelation. She’s eager, though, to see what the land will offer up.

“The idea is to enhance the experience of the visitor by being able to tell a fuller story,” she said.

After the field work is done, Greenlee will supervise the building of a database of the researchers’ findings in order to map the distribution of tools and pottery and put them in the context of how the land was used then and now.

“We are interested not only in how the people who built the Poverty Point earthworks used the landscape, but also how earlier and later people used the area,” Greenlee said. “We assume that there is a continuous distribution of artifacts across the landscape and that variation in the density and characteristics of artifacts corresponds to different use histories of the land. By documenting the spatial patterning of artifacts, we hope to understand the full range of landscape use through time.”

Dr. Jeffrey Alvey, the Mississippi State University faculty member working with the students on site, said his students are getting valuable experience learning how to do archaeological surveys. In return, he said, the students are helping Greenlee to determine how far the people of Poverty Point roamed, what they did out there and whether “there were any outlying contemporary communities outside the core Poverty Point site that supported it,” similar to ancient suburbs.

Dean Nones, one of the archaeologist hired for the program and a Pittsburgh native, said working on the project has provided the opportunity to further develop his skills and apply his knowledge. He knew he wanted to do this work since he was 2 and his parents took him to see “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” at a drive-in.

And while Nones hasn’t had to run away from rolling boulders, he did have to high-tail it away from a mother black bear whose cub was in a tree near where he was working since working on the project.

The project has depended on the willingness of landowners to have strangers walk through their crops. Some have requested the teams wait until the crops are harvested, but no one has refused.

“The response from the landowners has been terrific,” Nones said.

The property owners are told that any artifacts found on their land will be returned if they wish after they have been properly entered into the database. They also have a standing invitation to participate in the research occurring on their land. The landowners, mostly farmers, also have the option to donate the artifacts to Poverty Point.

If donated, the artifacts will be boxed and added to the those collected over the years. The collection is stored at Poverty Point and managed by Alisha Wright, collections manager for the past 19 years.

Greenlee said the landowners will be told when artifacts are discovered.

“My hope is that they might want to learn how they can protect the area where there was a finding,” for instance when building sheds or making other improvements to their property.

“It’s interesting to learn how invested people are in their landscape,” said Alisha Marcum of Nashville, the other archaeologist hired to work on the project.

Marcum is looking at how today’s property owners are using the land as compared to the past, but she notes the strong attachment to the land endures.

“It’s the same today as back then,” Marcum said.

Some 3,400 years ago, a people populating northeastern Louisiana along Macon Ridge excavated soil in what research indicates were 50-pound basket loads. About 15.5 million of these loads were moved to construct Mound A at Poverty Point, the second largest Indian mound in the United States. No one knows why.

Today, scientists are digging in the ground around Poverty Point again. This time with small shovels and augers, hoping to find answers to questions the ancient civilization left in its wake.


Dr. Diana Greenlee, center, Poverty Point station archaeologist and ULM adjunct professor, is joined by archaeologist Alisha Marcum of Nashville, Tenn., left, and Alisha Wright, Poverty Point collections manager, right, after checking a field near Poverty Point where several new finds were marked by GPS and collected for research.

Emerald McIntyre/ULM Photo Services