"We explain to the kids why, from the beginning of time in our homeland, we had the mounds. You can feel it in the classroom. There's a sense of dignity and a sense of loss."
It was 31 years ago that the alarm was first sounded about what was happening to the archeological sites in the Mississippi Valley. Archeologists doing highway salvage work in southeast Missouri were watching the land levelers scrape away the natural levees, filling in holes to make the world safe for soybeans.
The cry brought archeologists together to confront the problem of Soil Conservation Service-sponsored destruction of sites. The result was two studies, one for Arkansas, the other for Missouri, to find out exactly how bad the situation was. It was pretty bad. Both studies concluded that about a quarter of known sites had been destroyed in the previous ten years.
A long-neglected issue was gaining momentum. Archeologists met again in 1968 to determine how much was known about the area between Illinois' Cahokia and the mouth of the Mississippi. They suggested an area-wide program of survey and testing, as well as ways to fund it. A meeting in St. Louis the same year brought significant results—the drafting of the Archeological and Historic Preservation Act, which became law six long years later.
SCS land leveling programs had instigated the crisis, but other federal undertakings bore responsibility too, particularly those of the Army Corps of Engineers. In truth, all agricultural practices were wreaking havoc on archeological sites. The 1968 meetings suggested tackling the problem from an administrative angle, creating advisory and steering committees, and another committee made up of landowners and amateur archeologists. They advocated a nuts-and-bolts approach, too, demanding priorities be set for a 20-year program of survey and excavation, realizing that any site could be gone tomorrow.
Most interesting of all is a statement the SCS issued at the time, estimating "confidently" that "In less than 25 years, all levelable land in Arkansas will have been cleared and leveled." Now, almost 30 years later, can anything be left to worry about? Has the situation changed? Yes. Improved? No. Worsened? Probably. Should alarms once again ring across the land? Of course.
Certainly, the situation has changed. Leveling continues, so everything wasn't wiped out in 25 years. A few of the larger important sites have been placed in public hands. The amount of archeological work done in the valley in these last 25 years probably more than doubles that done in the previous 100. Sites are recognized by listing on the National Register. Congress has recognized the importance of the history and prehistory of the delta by supporting historic preservation in the Delta Initiatives study. All that is fine and dandy, but what does this mean for the future of whatever shreds remain?
There has never been a study to rival the one we did in 1968. There is no comparable data today about farm policies, practices, and how they effect sites in the future. More rice? More fish farms? It would be useful to do another specific review of a local area to see if another quarter or more of the recorded sites are gone. Intensive surveys of vulnerable areas (urban spread, flood control) could be planned. We're probably 20 years too late for much of that, but better now than never.
The heritage tourism industry is growing fast. There is no doubt we should act now—making long-term plans to protect selected sites of various time periods, investigate and interpret them. Here is a way archeology could actually enhance the economic opportunities in the delta while at the same time saving those sites which have the greatest research and interpretive potential.
The triage principal, what to save and what to abandon, should be applied on a regional basis. But it will take local support to carry through. This means more heavy-duty public information to the movers and shakers in the levee boards, the city councils, zoning authorities, and state governments.
Archeologists who have worked in the valley for a long time have become discouraged because trying to record sites while the machinery whizzes by seems like such a drop in the bucket.
There should be a region-wide effort to come up with ways the valley could increase its economic potential through heritage tourism (read archeological research, site protection, and development). That should whip up enthusiasm again, particularly if there is some reason to believe that it will be worth the effort.
Heritage tourism is well-recognized as a source of economic growth. The potential is there for Good Things to be done for the remaining sites and for the economy. If we can't get together to tackle this in the next 25 years, be assured that you will be able to visit Poverty Point, Toltec Mounds, Parkin, Fatherland, and a few precious other sites, but nothing else will remain.
Hester Davis is a member of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, a professor at the University of Arkansas, and since 1967 the State Archeologist. Contact her at (501) 575-3556, fax (501) 575-5453.