CfP: Shifting Borders: Early-19th Century Archeology in the Trans-Mississippi South

The Society for Historical Archaeology announced that it is shifting its 2021 conference to an online format. I was not going to make it to Lisbon (the original planned conference venue), but this format is more reachable. So, I put together the following proposed title and abstract. Anyone want to join in?

Shifting Borders: Early-19th Century Archeology in the Trans-Mississippi South

The Trans-Mississippi South was a place of rapid change in the first decades of the 19th Century. The Louisiana Purchase hastened American immigration into the region, creating a complex mix of people, both indigenous and settler, and swiftly implicating the region in systems of capitalist production that would fundamentally alter the region, its people, and its environment. These papers explore sites in the region (Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas) dating to the 1800-1840 period. All are encouraged to assess our understanding of the region, its connection to the social, economic, and cultural spheres (indigenous and settler) of the area, and how archeologists have studied this context.

If you want to participate, send me an email at!

Public Archeology in Rural Arkansas

Rurality has been popping up in a few different places in my life recently. I have been talking with a colleague about building some course materials on rural anthropology and sociology, my

Arkansas Archeological Survey station territories with urban areas overlain. SAU territory in yellow

recently-submitted platform for the upcoming Society for Historical Archaeology’s Board of Directors elections emphasized outreach with rural communities, and I live in and work in south Arkansas… look out the window… it’s rural.

But, if I am going to talk about working in rural areas, I wanted to know how rural territory is, and, because I am curious, how rural my station territory is in comparison with the other stations in the Arkansas Archeological Survey system. Because I am me, I threw some GIS at it.

I downloaded a shapefile of urban areas from the U.S. Census Bureau, who define such things, and did some simple statistics in ArcMap.

Station Total Area (sq mi) Urban Area (sq mi) Percent Urban Area
ASU 11,503 182 1.6%
HSU 6,423 354 5.5%
SAU 7,348 75 1.0%
UAF 8,238 311 3.8%
UAM 4,967 36 0.7%
UAPB 5,957 581 9.8%
WRI 7,631 95 1.2%

So, we’re the fourth largest territory, but the second most rural behind UAM. Of course, this is just land mass, which was the easiest to calculate with the given files at hand. I pulled populations for the SAU territory, and we’re 58% rural, well above the 42% that is the state average and 19.3% that is the national average. I don’t have specifics for the rest of the state, as that was going to be a bigger data mining operation.

Why does this matter? Comparing the SAU territory to others is pretty much a just-so story, but in the larger scope, all of our stations work with primarily rural territories in a state that has a rural population twice the national average. That creates a different working context than our colleagues on the coasts (East, West, and Gulf). Somewhere, Robert Earl Keen’s “Out Here in the Middle” is playing in the background…

Finding Wallace’s Ferry: It’s all written down, isn’t it?

One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.

There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…


I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.

This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.

Where are you working? A Reply to Cracked’s “6 Things Movies Don’t Show You About Being an Archaeologist”

I used to read Cracked all the time. I went away from it a bit as I 1) was finishing the dissertation and didn’t have the time and 2) found power sources other than snark. The interwebs graced us with a Cracked article today that, well, contains some slightly inaccurate information, at least from the standpoint of American archaeology. Titled  “6 Things Movies Don’t Show You About Being an Archaeologist,” and is co-authored by Robert Evans and Hadas Levine. Of these, Evans appears to be a writer in Dallas, and Ms. Levine, an Israeli archaeologist, provided the real meat behind the article.

The Stuff They Get Mostly Right (In terms of American archaeology)

They have a point (Point #6) that most of the time is spent in the lab, and that archaeology is a destructive science (Point #4), though destructive in a careful, dis-assembling kind of way, not throwing-a-metaphorical-stick-of-dynamite-in-the-hole kind of way. Also, I could not agree more with their point (Point #3) that context is incredibly important. As a guy who works on a lot of Civil War sites, I deal with relic hunters a lot, and am continually trying to make this point.

