"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."
A third-grader has just spent the morning at a Native American
festival sponsored by an archeological park. He got to reconstruct a pot, watch
a flint-knapper, and dance with Native Americans in traditional dress. As his
teacher rounds up the class for the bus ride back to school, he runs up to her,
his eyes sparkling.
This is a true story, reported to the staff of an archeological park by a teacher. And it is a telling example of how these parks can reach the public, guiding popular ideas about archeology and Native Americans while delivering the message in a way that is fun, exciting, and memorable.
The exhibits and interpretive programs at the archeological parks in the lower Delta (mainly preserved mound sites) constitute what is arguably the public's single most important source of information about archeology. That, along with preservation of the sites themselves, is undoubtedly the most important benefit from the development of archeological parks.
Dilemmas in Park Development
The public has long been fascinated by ancient earthworks. In the 1800s, mound sites were the focus of early antiquarian musings. Later, public interest prompted the preservation of some as parks or privately run tourist attractions. Although many archeological parks preserve unique or significant sites, the development of most was largely determined by quirks of fate, such as their location or the interest of a landowner or community. Unfortunately, fate has not been kind to most of the mounds within or adjacent to Illinois' Cahokia, a World Heritage Site. Like many mounds in the Delta, they have been destroyed.
On the surface, it may seem that public ownership and interpretation of mound sites are both inherently "desirable." But more thoughtful consideration raises a number of caveats. Many archeologists and land managers might assume that "public ownership" equates with preservation, but experience shows that this is not always the case.
The largest mound at Tennessee's Shiloh National Battlefield (see sidebar) sits precariously on the edge of an eroding bluff over 100 feet above Kentucky Lake. The erosion was first noted decades ago, but to date nothing has been done about it.
Several years ago, the mean water level of Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake was raised by a foot. Although this may not seem like much, it was enough to destroy a large mound remnant in a matter of a few years. Unchecked erosion is destroying archeological deposits at Tennessee's Chucalissa and Pinson Mounds. Public ownership can contribute to site preservation, but only with sensitive land management.
As strong proponents of archeological parks, we are nonetheless obliged to note that developing them will always have adverse impacts. Constructing interpretive centers, kiosks, and trails will affect the archeological remains. An extreme example is the unfortunate choice of a location for the museum at Pinson Mounds, which proved to contain important prehistoric archeological deposits. Construction of playground and picnic areas cannot only damage archeological deposits, but also detract from the visual impact of nearby earthworks.
While thorough, sensitive planning can minimize impacts on archeological resources during construction, even simple park maintenance tasks such as mowing and grounds upkeep can have serious consequences. For example, we have observed the effects of an overzealous tractor driver mowing an earthwork after several days of heavy rain. Something as innocuous as selecting gravel for walkways can prove deleterious. We know of one instance where chert gravel was the choice for trails that forever after will plague archeologists searching for lithic debitage.
Despite these problems, we feel that the negative impacts of developing archeological parks are more than offset by the enormous benefits gained by heightening public awareness of archeology.
Development and Interpretation Today
In the Delta today, all mound sites open to the general public are on public lands, mostly under state management. Many have been developed for public use as archeological parks, which include museums or interpretive centers with exhibits and staffs to provide educational programming.
Levels of development are similar at major archeological parks. All contain an interpretive center or museum with exhibits, which usually include an overview of southeastern prehistory from paleoindian to European contact periods, often something about the methods of archeology, and an interpretation of the site. Less common interpretive treatments may include town reconstructions and preserved excavations cuts. Facilities may include an auditorium for general programs, a gift shop, and collections storage.
Interpretive programming varies widely at these parks, but most sponsor at least one annual festival highlighting contemporary Native American cultures and provide regular guided tours to school children. A number of the sites offer year-round programs that include crafts festivals and classes, scouting activities, lecture and film series, storytelling, archeology fairs, and other events focusing on Native American cultures or archeology.
Chucalissa: An Example
Preservation of mound sites as parks undoubtedly has contributed to their survival, but location on public lands does not guarantee their safe management, nor even their continued survival. As an example, consider recent events at the Chucalissa site in Memphis.
The site has been open to the public for about 40 years, first under the management of Tennessee state parks and later the University of Memphis, which has made it available to faculty and students for research and training. The site includes two mounds and a plaza area, around which have been reconstructed a half-dozen thatched Mississippian-style houses, popular with visitors and filmmakers, and rarely seen at other sites. Facilities includes a small museum, auditorium, and curation space. A variety of educational programs have been offered at Chucalissa, ranging from crafts classes to guided school tours to festivals. An annual "pow-wow" has been held for about two decades, while "Native American Days," a three-year-old event targeted to elementary school students, attracted over 3,000 visitors in its first year. Although popular with tourists and school groups, declining admissions average slightly under 30,000 per year.
Despite the site's commendable history of public service, recent years have witnessed a decline in general support. Exhibits were last updated in the mid-1970s and are now dated and deteriorating. The reconstructed houses around the outside plaza have suffered greatly from inadequate maintenance and holes are now visible through the thatched roofs. The dioramas are suffering from the elements. Choctaw Indians have been employed as guides for many years, but unfortunately have lacked training in archeology or public education, making the quality of tours uneven at best. Worst of all, the university president has announced plans to close the site and museum due to budgetary constraints and what are considered to be insufficient revenues generated by this educational resource. At this writing, the future is uncertain.
Reaching the Potential
Archeological parks such as Chucalissa and those mentioned above hold the key to public education. Outdated exhibits and facilities, lack of trained personnel, and inadequate funds all contribute to limiting the public education potential of these sites. The permanent interpretive exhibits, as well as the sites themselves, reach many people who might not be exposed to the science and contributions of archeology any other way. Add to that special events, school tours, and scout programs, and one gets an inkling of the amount of people who would discover that learning about archeology is fun.
Unfortunately, few archeological parks are reaching their full potential. Outdated exhibits and facilities, lack of trained personnel, and inadequate funds all contribute to limiting the education these sites are capable of. Management of archeological properties requires special considerations that few park personnel have the training to deal with and that cannot be corrected by attending a week-long seminar or weekend workshop on management style or interpretive ideas.
Without a doubt, the most pressing need at these parks is for personnel to manage them wisely, able to ensure their protection while promoting their educational potential. These managers must also have the training to develop educational programs based on sound archeological knowledge.
One way to improve management is to see that each archeological park had a board of advisors. Such a group, consisting of professionals in archeology, museology, and education, as well as local supporters, would institute general policy to oversee changes in exhibits, quality of interpretive programming, physical impacts to the site, and requests for research permits. Such a board would limit capricious decisions while setting goals for the future. A board would go a long way to ensuring that archeological parks become the jewels of education they are meant to be.
Making the public aware of these sites is a first step. The objectives of the initiatives to study the Delta should do much to enhance their potential.
For more information, contact Mary L. Kwas or Robert C. Mainfort. Jr., at the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Box 1249, Fayetteville, AR 72702, (501) 575-6560, fax (501) 575-5453, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.