CfP: SHA 2022 Histories of Pandemic Archeology

This kept not going through on the SHA Listserv, so I’ll post it up here…

The Society for Historical Archaeology is coming back face-to-face in January. It’s been a heck of a time since we were all together in Boston, and I think it’s an opportune moment to catch up, formally and informally. So, I’m proposing this session:

Come and Tell Us Your Story: Oral Histories of Historical Archeology During the Pandemic

Abstract: The COVID-19 Pandemic has and continues to affect how historical archeologists have lived, worked, and perdured since we last met face to face. To start to make sense of what this period has meant, how it affects us individually and as a profession, and to capture our thoughts, emotions, and reactions at this point in our disciplinary history, the papers in this session seek to relate how archeologists of different backgrounds working in different contexts have negotiated the past two years. What have you gone through since Boston? Come tell us.

I think it’s important to catch what we’ve all been through, and to relate what the Pandemic has meant, continues to mean, and will mean to us all. This is to be a less-formal, lower-stress kind of moment-marking that I hope catches people from a lot of different backgrounds to share their thoughts. It’s open to anyone, so contact me at if you want to join in!

The Bullet that Won the Civil War

Tonight’s meeting of the Arkansas Archeological Society is an online lecture from Dr. Douglas Scott. He’s going to talk about the bullet claimed to have been the one that killed Gen. Benjamin McCulloch at the Battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, in March of 1862. This should be a fascinating talk, and I hope people log in to watch. There are a couple of things that I want to point out:

Archeology of a Single Bullet
Archeologists LOVE big datasets. We can do some really interesting analyses on artifact collections to tell stories about the past. What is sometimes harder to do is tell really important stories from single artifacts. This should be an object lesson (see what I did there) about the explanatory of these smaller finds.

It’s Doug Scott
Let’s not lose sight of the fact that this is Doug Scott. For the field of Conflict Archaeology, this is about as prominent a scholar as you’re going to find. He was key to the work at the Little Bighorn battlefield in the 1980s, and has since worked on numerous battlefields and other conflict sites literally all over the world.

He is also known for his work in forensic archeology, having worked in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Iraq excavating mass graves.
The Society for Historical Archaeology gives the J.C. Harrington Award to those whose work is of great import and influence. Doug is one of those people.

I will admit my bias. As a Conflict Archeologist, it’s always fascinating to see Doug talk. He’s been a friend and mentor, too.

How Can One Bullet Win the War?
Admittedly, this is a bit of tongue-in-cheek, as there were so many things that contributed to that outcome, but stick with me. Here’s my old spiel:
1. Ben McCulloch dies during the first day of Pea Ridge, likely killed by Private Peter Pelican of the 36th Illinois Infantry.
2. McCulloch’s death and the resulting cascading set of calamities immobilizes half of the Confederate forces at the battle, opening the door to the U.S. Army’s victory.
3. The U.S. victory at Pea Ridge secured the city of St. Louis in U.S. hands for the foreseeable future.
4. St. Louis is used as a base of operations for U.S. operations down the Mississippi River that results in the capture of Vicksburg, Mississippi, in July of 1863.
5. The campaigns for Vicksburg establish the reputations of generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman.
6. Grant and Sherman lead the campaigns that ultimately decide the outcome of the war.

So… this one bullet started this chain of events.

See you at 7pm Central!!

Teaching the Civil War Through Things

A friend (@notrohe) connected me to a Twitter inquiry from Evan Kutzler (@EvanKutzler) about teaching the Civil War through material culture, looking for things that were evocative or that tell big stories. I would offer the following:

  1. Slave Whip: This should be an obvious starting point. The war was about slavery. Arguments that it was about politics, economics, or culture either deflate immediately under scrutiny or lead directly to slavery being the real cause. The war was about defending the system of agricultural production that had entrenched itself on the foundation of an enslaved African-American class. While not all Southern whites were slaveowners, the existence of enslaved African Americans created a social hierarchy that remains with us, has had a HUGE role in American (not just Southern) history since. There are many tangible traces of our slave-owning past around us (check out the Slave Dwelling Project here), and several museums retain items associated with that period. I’ll point to this whip, housed at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, as one concrete link to that time.