The thing that is sort of right (again, compared to American archaeology)

Evans and Levine state that most of the sites worked on in Israel rely on American college students (“the Jagermeister demographic”) to do the work (Point #2). People fly in, pay to sweat themselves to death digging under the direction of a few “real scientists and professional diggers,” and spend the evenings drinking beer and not-fighting Nazis.

Stateside, this might apply to an archaeological field school, dozens of which are hosted around the country each summer by various universities, and training digs hosted by various state societies. Here in Arkansas, we have the Arkansas Archeological Society’s annual Training Program dig, which is two weeks of digging every June in which 1) your pores learn their limits in the term of sweat production, 2) you find out how hilariously rich Arkansas is in terms of flora and fauna whose sole purpose seems to be the infestation and degradation of the human body, and 3) you learn to dig in company with many dozens of friends and colleagues. Sounds kind of like the Israeli situation.

The big difference between “over there” and “over here,” however, is that 80% of the work that takes place in American archaeology is done by fully professional staffs working under contract for state or federal government. Eighty percent. It’s a fast-paced, businesslike environment (well, mostly) that is a far cry from the student-oriented field schools and training programs that people generally cut their teeth on before moving into the world of contract archaeology. It’s not always easy or laid back, particularly if you’re working on a tight deadline, and some of your coworkers can be, well, let’s go with “colorful.”

Lamentably, since the early 2000s, Nazi-fighting has been largely outsourced to private contractors, meaning those extra classes I took in grad school are now useless. Crud.

The Gem of the Document

Their item #1, “Priceless Artifacts Get Destroyed for Strange Reasons” is both a stark and fascinating look at the intersection of religion, politics, and archaeology. We in the United States are very familiar with (or, at least, should be very familiar with) the national political debate over Native American remains that took place WAAAAY back [sarcasm] in the 1990s. Evans and Levine provide another look at how human remains in archaeological research get handled in Israel, based on a separate but contemporary development in heritage preservation laws. For the record, in the United States, we handle things much differently; through a process of negotiation and repatriation with Federally-recognized tribes which does not generally involve “toss[ing] the remains we were already studying in a hole.”

The Not-So-Gem of the Document (in terms of American archaeology)

So, this is the part that is sticking in my craw.

We, like Israel, have space concerns when we go out and dig things. That which we dig up has to go to some kind of curatorial facility at the end of the project, and curation costs are usually worked out and budgeted for at the start of a project.

Still, we keep the broken bits… all the thousands of pieces of broken stuff. Heck, I saw a project once where the principal investigator brought back every “manuport,” basically meaning every rock that looked like it wasn’t from there, so that we could learn something about how people traded or procured stone resources in the past. Boxes of rock… lots of fun to shift around the curatorial facility.

My office currently has about 3,000 boxes-worth of collections housed in it. Mostly, that’s broken pieces of pottery and stone tools. Why keep such a large volume of stuff?

Because… science! sciencE! scienCE! scieNCE! sciENCE! scIENCE! sCIENCE! SCIENCE!

We can learn an immense amount of stuff about the past by looking at these things in the aggregate. To do that, though, we bring it back to the lab, clean it, and analyze it. It’s laborious and tedious (see Evans and Levine’s Point #6), but it’s how we roll… and have rolled here for generations. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t facing challenges in curating collections, and that some aren’t exploring “de-accessioning” policies, but in the whole, we keep most of the stuff that is, apparently, discarded elsewhere.

The Death of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke

I’ve been working through the compiled service records of the U.S. Colored Troops, as black units in the U.S. Army were known. One of the records I was able to track down was that of Captain Jonas Frederik Lembke, commander of Battery E, 2nd U.S. Colored Artillery (Light). Capt. Lembke is of interest to my research in that he was one of the men who fought and died at Wallace’s Ferry, a battlefield I am attempting to locate on behalf of the Arkansas Archeological Survey for the people of Arkansas.

The service records shed a little more light on Capt. Lembke’s life and death than the after-action reports filed by U.S. officers following the engagement, which tersely note that Capt. Lembke died during the engagement. I’d like to share a little bit about what more I know about this man.

