It was a stifling 91 degrees F. last Thursday under the sunscreens erected at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park to shade, and perhaps preserve from heat stroke, the dozens of people working there. Huge swaths of black plastic laid over pits here and there radiated heat. A crop duster dove a field away, and archeologists' brows furrowed, considering whether their volunteers might be dusted with malathion. The volunteers, who'd paid to work, had been at it since 6:30 a.m., roused an hour earlier from their tents located in a steamy grove just off the park's visitor's center.
A legal secretary from Hot Springs sprayed her face with water from a pink bottle, turning dust to mud. She and the Hendrix College junior she'd spent the past couple of days within a 1-by-2 meter hole were hot, dirty and exultant. "We just learned that bone when it burns is really white," college student Marissa Moyer said with more excitement than you might imagine.
That's generally the rule at the Arkansas Archeological Society's summer training digs: Enthusiastic amateurs, beside themselves over discovering that dirt can be deciphered, that it can yield not just objects like carved bone hairpins and red-slipped pots and arrowheads the size of a thumbnail but a mental image of a house, a fireplace, the building blocks of an earthen mound, a way of life.
This year, around 170 souls from all over Arkansas and eight other states, descended on the state park just outside Scott to work with the professional archeologists of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, just as they have every year since 1967. Dr. Jane Anne Blakney-Bailey, who runs the Survey's station at Toltec and who is directing the dig, is using the volunteer labor to explore the remnants of a mound and structure just touched on in 1978, during a field school conducted by longtime Toltec archeologist Dr. Martha Rolingson, who retired several years ago.
Toltec — the site has nothing to do with the Toltecs of Mexico, it should be noted — is Arkansas's largest and earliest surviving mound complex. It is one of two state archeological parks, the other being Parkin, on the St. Francis River in eastern Arkansas, a significant site presumed to have been visited by the first European explorers to Arkansas.
At least 700 years before the Spanish crossed the Mississippi, the Indians of what is now Central Arkansas were building, in stages, a place of ceremony, games, feasting and burial beside an oxbow of the Arkansas River. The lake and a comma-shaped earthen wall surround 18 mounds. Only three of those mounds were spared the plow of the American farmers who came much later, though remnants of a couple of others can be detected and another has been reconstructed for visitors.
The crew of amateurs, a diverse assembly of folks of all ages, looked at the splotchy soil they'd dug into beneath the disturbed plow zone and, thanks to their training, knew exactly what they were looking at — dirt dumped in basketloads about 900 A.D. to build what's referred to as Mound D. "That is so cool," gushed Veronica Sammon, the legal secretary who was spending her vacation with her husband making square holes in the ground.
Even cooler: The large burned structure that was beginning to be revealed. Blakney-Bailey expects that the Indians of the Plum Bayou culture here intentionally covered the structure's floor with orange clay dug from beneath the humus, for aesthetic reasons — as can be seen in Ozark mounds — that may have been tied to ritual as well as to create a surface that would resist erosion. What appears to be woven cane was retrieved from the excavation of the structure, which predates the mound by 100 years.
Toltec is a huge site — 110 acres — and though it has been studied for 35 years, it will take many more to understand the sequence of construction, the relationship of the earlier structures to the later mounds, and the nature of all the activities that took place there over the centuries — to "connect the dots" across the site. It is unusual in that it looks like later Indian sites but predates them by hundreds of years — "It's [later] Mississippian on the outside but not on the inside," Blakney-Bailey said.
The training dig — which included classes in animal bone identification, basic techniques, site stewardship and other topics — ended Sunday. Blakney-Bailey will go from excavated unit to unit to cast her professional eye on what her amateur workforce has uncovered for her, and begin the slow work of translation of soil colors and associated artifacts, the scatter of variously decorated potsherds, the bone remains, retrieved seeds, the stone points and tools, to Indian history.
"I'm a big picture kind of person," Blakney-Bailey said. Her goal, two years into her career there, is to learn "not just about Toltec but how it fits in with other contemporary sites in the Southeast," and to "add flesh to the bones."
She feels a sense of urgency for a portion of the site adjacent to the oxbow, called Mound Pond. Part of the site is eroding into the lake, and the crew at what's called Mound P has been recovering important artifacts — large red-slipped potsherds that indicate ancient commerce with people in Eastern Arkansas — from the water.