    We live in a time when over 20 states, including most of the former Confederate ones, have Stand Your Ground laws, which say you can kill those who threaten you with death, bodily harm, rape, or other serious violence. This whip bespeaks a fundamentally different time, when a white person could take this whip in hand and, with little expectation of reprisal, whip a fellow human being. These could range from a few strokes to over a hundred. People died from such beatings. People had literal salt rubbed into their wounds afterwards. The life of unceasing labor aside, the constant threat of torture from devices such as this were a terror to those who endured it. The war was fought to defend or destroy that system.
  2. Stonewall Jackson: This may seem a little weird to follow up with, but let’s get into it a bit. Note that I did not write this as “Stonewall Jackson” but “Stonewall Jackson,” a book title. This was Markinfield Addey’s biography Stonewall Jackson: The Life and Military Career of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army (because 19th century book titles HATED brevity). The interesting thing about this book, to me, is that it went to press in 1863, the same year that Jackson died, accidentally shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. That’s really fast for writing and publishing (and, yes, the book covers Jackson’s death). But the story gets a little deeper. The following Spring, William McPheeters, a surgeon serving out here in Arkansas, mentions reading Addey’s book in camp. That’s kind of notable in that Arkansas and the rest of the states this side of the Mississippi are thought to have been basically cut off from the rest of the Confederacy by that point in the war, after the conquest of Vicksburg by the U.S. Army and the blockading of southern ports in Louisiana and Texas. Also, internal trade in the Trans-Mississippi was just terrible, so getting something as mundane as a book out here was a chore.

    But wait, there’s more!

    The book was published in New York City. So, this book points to the Trans-Mississippi being not only not-cut off from the rest of the Confederacy, but actually had some level of commerce in non-essentials (feels weird for this academic to suggest that books are non-essentials, but you get my point… they’re not food) with the Northern states. Trade and commerce between and within the Confederate states during the war, particularly out here in the West, is really not that well understood.
  3. Elongated Ball, .58 caliber, Impacted: Simple, dead common, and iconic for the war. The .58 caliber elongated ball, often referred to as a “Minié Ball” (and corrupted into “Minnie ball”… learn to read French accent marks, folks) is a mark of both the technological advancement and backwardness of the time. It was the perfect mix to kill tens of thousands of human beings.

    The U.S. Army adopted the elongated ball for its main shoulder arm in the mid-1850s. This was the first such weapon designed around a rifled bullet, supplanting the M1842 Springfield, a .69 caliber smoothbore. The smaller elongated ball was fitted with a cone in the base that would allow the muzzle-loading projectile to expand and be twisted by the rifling inside the barrel when the gun was fired. It was a system elegant in its simplicity and sophisticated for the result it produced. Soldiers previously could only really expect to do damage at about 80 yards, after that the smoothbore rounds they fired were too inaccurate. Some of the smoothbore arms actually lacked a rear site, and what is taken to be a front site was more properly a lug to fix the bayonet to. Such weapons were pointed more than aimed at an enemy. Now, though, a soldier could aim at and expect to hit his target at 200 yards or more, depending on visibility conditions, their eyesight, etc.

    There were two problems with this. First, the way that men were trained to go into battle did not change fast enough to keep up with technology. Tactics still focused on massed lines of men surging at one another, an approach that had worked well enough when you could get within 80 yards before your men started to die in significant numbers. At that range, you only had to withstand a volley or two before you could close with an enemy and push them away. Now, though, your men started dying almost 3 times farther out, and the shocking casualties at Fredericksburg, Cold Harbor, Gettysburg, and too many other battlefields bore this out. All because a little hunk of lead with a cone in one end and a cone on the other.

    The other big problem with them was that they were not jacketed. Modern military ammunition is required by the Geneva Convention to be cased in a full metal jacket of copper alloy or some other material. This is so that the bullet, when it strikes an enemy, doesn’t do what Civil War bullets did… namely mash out to the size of a quarter or larger. Having that massive chunk of metal pushing its way through the body inflicted unimaginable suffering on those who experienced it, pulverizing bone and killing men who might have survived wounds from jacketed rounds (which were not a common thing at the time). This is also why FMJ bullets are not allowed for deer hunting, too likely to wound the animal instead of kill it.
  4. Wilder’s Worm Syrup: OK, we’re going to get away from the battlefield for a moment with this one. This is a broken glass bottle for Edward Wilder’s Mother’s Worm Syrup, a patent medicine produced before, during, and after the war. We found this bottle in a wartime house at the village of Dooley’s Ferry, in Hempstead County, Arkansas.

