Press Release

Release Date: October 04, 2017

by Patrick Cravatt



  • A Chickasaw explorer holds two shards of pottery that were found during archeological excavations on the Butler Mounds site in the Chickasaw homeland.

  • Front Row: (left to right) Matthäus Ruhnie, Catrina Cuadra, Ashlee Solice and Tony Boudreaux. Middle Row (left to right) Mandee Hall, Hannah Rhodes, Karen Brunso and Patrick Cravatt Back Row (left to right) Jason Burris, Allie Smith, Emily Clark, Taloa Underwood, Brad Lieb, Cody Reynolds, Faithlyn Seawright, Alyson Chapman, Price Rowe, Chestine Underwood and Benny Wallace.

  • Chickasaw explorer Alyson Chapman (right) learns how to measure and map a unit with the help of archaeologist Catrina Cuadra.

  • Education and Cultural Enhancement Senior Manager Catie Hamilton takes a photo with Chickasaw Explorers, Alyson Chapman, Patrick Cravatt, Price Rowe and Ashlee Solice during the Chickasaw Explorers Homeland Trip.

  • Chickasaw citizen Taloa Underwood (left) works with archaeologist Allie Smith on a total station, a machine that measures depths and distances in the field.

COLUMBUS, Miss. – An archeological dig in the Mississippi Homelands proved exhausting, but emotionally uplifting for eight Chickasaw Explorers who labored at Butler Mound for two weeks in July.

The Explorers employed dirt sifters, shovels and trowels to unlock the secrets hidden within the mysterious mound located near the Tombigbee River.

Chickasaw Explorers is a specialty program created by the Chickasaw Nation to find a historical link between Chickasaws and the first European conquistadors.

Chickasaw students Jason Burris, Patrick Cravatt, Alyson Chapman, Price Rowe, Ashlee Solice, Faithlyn Seawright, Chestine Underwood and Taloa Underwood, were immersed in Chickasaw heritage and culture throughout the two-week endeavor.

Students and experts discovered is likely a platform mound to support community structures on the southeast site of a plaza dating to the 14th or 15th centuries.

The site does not appear to have been occupied very long. Explorers and experts found no evidence of European influence.

A fire-destroyed structure was discovered in a field near the mound.

Dr. Brad Lieb, director of Chickasaw archeology and a Mississippi resident, identified the site as a massive charcoal daub deposit. It was located below a modern-day plow zone. Inside the destruction, explorers discovered a crushed pottery jar tempered with river mussel shell and fragments of other vessels.

Carbonized timbers, used as the structure’s rafters, were also discovered.

A battered, worn-out greenstone Celt – a prehistoric stone or metal implement with a beveled cutting edge used as a tool or weapon – was found on what would have been the structure’s floor. The platform mound was constructed in at least two stages and a radiocarbon date of 1470 was obtained, nearly 70 years before Chickasaws and Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto faced off in 1541.

It was also discovered the mound was built over a surface that once supported a wall-trench structure predating the mound. The mound was possibly an open-ended temple facing southeast.

The people who established the site may have been from Moundville chiefdom, more than 100 river-miles away. Explorers and experts are unsure if these indigenous people were involved in Chickasaw migration to the region.

LEARNING BY DOING

The Chickasaw Explorers use archeology to uncover answers concerning the past. They also assist in the historic preservation of the Chickasaw people who lived and thrived here for centuries.

Collected artifacts were shipped to universities in Mississippi and Florida where they will be cleaned, analyzed, cataloged, photographed and identified.

Radiocarbon samples will determine age of artifacts.

Pottery shards will be refitted to reconstruct vessels used at the site. Plant and animal remains will be identified to determine the diet of the people who constructed the mound, as well as what natural resources were utilized in differing seasons.

Experts will examine and interpret findings. They artifacts will ultimately be stored at the Chickasaw Cultural Center in Sulphur, Oklahoma.

Chickasaw students also measured and mapped archaeological finds at Butler Mound. The students worked alongside archaeologists and graduate students from the universities of Mississippi and Florida to learn the basics of archaeological fieldwork on Native American sites dating back to at 1300 A.D. or earlier.