First, we know that Capt. Lembke was a Swedish immigrant who settled in Chicago before the war. He stood 5′ 11″ tall, had a light complexion and light hair, and had blue eyes (I’ve heard Swedes tend to have those attributes). In 1861, he joined Battery B of the 1st Illinois Artillery. As a member of that unit, he would have fought at several major battles in the Western Theater, including Shiloh, Arkansas Post, Jackson, Champion’s Hill, and the Siege of Vicksburg. In the fall of 1863, then-corporal Lembke, an experienced artilleryman, put in for command of an African-American unit, when it formed. He was given the task of organizing and commanding a black artillery unit, to be formed in Helena, Arkansas. He took with him a fellow member of Battery B, 1st Illinois, named Edwin Bancroft. Bancroft made the leap from private to Lieutenant, and we can suggest that the two men had some level of rapport or friendship to be making this move together.

Captain Lembke recruited, trained, and equipped Battery E (originally known as the 3rd Battery, Louisiana Colored Infantry), and was for a time commander of Fort Curtis, one of the installations built in Helena to defend it from Confederate attack [since reconstructed near the original site].

On the day before the battle, Capt. Lembke took one section (two guns) of his unit to accompany Col. W.S. Brooks’ expedition towards Trenton. This expedition wound up with the Action at Wallace’s Ferry, where Lembke met his end. We know from the report of Lieutenant H.T. Chappell, who took command of the artillery after Lembke died, that the captain was killed instantly by a bullet through the forehead.

Lieutenant Bancroft drew up an inventory of Capt. Lembke’s effects after the battle, which show us the kinds of things a battery commander had with him. In addition to the expected clothes, and personal items (shaving kit, mirror, watch), Capt. Lembke carried a clock, copies of books on military law and heavy artillery tactics, a birch broom, and a music stand and book (no instrument listed).

Lembke Signature

While much of the documentation is the usual Army bureaucracy, there is one extremely poignant aspect to it. Capt. Lembke’s effects were sent to Chicago, and the last document in the file carries an acknowledgement of the receipt of them, signed by his widow. Her signature, written a few weeks after Capt. Lembke’s death, looks as though it were written by an almost-uncontrollably shaking hand.

Rank and the Service Records

It also strikes me that part of why we have learned so much about the life and death of Capt. Lembke is that as a white officer, his death entailed much greater levels of documentation than did those of the men who served under him. I have also been working to find information about the enlisted men in the unit, particularly looking for references to being wounded or killed at Wallace’s Ferry, because we don’t have a good casualty list.

Not surprisingly, the information available on the enlisted men is much less rich. We know names, birthplaces, and the barest of information about service records. Where men died (mostly of disease), there was a simple form filled out and filed with the government. Several men were noted as having “no effects.”

There are hints at stories that offer a tantalizing, though maddeningly incomplete stories about the men in the ranks. Private Harrison Beal, for instance, was recruited for another regiment in September of 1863, but within the space of a month was in serious trouble. On October 25, he shot a man named Peter Young. Two days later, he cut off “the forefinger of his right hand” [trigger finger] “to be discharged,” and deserted the following day. The severance of the offending figure speaks of guilt as much as it does of disloyalty.

Most of the stories are, based on these records, fairly mundane. The vast majority performed their duties with no ill marks recorded against them. A few deserted, a few died, and a few transferred or were promoted. It does strike me as interesting that a large number of them list Virginia as their place of nativity. Within African American history, the forced movement of people of color from the eastern seaboard to the western states in the antebellum period is a harrowing time often referred to as “The Second Middle Passage.” These Virginians who showed up in Helena to serve are mostly ex-slaves from the area around the Mississippi River. Their enlistment in Arkansas bears quiet testimony to the reality of this traumatic pilgrimage.

These happy notes are just some of the loose threads that tie into our ongoing archaeological work at Wallace’s Ferry.

Why I [Write a] Blog [SAA 2014 Blog Carnival Post #1]

Doug of Doug’s Archaeology invited me to participate in the blog carnival that is, apparently, occurring in the run-up to the 2014 Society for American Archaeology conference. This is the first post offered in response to the questions Doug is/will be positing to a number of archaeologist bloggers.