    It was the 19th Century South, so worms of various kinds were part of life. Roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms, and more were such a pervasive aspect of Southern life that the effects they produced in the human body were sometimes taken to be physical marks of Southern identity. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that public health officials started pushing for changes, like wearing shoes in the summertime, that had great impact on this situation. People knew they were there (it’s kind of hard to miss a tapeworm when its excreted…) and parents knew that their children suffered from regular infestations.

    Wartime cures for these included both folk and scientific medicine. Folk medicines revolved around pinkroot, wormwood, and other botanicals that were either native to the United States (and knowledge of which came from Native Americans) or Europe. Scientific cures were purchased medicines, which in the days before the Pure Food and Drug Act meant both efficacious medicines and various patent medicines of at-best dubious effect.

    The point here in not to debate what Wilder’s tonic did (it was a patent medicine, so we don’t know… it probably had some wormwood in it [absinthe is made from wormwood, BTW, so the side effects might have been weird]), but that finding it in a wartime context in Arkansas suggests that the family that bought it paid out their hard-earned cash to acquire a modern, scientific cure to a significant health situation. They were putting their trust for their child’s health (or their own) into the medical establishment, hoping that modern science would provide the relief they sought. This is not a backwards-looking, anti-advancement, tradition-oriented thing to do.
  5. Bacon’s Castle, Virginia: OK, hang on, this is going to get a little broad. Bacon’s Castle is NOT some local version of Stuckey’s, but it is a brick house south of the James River that was occupied by Nathaniel Bacon during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676… almost two hundred years before the Civil War. I’m listing it here as a Civil War thing because the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion saw the first legal distinctions made between African-Americans and European-Americans as leaders in Virginia sought to split the working class to diffuse tensions aimed at elites. The creation of that social schism had a massive impact on the idea of race in the United States and the way that violence would be used differently towards different groups to both maintain that separation and to keep non-whites and whites at different spots in our social hierarchy. I think the Civil War is seen most clearly as a particularly violent period in a much longer conflict about the social order in this country, one that roots in the first arrival of trafficked Africans in 1619 and continues through the intense summer of 2020. From then till now, there has been significant progress. African Americans are legally people, citizens, and voters (all things that were not true for too much of this country’s history), and the further advancements made in the past fifty years has gone a long way towards making the gulf between the beautiful idea of America and its historical reality much, much smaller. God willing, it will continue to become more itself.

Course Announcement: GIS at SAU, 2021

The Biology Department at Southern Arkansas University (SAU) is offering Geographic Information Systems (SCI 3003) this coming Spring semester! You should consider taking it, even if you’re not a biology major.

The class focuses on collecting, processing, analyzing, and communicating information spatially, and it’s an increasingly-important skill for researchers, resource managers, and businesses around the world. How does Amazon arrange its deliveries? How do land-managing agencies keep track of the various resources within their territory? How do scholars model data on local, regional, and global levels? All of these are done using geospatial technologies, and this class will open this world to you.

We will do this by teaching you the basic principles and practices involved in the use of geospatial technologies, and you will learn the major software packages used by most industries along with the basics of how data are organized and interpreted. These are the kinds of skills that can change how you look at the world, and which employers are increasingly interested in.

One of the really fun aspects of this class is that you will do your own research project. By the end of the class, you will have designed and carried out a very small piece of original work, which you will pull together into a professional research poster. The last day of the class will be a poster session, like you would do at a scholarly conference, where you present your research to your peers.

Though this is housed in the Biology Department and slanted towards the Wildlife Biology concentration, the class welcomes people majoring in other disciplines. GIS gets used widely in the social sciences, business, and other disciplines, and if you have an interest in exploring its importance to your field, come and let’s learn about it together.

The class is going to be hybrid, with the in-class session being 3:10-5:00 pm on Tuesdays. If you have questions, feel free to contact me at!

Edwin Bearss (1923-2020)

Ed Bearss passed away today, closing the book on a 97 year story that is remarkable for its twists and turns. He was massively influential on many, including myself, as one of the historians used by Ken Burns’s documentary, The Civil War, in the 1990s.

Those who were closer to him and knew him better will do a finer job breaking down his life and legacy than I can, but I think it’s important in this moment to recall how his work impacted Arkansas’s Civil War landscape. Bearss was the historian who did the hard work of defining the landscape and assembling the first major narrative for the Battle of Pea Ridge. Fought on March 7 and 8, 1862, it was the most important battle to take place during the war in this state, and the interpretation of the park and all subsequent histories of the battle base their work, whether in agreement or divergence, on that of Bearss.

