Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Beyond the "Bluff Dweller": Excavating the History of an Ozark Myth

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Beyond the "Bluff Dweller": Excavating the History of an Ozark Myth

Article excerpt

i n the 1950s, GorRdon R. WillLLey and PhilLipP PhillLLipPs-Harvard professors with impressive pedigrees working on North American archaeological sites-published a pair of articles in the premier journal in their field, American Antiquity. Edited together, the pieces would appear in 1958 as Method and Theory in American Archaeology. It is hard to overstate the book's importance. Virtually every archaeologist trained from the late 1950s through at least the 1980s read this volume. It guided more than a generation of work in American archaeology.

Method and Theory in American Archaeology also framed archaeologists' understanding of Ozark prehistory for quite a long time. Willey and Phillips declared:

[T]he entire Ozark bluff-dweller culture, notwithstanding the abundant remains of domesticated plants in the later phases, remains essentially on the Archaic stage of development as defined in this study. It is a remarkable fact that the culture of a region so close geographically to the centers of maximum intensity of the Formative development in the Mississippi Valley has been so impervious to cultural influences from those centers. This would provide an extremely nice frame for a study of culture-environmental interaction.1

To translate for the non-archaeologist, Willey and Phillips essentially said that the Ozark region, throughout prehistory, had lagged culturally and technologically behind neighboring regions that were much more complicated (in other words, interesting to archaeologists). They implied that the Ozarks remained stagnant, while the rest of the region moved on to more advanced technology and more complex social organization. Willey and Phillips also hinted that the Ozarks' rugged terrain, which made travel and farming more difficult, was possibly to blame and that the region would offer a "nice" case study of how environment shaped culture.

Although only three sentences long, Willey and Phillips' argument about Ozark prehistory prevailed. For example, in 1961, Stephen Williams, a student of Phillips, referred to a prehistoric "'hill-billy' stage" in the Ozarks. More complicated Caddoan and Siouan traits filtered into this "cultural isolate" only slowly. As late as 1979, when Arkansas Archeological Survey archaeologist Dan Wolfman conducted an assessment of the Buffalo National River, he concluded that the Ozarks were a region that "probably lagged" in its "cultural development . . . due to its marginal location and rugged mountain terrain."2 This thinking still steers much discourse about the Ozarks today, despite the fact that much of the work done by archaeologists in the decades since has directly challenged the idea of an isolated, backward Ozark prehistory.3

Willey and Phillips never worked in the Ozarks, so where did their three sentences come from? For that, we have to go farther back into the history of archaeology in the region-to the 1920s and 1930s and the work of Mark R. Harrington and Samuel Dellinger in Ozark bluffshelter sites.

Much of the archaeology in the Ozark region of Arkansas has focused on these bluffshelters, and for good reason. Almost 2000 shelters have been recorded as archaeological sites across the Arkansas Ozarks, and this number probably represents only a small fraction-those that have seen some level of scrutiny. These dry overhangs and caves, created by the specific geology of the Ozark region, offer a glimpse into prehistory that is exceedingly rare in the southeastern United States. The dry shelters do an amazing job of preserving usually perishable prehistoric Native American artifacts, such as baskets, seeds, and arrow and spear shafts, as well as very personal items like clothing, shoes, baby cradles, and musical instruments. Early archaeological work on this class of site has framed how the prehistory of the region is discussed even today, though there are numerous other sites ("open" sites) in the Ozarks.

M. R. Harrington worked for the Heye Foundation in New York and conducted the first major archaeological work in the Arkansas Ozarks. …

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