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Soil Scientists Probe for Past at Archeology Site

Conservation Showcase


Dr. John Cottier (kneeling) talks to AL NRCS employees about the site.
Dr. John Cottier (kneeling) talks to Alabama NRCS employees about the Elbert Canebrake archeology dig site.

 By Cooper Nichols, Soil Scientist, MLRA Soil Survey Area 15-4, Auburn, AL

In the profession of Soil Science one is always discovering new interesting topics to study and examine, whether it is describing a soil profile, Landscape Geomorphology, or even working with archeologists.

On a hot and humid Friday, July 13, 2012, Teresa Paglione, Alabama NRCS Cultural Resources Specialist, encouraged a group of state office NRCS employees to visit a “dig,” as archeologists call it, on Auburn University’s E.V. Smith Research Center farm. The archaeological excavations at this site are directed by Auburn University, but recently have included students from Lehigh University (Pennsylvania) and Vermont.

The NRCS group included employees from many different areas of work such as Agronomists, Foresters, Legal Document Examiners, Wildlife Biologists, Assistant State Conservationists, and Soil Scientists.  Archeologists Dr. John Cottier, Auburn University, and Dr. Cameron Wesson, Lehigh University, along with more than a dozen archaeology field school students from both Universities were also present. The Ebert Canebrake site, named in honor of Wyline and Charles Ebert , is an important prehistoric archaeological site that was occupied by various Native American groups over thousands of years. Recent research by archaeologists from Auburn University and Lehigh University suggests the largest or densest occupation occurred during what southeastern archaeologists refer to as the Late Mississippian period. Archaeological excavations and remote sensing surveys revealed a densely occupied village site that dates from about AD 1300 to 1500. Careful excavations over the last decade have resulted in the discovery of the remains of numerous houses, fortifications and defensive walls. Analyses of the artifacts indicate a disproportionally large percentage of pottery typically identified elite households – not the “every –day” utilitarian pottery normally found at village sites.  Further research continues on this site in the hopes of more archaeological discoveries. (Site history provided by Teresa Paglione.)

Pieces of charcoal and daub in the soil.
Pieces of charcoal and daub in the soil.

On July 16, 2012, NRCS Soil Scientist John Burns and I were asked back to the site in hopes of answering Dr. Cottier’s questions about the soils in the area.  Using a fluxgate gradiometer (a magnetometer  that measures soil disturbance through geophysics), Dr. Wesson had predetermined that a pasture area was thought to have n extension of some kind of defensive wall that ran around the perimeter of the village, first discovered in excavations under hardwood trees. 

In the pasture in question, the site was flagged in ten meter transects.  Borings were taken at one meter intervals to locate the exact location of this linear structure which contained artifacts, charcoal, and fired clay (daub). Burns and I used a Giddings Soil Exploration Probe to pull soil samples, helped describe the soil profiles, and discussed the landscape geomorphology of the area.

Evidence of the wall was confirmed on the fourth, fifth, and sixth hole where soil composition was changed and remains of daub and charcoal were found deep within the soil profile. This discovery proved that the gradiometer readings were extremely accurate in depicting soil disturbance.

The site is on the Coastal Plain landscape on an occasionally flooded floodplain landform with slopes that ranged from 0-2 percent. The soil was classified as the Riverview series; a well drained, loamy soil.

This was an amazing experience and one I will remember for the rest of my career. It really makes my job worthwhile when I make others happy, as well as discover something new or make a science breakthrough.  John Burns and I thank Teresa Paglione for setting up this learning and teaching opportunity, along with Dr. Cottier, Dr. Wesson, and the students involved in the project.

John and Cooper ready the soil probe.
John and Cooper ready the soil probe.
Dr. Wesson explains the Fluxgate Gradiometer.
Dr. Wesson explains the Fluxgate
John and Cooper describe the soil and discuss
John and Cooper describe the soil and discuss
the composition with the students.