Intellectual heritage aside, we should remember that Bearss was the one who lobbied for the creation of Pea Ridge National Military Park in the form we know it. When the park was being planned, back in the 1960s, some argued for a few hundred acres of small fields, discontinuous and scattered around the site. Bearss was adamant that a contiguous landscape needed to be acquired. The resulting 4,300 acre park has been carefully crafted to create a mid-19th century landscape that is rarely found anywhere in the United States. Not only is this a powerful memorial landscape, the effectiveness of the park as a place of remembrance and as a tourist draw would be nothing like what it is without it being in that form.

The Arkansas Archeological Survey just completed a four-year research program at Pea Ridge, which built on other research by the NPS’s Midwest Archeological Center, making Pea Ridge one of the best-studied, from an archeological standpoint, in the country, if not the world. We don’t get that without Bearss’s work in the 1960s.

I communicated with Bearss a few times. The last involved a question about some of his work at Pea Ridge. I had his phone number, but he wasn’t on email, so I had to cold-call him. He was about 94 at the time, and when I got him on the line and explained why I was calling, he started rattling off the documents he had been working with, the repository he was at, the day he was there, and the research partner he was there with. No hesitation to look through notes, no hemming and hawing. Fifty years on, it was still at his fingertips. I was astounded, but his was that kind of mind. It will be missed, and Arkansans, archeologists, and many others will benefit from his efforts for generations to come.

Thank you, Mr. Bearss.

New Book on Battlefield Archaeology

What a great start to the day! Odlanyer Hernández-de-Lara sent a note to one of our listservs saying that a whole new book on battlefield archeology was now available, and it’s FREE!

You need an login to download it, and it’s in Spanish, so you need that, as well, but if you have those two things, this looks really interesting! The case studies are scattered around Latin America, and look to deal with the richness of conflict archeology as it has developed over the past three decades.

Give it a look here:

Farewell and Good Luck, Dr. Horton

The Arkansas Archeological Survey is bidding farewell to one of our station archeologists this month. Dr. Elizabeth Horton stepped away at the start of the month to pursue other opportunities, and is founding her paleoethnobotanical consulting firm, Rattlesnake Master, LLC, out in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Survey put out its thoughts on her departure, but I wanted to put separate thanks out there.

Dr. Horton (right), leading digs at Toltec Mounds, 2013

I met Liz in 2011, just after I started with the Survey. We were called out (along with Jessica Cogburn) to assist in a forensics case that involved digging a VERY large hole in a cotton patch… in the Arkansas River Valley… in August. It was hot, humid, and done with an audience of police. It was such a hard day that it made the sack of no-longer-fresh McDonalds burgers taste like literal ambrosia. Liz immediately impressed everyone with her focus, consistency, skill, and intensity.

Over the next few years, I got to work with Liz at Block Six in Historic Washington, half a dozen small projects around Toltec, Richards Bridge out in the Delta, Elkins Ferry Battlefield, Lockesburg Mounds, the list goes on and on. In all that time in the field, I can’t think of a time that she didn’t treat her role with the greatest consideration and care, didn’t encourage the highest standards of quality in excavation and documentation. The SAU Research Station has one of her aphorisms, “cleanliness is next to good data,” posted on the wall as a perpetual reminder. Her constant encouragement to those she worked with, whether volunteers, students, or other professionals, made all who worked closely with her better. I will probably hear that sucking-wind-through-her-teeth noise in the back of my head whenever I clean-trowel a unit floor until the day I die.

On the night after that forensic dig in 2011, Jessica Cogburn guessed, quite accurately, that Liz is “not a pleaser,” which is fine. I think people put too much stock in others, particularly women, being “nice.” But, there’s a difference between being nice and being kind. And if we take being kind as being concerned about others, considerate about their needs and how we can help each other, then I think it fair to say that Liz is a fundamentally kind person who was a very valuable colleague. She worked at every turn to make us better as an organization, as a statewide archeological community, and as a profession. Her recent work through the Southeastern Archeological Conference to illuminate issues of sexual harassment and assault should never be overlooked. I haven’t met many people with her resolve and energy.

I will miss having her in the Survey, but glad she’s still out there, pushing things forward. Thank you, Liz, for what you brought to us and to me, personally. I wish you and Alem the best!

