Skip to main content

A Heritage Preserved

July 2024
2min read

Arkansas saves fragments of the rich but distant past.

There is something almost atavistic in the appeal of an archeological dig. For most people, to hold in the hands a pottery sherd, a flint arrowhead, a piece of bone, or any other artifact of known prehistoric origin is to feel for one quick moment both the excitement and the melancholy suggested by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s phrase, “So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.” Such remnants are all we have and all we will ever know of those shadowy people who came before us; yet, knowing that, we also know that they are as much a part of us as the genes which determine the color of our skin.

However appealing, the experience of digging in and finding such splinters of the past is not, for most of us, easily come by, a fact which makes all the more intriguing a program instituted in the state of Arkansas thirteen years ago. It is called the Arkansas Archeological Survey, and its goal is not merely to locate and examine as many of the state’s archeological sites as possible, but to do so with the cooperation and, whenever feasible, the participation of the citizenry.

And there is work to be done. Arkansas, like the other states of the Mississippi River valley, supported a rich abundance of prehistoric human life—from the ice-age nomads of twelve to thirty thousand years ago to the more sedentary Adena, Hopewellian, and Mississippian cultures that flourished shortly before and for fifteen hundred years after the birth of Christ. These latter were mound builders for both religious and burial purposes, and their legacy of great, rounded, manmade hills became part of the essential geography of the Mississippi River valley and a source of great fascination to those who supplanted the people who had built them— as the illustration on the opposite page dmonstrates.

That fascination has spilled over to our own time, in Arkansas quite as intensely as in any other state. In 1960 the Arkansas Archeological Society was formed and immediately began lobbying for the creation of a state-supported archeological survey with sufficient funding and manpower to do justice to the state’s wealth of archeological sites. Seven years later, the survey was a reality, financed by the state and placed under the administrative aegis of the University of Arkansas. It since has set up a program that cooperates closely with educational intitutions around the state, the State Highway Commission, and the Division of State Parks, as well as various federal agencies; has established nine research stations; has acquired a sizable staff, including state archeologists; has recorded more than thirteen thousand sites across the state; and perhaps most important, has publicized iths efforts broadly and created an on-site archeological training program from which anyone with an interest in the past (and a registration fee) can hope to emerge as a certified archeological technician or field archeologist.

What all this can mean in practical terms is perhaps best illustrated by the discovery and excavation of the Ferguson Site near the border fo southern Arkansas. In 1971 two amateur archeologists from Magnolia found a pair of mounds on private land; when they learned that the mounds were soon to be leveled as part of a land-development scheme, they immediately alerted the Arkansas Archeological Survey. When contacted and informed of the site’s importance, the owner of the land halted development plans and allowed the survey to begin a three-year program of excavation. In the first year of work, in 1972, state and university archeologists were joined by no fewer than seventy-six citizen volunteers and trainees in the painstaking work of exposing the mounds, sifting their contents, and cleaning, identifying, dating, and classifying artifacts and human remains. By the end of the project in 1974, many more citizens had joined the effort to learn all that could be learned from what Survey archeologist Neal L. Trubowitz calls “one of the major mound sites in all of Arkansas”—a part of American prehistory that might have disappeared beneath the blade of a bulldozer had it not been for the dedication of a coterie of archeological enthusiasts, a farsighted state government, and a citizenry encouraged and trained to participate in the discovery of the past.

“Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world,” J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote. “Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” Arkansas citizens may not be moving the wheels of the world, but they have gone a long way toward giving us some of the more eloquent bits and pieces of those vanished societies in whose lives we may find a measure of our own.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.