DIGGING AT ST. AGNES MOUND 2017

U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Velecia Bergstrom (center) brushes away dirt around an object found at the Lac St. Agnes mound site. She is assisted by LSU archaeology doctoral student Valerie Feathers (right) and archaeologist Julie Doucet. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

DIGGING AT ST. AGNES MOUND 1972

Archaeologists (from left) Alan Toth, Charles Anderson and Phillip “Duke” Rivet recorded the profile of the excavation into the St. Agnes mound in 1972.

St. Agnes Phase II: Hoping for evidence of everyday life

Louisiana Archaeology Month

{Editor’s Note: October was Louisiana Archaeology Month. This is the fourth in a series of archaeology-related articles to help celebrate Avoyelles’ history -- and pre-history -- and those men and women who are dedicated to researching and preserving those links to our past.}

Prehistoric people in Avoyelles may have started using the area around Lake St. Agnes as a community center around 200 to 400 A.D., in an era archaeologists refer to as the “late Marksville period.”

Or, maybe the mound at that site was built quickly during the Coles Creek period, 700-900 AD.

Research at the site in Brouillette has come to both conclusions.

A new team of “diggers” hopes to find additional information to help tilt the balance in favor of one finding or the other -- or possibly come up with a different theory completely, project leader Julie Doucet said.

“Welcome to my office,” Doucet said. “That’s what I love about archaeology. This is our office -- and then we have to go into the laboratory.”

Last month Doucet’s team spent one week mapping the site, reviewing prior reports and taking advantage of some unplanned ground disturbance that uncovered various clues from the past.

A small section had been disked and planted with grass to feed deer in that area. The archaeologists walked the disturbed area, eyes to the ground bending over and picking up little bits of the past and putting them in a bucket.

Elsewhere on the site, the archaeologists found they had some unsolicited help from an armadillo, whose rooting had also turned up small pieces of pottery and flint flakes.

“When we find pottery shards, we look for a rim edge or some marking or design,” Doucet said.

Those pieces help determine the era of the occupants, she said.

There was some brief interest when LSU senior Sara Cody found an unusual item in the disked area.

With archaeologists, anything that is found that shouldn’t obviously belong there is a basis for some degree of excitement.

Doucet said the long, hard clay section may be related to activity in the historical period, or it could have been part of a prehistoric structure.

“We will study it in more detail during the excavation phase of the project,” she said.

A second team finished the week-long “excavation phase” of the project on Nov. 3. It will take some time to analyze findings and present a report on the project.

Several veteran archaeologists popped in for a brief visit to add their interest and expertise to the effort. Besides Doucet and Cody, other members of the “first team” included U.S. Forest Service archaeologists Velicia Bergstrom and Paul French, Valerie Feathers -- who is finishing her Ph.D. in Mayan archaeology -- and veteran amateur digger Johnny Guy from Leesville.

The team is hoping to find evidence that gives a better understanding of the everyday life of the Avoyelleans of 1,600 to 1,800 years ago.

HOW OLD IS IT?

Dr. Alan Toth led an expedition to study the St. Agnes mound in 1972. Toth’s excavations and analysis of artifacts and evidence indicated Native Americans used the St. Agnes site for about 1,200 years, from 200 to 1400 AD.

Toth concluded occupation of the site “was probably not continuous over the entire period, but recurrent.”

He theorized the site was sometimes used as a seasonal camp during some years. It may have been a permanent settlement at times during that 1,200-year period.

It is likely that there may have been brief spans when it was not occupied at all, Toth wrote, “but ceramic analysis indicates that these were short intervals.”

Toth said there were four periods of occupation at St. Agnes. The first was in the late Marksville Period, 200-400 A.D. The second was from 400-700, called the Baytown era. The third was from 700-1100, in the Coles Creek period and the last was in 1100-1400 during the Plaquemine/Mississippian period.

“The ceramics and projectile points left during the earliest defined site occupation are closely similar to other late Marksville artifacts, most notably those of the Issaquena populations, whose sites are widespread in the Tensas and Yazoo basins,” Toth noted in his report.

Toth said the site is also comparable to late Marksville material found in other Lower Red River sites in this area.

In 2003, State Archaeologist Chip McGimsey -- then the state’s Southwest Region archaeologist -- conducted tests at the site and on artifacts. He took a core sample of the mound and concluded it was built at one time between 700-900 AD, in the Coles Creek period. Later burials at the top of the mound represent a reuse of the existing mound during a later era, McGimsey theorized.

“Confirmation of this revised interpretation of the mound’s age and construction history will require further investigation at the site,” McGimsey wrote.

Doucet said her team will be looking at all previous findings and conclusions of excavations at Lac St. Agnes and hopes to resolve any disagreements with new evidence it uncovers. She emphasized that the team will not be excavating in the mound itself, but focusing on the areas away from the mound.

However, she holds out the hope that another mound excavation project could happen in the future.

RIVET REMEMBERS

In 1972, Philip “Duke” Rivet of Marksville was a young archaeologist who was given the opportunity to investigate the mound in the Brouillette area, just a few miles from his family home.

He worked with Toth on that project and is definitely a “Toth-ite” in the debate over the age of the St. Agnes mound. However, he doesn’t criticize his “McGimsian” colleagues for their viewpoint.

“The dig was for one month, May to June,” Rivet said. “It was an amazing experience for me because I was just getting started in archaeology and it was special for me to be working so near my family home.”

Rivet is a 1967 graduate of Marksville High.

Rivet said the project attracted many local residents with a curiosity and love of archaeology.

Toth became the “first official state archaeologist,” Rivet said.

Rivet became the DOTD’s first archaeologist in 1974, working on cultural mitigation efforts for highway projects. He worked as an archaeologist for the state until he retired after 35 years of service.

He said McGimsey’s findings were based on a core of the mound “while we excavated a quarter section of the mound. We did not get to the bottom of the mound, so it may be even older than the Late Marksville period.”

In his report on the 1972 dig, Toth theorized that the apparent depositing of six feet of alluvial soil on top of the floodplain over the centuries “may account for the general lack of success in locating Marksville village areas within the site.”

This is also one cause for excitement in the current project at the site, Doucet noted.

It is hoped that those radar blips in the 1988 Tulane study could be remnants of a settlement or even evidence that a second mound once stood on the site.

For those considering archaeology as a profession, heed the words of a noted archaeologist and professor, Indiana Jones in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade:

“So forget any ideas you've got about lost cities, exotic travel and digging up the world. We do not follow maps to buried treasure and ‘X’ never, ever marks the spot. Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library. Research. Reading.”

Rivet said one of his favorite quotes about the profession is that “Archaeology is the science of digging a hole and the art of telling its story.”

AVOYELLES JOURNAL
BUNKIE RECORD
MARKSVILLE WEEKLY

105 N Main St
Marksville, LA 71351
(318) 253-9247