The Red Scare (?) at the Picric Acid Plant, 1918

So, I’ve done some historical work on the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant. This was a major munitions factory that stood where the Interstate 440 and Bankhead Drive now meet. During World War I, it made a high explosive called picric acid (bet you didn’t guess that), which was used in American shells sent to Europe.

Some months back, I found a listing in the National Archives online catalogs for two records groups relating to the facility. This was a potential boon, since I’ve been using primarily newspaper accounts up to this point. I requested copies, and hoped that they contained at least some photographs or drawing of the facility, which I haven’t found to date. I was, frankly, surprised by what popped up.

The documents are actually from the office of the Director of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Marlborough Churchill. They allege that the International Workers of the World were active and “influential” around Little Rock, and may be implicated in two deaths at the Little Rock Picric Acid Plant.

Whoa. That’s an entirely different aspect of the plant than has popped up in the papers…

We’ve known from newspaper accounts that a worker died during construction. This man, W.E. Woodard of Faulkner County, apparently fell to his death from the roof of one of the buildings. The NARA documents give more of the circumstances about the death. Apparently, on the night of June 3, 1918, about 10:35, Woodard and some others were working on one of the buildings when a channel iron slipped its guide rope and struck Woodard in the head, knocking him from the building. He fell 35 feet and landed on an I-beam, breaking both legs and causing massive internal injuries. One hour later (why did they wait an hour?), someone called for emergency services, but Woodard passed away soon thereafter.

Apparently, one of the foremen thought that this was no accident. He reported it to Churchill’s office, believing that International Workers of the World saboteurs had infiltrated the plant and were causing accidents. Woodard’s death was one, but apparently someone shut off the water supply to the fire extinguishers at around the same time. This foreman blamed the IWW.

Ultimately, the Military Intelligence officers sent to investigate decided that both incidents were accidental, not sabotage. Still, the hasty response to purported infiltration bespeaks the importance of military production at the time and the fear of anti-war IWW agitation present in Arkansas.

Carl Drexler
Magnolia, Arkansas

New Horizons and Old Haunts

It’s been some time since I put a post up here. It’s been a busy time, factoring in the demands of classes and research. I guess it beats being bored (though boredom looks kind of nice from time to time). We’ve had some new things going on around the Station and Southwest Arkansas, and I’m spending some times going back to my historical archaeological roots, as well.

First, the new things. At this past Caddo Conference, held in Natchitoches, Louisiana, I and Fiona Taylor (the new research assistant in the Station) gave our first paper on Caddo archaeology. We have been doing some work on the Holman Springs site (3SV29) and the Society Digs that were held there back in the 1980s. It is a start towards moving that project closer to completion. In addition to giving a paper on it (which was mostly background to the project), we have started to do rough sorts and inventories of the boxes of material. This is both a needed step towards finer analyses, and it is the genesis of an inventory system that will be used for all of the 4,000+ boxes of artifacts in the Station collections area. That bit will take years to implement, but it is massively satisfying to have that in progress.

Stepping back to an earlier time, I am now up in Fayetteville, assisting the UAF Station (Dr. Jamie Brandon) and the Computer Services Program (Dr. Jamie Lockhart) with some remote sensing and mapping at Pea Ridge National Military Park as part of a CESU research program concluded with the park (Superintendent Kevin Eads) and the NPS’s Midwest Archeological Center (Dr. Steve DeVore). We are working on the site of the village of Leetown, which factored significantly into the battle, and was explored back in the 1960s by Rex Wilson. This is all gearing up towards the UofA Field School that will be held there this summer.

Other things continue apace. We did a booth at the Jonquil Festival in Historic Washington last weekend, and have the Art Walk in El Dorado on Saturday. There are lots of cemetery projects popping up, which will keep the Station occupied for a good chunk of the coming months, as well.

New things in archaeology and historic ordance

So, the Society for Historical Archaeology meetings are next week in Fort Worth. One of the workshops this year is hosted by Tom Gersbeck, of the Center for Improvised Explosives at Oklahoma State University, and offers some training in safety and identification of unexploded ordnance in archeological contexts.

This morning, the Charleston Post and Courier put out this article, detailing some concerns about the handling of cannonballs found after a recent hurricane. I get quoted in it, and it came out well. Give it a look, and if you want to chat at the SHAs, come find me.