Under federal requirements, the Missouri Department of Transportation must consider possible cultural impacts before undergoing a project. That includes checking for the presence of archaeological sites.
Senior Historic Preservation Specialist Larry Grantham says of the 800 to 900 projects the Department might have in a given year, the Department’s archaeologists work on about 100. Around 40 percent to 50 percent of those prove to have sites on them, and three or four a year will be of significance. This year he worked at three locations, and material taken from those is still being evaluated at the Department’s lab in Jefferson City.
One of those sites is near Ashburn in Pike Co., where two landslides prompted the construction of a new section of Route 79 near the mouth of the Salt River. Grantham says that new road went through a village from the Late Woodland period, which was between 450 and 900 A.D. The other two are both at a bridge replacement project on Route 168 in Marion County, near Palmyra. On the east side of the highway is a village also dating back to the Late Woodland period. On the west side is one dating back to the Late Archaic period, between 3000 B.C. to 1000 B.C.
Work for the archaeologists is limited to the right-of-way for the project, and so may only include a fraction of an overall site. The Route 79 work went through a significant portion of the Late Woodland village. Grantham estimates as much as 80 percent of it was dug. On the east side of 168, only two houses were in the right-of-way. He believes the entire village is much larger.
Archaeology digs have wrapped up at those locations but it will be several months before reports on the three are complete. Grantham says from the Palmyra jobsite alone he has “several tons” of material to sort through. It must be washed and examined, and items of significance must be separated. Those include arrow, spear and axe heads and other tools, rock chips left over from making of those tools (called “lithic debitage”) and pottery fragments.
No human remains were found at any of the three digs. Grantham says the soil is too acidic to allow for bone preservation.
One man’s trash
Grantham says at all three, the primary features that remained were pits that had been used initially for storage and were later filled with trash before their use was discontinued. That trash can offer a lot of information. “They leave behind animal bone and charred plant remains, and so we can get a good cross-section of what kind of animals they’re killing and what kind of plants they’re eating and so on.” A total of 127 of these “pit features” were included in the Pike County work.
In the area his team worked, no post holes remained from the houses that would have been part of the villages.
“They stick the poles in the ground and they bring them to the top and they tie them at the top … and then putting bark or mat coverings over the outsides of them.”
He says those homes would have been about 2 meters by 1.5 meters.
Grantham says it is interesting to compare the different tools being used in the two villages on either side of 168. In the Late Archaic location, the projectile points are very large.
“They have spears and short darts that are throwing spears,” he says. “They hurl these with an atlatl … across the road in the Late Woodland site, these guys have got the bow and arrow,” and so many projectiles found there are smaller.
By the time archaeologists get their hands on these edged tools, they are often not usable. “They’re re-sharpening these things over and over and over. Eventually you get to the point where the edge angle on the side often becomes so steep, it’s not usable anymore. You also get a lot of what we call ‘end shock.’ If you hit something with a projectile point, it’s probably going to break and so that’s why we find a lot of these in the broken state. But, you also get failures in production.”
The older Marion County village was also of particular interest because the people there were heat treating flint as part of the tool making process. Grantham says that made it easier to work with.
“If you raise the temperature of the chert above about 600 degrees, then slowly lower it back down, it will change character. The chert will become much more workable.”
He says at lots of sites, particularly dating back to the Late Archaic period, this treatment was not used. At this one it was happening a lot.
Grantham believes the people in that village were coming there as part of a seasonal rotation based on food supplies. He thinks they lived primarily further up the North River and stayed there in the autumn.
“We have lots of nut fragments in the material, so they’re coming there in the fall and working chert and then going elsewhere in their seasonal round.”
Nothing recovered offered any indication where else the people may have gone in that circuit.
Archaeologists were at the project site in Marion County for about six weeks and in Pike County for about nine. Grantham expects reports on them will be done in about another six months.
See photos of some of what the team found near Palmyra below, and watch and listen as Grantham walks you through them in the videos at the bottom of this page.
Learn more about MoDOT’s Historic Preservation work here.