Archaeology at Shiloh Mounds: 1899-1999

By Means, Bernard K. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Archaeology at Shiloh Mounds: 1899-1999


Means, Bernard K., Southeastern Archaeology


Archaeology at Shiloh Mounds: 1899-1999. PAUL WELCH. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2006. xiv, 294 pp., illus., map. $34.95 (paper), ISBN: 9780-8173-5253-0.

I have more than a passing interest in the history of American archaeology, especially the dynamic period associated with the New Deal, and looked forward with keen anticipation to reading Welch's Archaeology at Shiloh Mounds. Here, Welch explores a century of archaeological investigations at the Shiloh Indian Mounds, emphasizing the extensive work relief excavations of the 1930s. This well-written book's casual yet informative tone belies its origins as a technical report originally submitted to the Southeast Archaeological Center of the National Park Service (NPS). Welch's book is divided into eight chapters, with an excellent introductory overview followed by five chapters that examine past excavations at the site, one chapter that discusses classification of the artifacts found at Shiloh, and a final chapter that seeks to place Shiloh into its context with contemporary Mississippian centers.

The first chapter, "Introduction," clearly lays out key aspects of the Shiloh Indian Mounds group, the history of excavations at the site, and the organization of the volume. Shiloh is more popularly known as the site of a bloody battle fought during the Civil War in April 1862. The inadvertent preservation of this Mississippian mounds complex owes itself to that battle, as the site lies within the boundaries of the Shiloh National Military Park. This is particularly important, as the site has never been plowed and the collapsed remains of houses and other features are evident at Shiloh Indian Mounds.

Chapter 2, "History of Shiloh Indian Mounds," alone is worth the price of the volume. The first published mention of the Shiloh Indian Mounds dates to 1867, just five years after its namesake Civil War battle. The attention paid to the mound site in subsequent years does not surprise Welch - few other Mississippian mound sites have eight or more mounds. The first recorded excavations into a Shiloh mound of an archaeological nature occurred in 1899. Three commissioners of the recently established Shiloh National Military Park excavated into Mound C. Welch (p. 11) notes that "today's archaeologists will shudder to hear that it took only three days" for the men to excavate a 4.5-foot-wide trench through the mound. Two burials were recovered.

C. B. Moore visited the Shiloh Indian Mounds in 1914. Denied permission to excavate the mounds, he systematically mapped and described the site. His designation of the mounds by letter is a system that was used by all investigators of the Shiloh site that follow.

By far the most extensive excavations at the Shiloh Indian Mounds took place from 1933 to 1934, as part of New Deal work relief investigations. A crew of up to 118 men was employed for just over three months as part of the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA). Frank H. H. Roberts Jr. of the Smithsonian Institution and his assistant Moreau B. C. Chambers directed the work. Welch (p. 21) charitably writes that "effective management and recording techniques for these large projects were not yet well developed" in the early days of New Deal archaeology, but adds that recordkeeping for the CWA investigations was poor even by the standards of the day. Given this, the critical archaeological data Welch was able to glean from the limited records of the CWA investigations curated at the National Anthropological Archives of the Smithsonian Institution is nothing short of a masterful feat. Only two brief reports were initially published on the CWA investigations before the lead researchers turned their attention elsewhere. Chapter 4, "Excavations in 1933-1934," explores these investigations and their associated field records in greater detail, including Welch's considerable efforts to decipher the incomplete and non-overlapping nature of the CWA documentation. …

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