Excavating and analyzing artifacts allowed Chickasaw Explorers to step back in time and learn about past cultural landscapes, lifestyles, technologies and cultural adaptations related to the long history of the Chickasaw migration.

“The basic research design is to reconstruct the ecological history of the land and the adaptations of the people to those changing times, Dr. Lieb said.

“We want to discover why they moved to the prairie from their riverside environment, which is so far from navigable streams. By excavating this site we hope to determine when this site was occupied, what was done here, how the site was organized and when was it abandoned. We also want to know anything we can learn about the nature of the diet or environment here.”

In Tupelo, Mississippi, researchers found clues that led them south in hopes of finding older Chickasaw sites to explore to answer questions about the Chickasaw migration. They also hoped to stumble across the site of de Soto’s 1541 winter camp and battle site, known as Chicasa. It is believed the Butler Mound site may have been where de Soto and his men crossed the Tombigbee River into Chickasaw territory in December 1540.

The path has been long and arduous. Only after this excavation will experts know if Butler Mound is part of the Chickasaw migration. The Butler Mound site is believed to be of Mississippian culture from 1,000-1,600 A.D. Sedentary village life along major rivers is typical for Mississippian culture.

FINDINGS 

“Archaeology is a cumulative science,” Dr. Lieb said. “Each project builds on those before. You have to analyze your data. You also have to publish your work and read the publications of others. Through that accumulation of knowledge, better interpretive models emerge that can explain the past.

“The findings will be available for Chickasaws or other researchers to study for perpetuity. That’s very important because sometimes people will come out and dig on sites like this, and take it back to their houses,” Dr. Lieb said. “They usually never publish their work, show very few people, and sometimes they sell artifacts. If they don’t write a report … the artifacts and their information are lost forever. The permanent safe curation of the collections and records associated with archaeological excavations, such as this dig, is a huge and never-ending responsibility.”

 “I have enjoyed learning so much about archaeology, a field that I knew nothing about. It is really cool to experience something outside of my field of study,” East Central (OK) University student Alyson Chapman said. “Experiencing my cultural homeland, learning more about my heritage, and seeing the artifacts like old pottery made me feel incredibly proud to be Chickasaw.”

For many students, this was their first Chickasaw Explorers trip. For Jason Burris and Ashlee Solice, it marked their second scientific foray.

“This trip has been completely different from the last time,” Ms. Solice, a University of North Texas graduate student, said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

The 2016 Chickasaw Explorers trip in Starkville, Mississippi yielded thousands of artifacts, and delivered entirely different working conditions.

CHANGING PLANS

“Last year, we had to water screen everything,” Ms. Solice said. “We couldn’t just shake the dirt off (because) we were digging in heavy prairie clay. We had to spray every artifact, which took twice as long.

“Even though it was 90-degree weather with 95 percent humidity every day, I loved it so I applied to come back. I realized I wanted to do anthropology as my minor, so I changed it. Now I hopefully will be pursuing a master’s in anthropology because of this trip.”

The Chickasaw Explorers program provides students an opportunity to learn about archaeology, and meet leaders and other students in the field. Many have become interested in pursuing careers in archaeology or anthropology.

“Every year, one or two students change their major,” Dr. Lieb said. “That can really change the course of your life and career and that’s a good sign of the vitality of Chickasaw culture. People are interested in learning more and constructing more narratives created by Chickasaws. This is about the Chickasaw Nation and Chickasaw people taking control of the narrative of their own past, and working to produce it.”

Jason Burris was another returning Chickasaw Explorer who changed his major to archaeology/anthropology in order to help preserve Chickasaw culture.

“There are not a lot of Chickasaw archaeologists,” Mr. Burris said. “Since I have been working at the Holisso Research Center, I have seen the importance of archaeology and what it can do for the Nation.”

The research center is located on the 184-acre Chickasaw Cultural Center campus in Sulphur.

Chickasaw Explorers, in collaboration with various universities, have been working hard to uncover answers to questions about Chickasaw history by reconstructing Chickasaw culture.

To be eligible for the Chickasaw Explorers Homeland Trip, participants must be Chickasaw, ages 18-35, be a full-time or part-time college student and complete the Chickasaw Explorers application.

Last Updated: 09/16/2016