Why did you start the blog?

I started the blog as both a means for making content about my work available to the public (see below), and to get me through the dissertation process. I recently completed my doctorate at The College of William & Mary, and part of the way I wrote a 350 page dissertation in about half of an academic year was by writing blog posts along the way. For me, writing has been somewhat like a muscle that needs to be exercised to remain strong and loose, so pulling together blog posts helped keep the dissertation pages flowing.

As I’m writing this, it strikes me that I’ve written many fewer posts since I finished the dissertation… Huh…

Why are you still blogging?

I’m going with this option as I still put up the odd post, so I guess the Trowel N’ Transit is still a thing that happens. I have strongly ambivalent feelings about blogging. I’m going to start with the positives, as they are the stronger feelings, and the more tangible and service-oriented.

Basically, as an employee of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, I’m tasked with doing public outreach work in my designated station territory, bringing archaeology to the people of this state. Properly stated, I am the station assistant for the Survey’s research station at Southern Arkansas University. This means that I assist Dr. Jamie Brandon with doing public archaeology for 13 counties in southwest Arkansas (basically everything below the Ouachita River).

I flat. out. love. my, job.

I get to work with great people (both in the Survey and from communities around the state) and do a lot of different kinds of research in service to Arkansans.

Most of the people from the community that we interact with are not going to read something if I publish it in Historical Archaeology or any other of the big peer-reviewed journals. Those journals are for fellow archaeologists. More of our constituents will see a publication in The Arkansas Archeologist or Field Notes: Bulletin of the Arkansas Archeological Society, both publications of the Arkansas Archeological Society, the state’s group that unites all with an interest in archaeology, with which the Survey collaborates in many ways.

The blog is something that anyone with an internet connection can access, and since I can push links to posts out on Facebook and Twitter, it helps spread things quickly and *fairly* democratically (though the rural/urban digital divide in the U.S. maintains some significant barriers, I’ll grant). Knowing that the content can reach people more formal publications cannot helps keep me blogging.

There is also an aspect of state patriotism at play. We in Arkansas have been maligned and cast aside as backwater rubes since the early 19th century. Seriously, for that long (read Arkansas/Arkansaw for a nice breakdown)… Blogging about the work we do here helps get Survey research in front of the eyes of peers around the world, and we archaeologists here in Arkansas have much to say to many academic constituencies on a huge number of subjects. That fact is something that Arkansans should be quite proud of. Also, Arkansas’s place in American history is much more central than most folks from elsewhere realize. Far from being a backwater, we are a crossroads where almost every major process in American history comes together. The blog content is part of a larger effort by the Survey and most of the state’s academic community to fight that hick imagery, which is largely held in place by the outside world’s grating provincialism.

OK, now for the other side of the coin. There are things that don’t encourage me to blog. The biggest of these is that I’m not someone who enjoys attention. I named the blog “Trowel N’ Transit” in part to avoid using my name as the blog’s title, because to do so seemed too attention-hungry. That probably runs counter to the need I have as a young(ish) professional trying to build some name recognition to help grow my career, but I couldn’t comfortably do otherwise. I accept that my career requires various forms of public presentation of me, and I accept that and engage in it without major reservation, but it can be acutely exhausting for me, so I approach it with some trepidation.

The other thing I fight against is that I spent years as an archaeologist for the U.S. Army, where blogging was not encouraged/discouraged, and any public dissemination of knowledge about research, no matter the content, was to be shopped through a public affairs officer (PAO). We don’t have PAOs with the Survey, and while I get that I’m in a different job that encourages this kind of outreach, blogging still feels… just wrong at times.

The Survey on the Day of Archaeology

Various Survey archeologists put together posts on their activities for the Day of Archaeology (July 26th). You can check out all the posts here to see what kinds of things archaeologists do on in their day-to-day work. Here is a list of archaeologists from the Survey who contributed posts:

I’ll update this as more posts get posted.