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  • Uncovering the Native South:Archaeology, Agriculture, and the Environment
  • Nicholas A. Timmerman (bio)

In the winter of 1905, clarence bloomfield moore, a wealthy amateur archaeologist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, traveled down Alabama's Black Warrior River intent on exploring numerous mound sites along the way. The large earthen structures near Moundville predictably captured his attention. Indeed, he deemed the site so significant that he returned the following winter to devote more time and resources to uncovering its history.

Moore's interest in southeastern archaeology had begun some years earlier, with an examination of the shell middens along the Saint John's River near Florida's Atlantic Coast in the winter of 1891, and his exploration of mounds would extend well beyond his time at Moundville. Over the course of three decades, he traveled up and down the major navigable river systems of the South aboard the steamboat the Gopher as he investigated hundreds of mounds, village sites, and Indian cemeteries. Although Moore was not affiliated with the predominant archaeological society of the time, the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, he frequently published his findings with support from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. His archaeological work, as it turned out, proved revolutionary for the time, primarily because he placed indigenous sites into a comparative framework. If his work proved exceptional in that regard, it was nevertheless part of a much larger movement occurring across the United States during this era, a movement that [End Page 141] sought to collect American Indian material culture and redefine North America's indigenous past. Thus Moore proved representative in many ways of the rise of the anthropological sciences.1

The prevailing theory presented by scholars as Moore began his work was that American Indians and American Indian culture were on the verge of extinction.2 Fearing that their subjects might soon be gone, government agencies like the Smithsonian Institution expended large sums of money and a great deal of effort collecting anthropological, archaeological, and ethnological data. Simultaneously, learned societies, such as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Phillips Academy Museum, and the Heye Foundation's Museum, worked diligently to add to their collections of American Indian artifacts before treasure hunters and ostensibly natural forces like erosion destroyed these valuable pieces of history. In retrospect it might be argued that it was at this juncture between scientific research, the physical environment, and a presumed assumption about American Indian extinction that Southeast Indian [End Page 142] culture prevailed. For as these scientific organizations worked to expand their own archives and museum displays, they inadvertently laid a valuable foundation for the preservation and continuation of the indigenous cultures they sought to document.3

Environmental history offers a valuable lens into that juncture. To be sure, scholarship on the intersection of Southeast Indian history and environmental history to date proves rather sparse when compared to that of other regions, especially the American West.4 Much of the work done on indigenous environmental history has focused on the concept of the "ecological Indian," the effects of ancient American Indians on their local ecosystems, and the realignment of the indigenous world after colonial contact.5 Archaeologists [End Page 143] and anthropologists (rather than historians) have led the effort to explore southeastern ethno-environmental history, employing sciences like geology and dendrochronology to answer anthropological questions and turning to material culture for evidence.6 The strengths of these works notwithstanding, scholarship on the convergence of southeastern ethnohistory and southern environmental history remains largely unexplored despite the fact that the inherent [End Page 144] interdisciplinarity of environmental history has positioned the field well to join this conversation.7

Discovery of these ancient indigenous artifacts had the potential to force southerners who uncovered them to deal with the existence of a complex indigenous past—when they didn't simply attribute them to a lost tribe of Israel or some other mysterious, ancient, and invariably white settlers.8 Evidence of that past appeared in forms like pottery sherds, skeletal remains, and arrowheads as agricultural practices, construction projects, heavy rains, freshets, and floods brought these items to the surface. And, of course, there were the mounds themselves, a prominent landscape feature...


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