Excavations at Wickliffe Mounds
Welch, Paul D., Southeastern Archaeology
Excavations at Wickliffe Mounds. KIT W. WESLER. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa and London, 2001. xxi + 178 pps., illus., tables, biblio., index, CD. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 0-8173-1064-9.
This book is interesting for not only its archaeological content but also its format. Few archaeology books aim to satisfy both professional and nonprofessional audiences, but that is what Wesler's ambitious and deceptively small volume about the Wickliffe site does. He attempts this feat by bundling with the text a CD that contains an additional twelve chapters, four databases, and over 700 figures. The chapters in the paper volume are of more general interest than the material allocated to the CD. I am very impressed by the result: a readable book supplemented with unusually abundant technical detail.
The Wickliffe site occupies a high bluff in western Kentucky, overlooking the Mississippi River a few kilometers downstream from its confluence with the Ohio. By Mississippian standards the site is small (2.5 ha, with a population estimated at 250), but it has achieved a notoriety out of proportion to its size. The notoriety is due to the decades in which Fain and Blanche King operated the site as a commercial tourist "destination." Wesler gives a lucid account (chapter 2) of the site's history under the King aegis, a story as twisted and disturbing as Jeffrey Brain's account of dealing with Leonard Charrier in Tunica Treasure. Aside from being a good read, this history explains how the site and its materials came to be in such a sad state when they were acquired by Murray State University in 1983. The newly formed Wickliffe Mounds Research Center (WMRC), with Wesler as director, was confronted with dilapidated exhibits including numerous Native American burials, and 85,000 artifacts with no field notes. Making sense of all this must have seemed a remote goal at the time, and indeed it took fifteen years to assemble the account provided in this book.
One thing Wesler had going for him was that most of the artifacts had provenience labels on them, even though there were no records of the excavations themselves. Wesler therefore decided "to reinvestigate the areas around the 1930s [excavation] locations ... in the hope of extrapolating from undisturbed contexts to those previously removed" (p. 32). The resulting WMRC excavations, reviewed in chapter 3, are too numerous to describe here, so I mention only my favorite discovery. On the burned clay floor of a house west of Mound C, the excavators found a painted cross-and-circle (Figure 18.87 [image b354.jpg] on the CD). There are instances of painted walls at Macon, Moundville, and in the American Bottom, but to my knowledge this is the only known instance of a painted floor in a Mississippian structure.
Artifacts are the subject of chapter 4. Pottery and ornaments are described in some detail, with everything else relegated to a mere four pages. Wesler admits that this is largely due to his own interest and expertise in pottery, and the book offers an implicit invitation for other researchers to take on the task of analyzing the entire corpus of bone and stone tools and subsistence remains (samples are dealt with in several chapters on the CD; see below).
Wesler's other reason for focusing on the pottery was its utility in figuring out the chronology of the site (chapter 5). He employs the type-variety analytic tools widely used by Southeastern archaeologists. Wesler works out several dating formulas, which he uses in combination with cross-dating, stratigraphy, seriation, and absolute dates. At the broadest scale, the result is yet another avatar of archaeology's triune god: three periods called Early Wickliffe (AD 1100-1175), Middle Wickliffe (AD 1175-1250), and Late Wickliffe (AD 1250-1350). Wesler's artifact chronology agrees well with what is known elsewhere in the Ohio-Mississippi confluence region and is one of the best-anchored (albeit brief) sequences in that region. …