Caught in the Middle of Tech Wars, Grad Life

For the past 20 years and more, graduate students in archaeology have been caught in the middle of a low-tech-high-tech war. One of the persistent issues we encounter in the course of a curriculum is that we are taught what our professors were taught, and what their professors before them were taught, with little room to budge. This teaching methodology is increasingly detrimental to our abilities to find viable employment opportunities in the post-grad school world, which is exponentially obsessed with lightning advances in technology and those who know how to wield it’s power. I know it has been a struggle for myself, barely getting a B in an Intro to GIS course offered at school, and stumbling through YouTube tutorials for arcGIS, Surfer, and AutoCAD. I have managed to pick up a few tricks working for a large CRM company with a substantial and quite cheerful GIS  and programming team.

InstituteDigitalArch-Logo-35Luckily for our current generation in grad school, the Humanities and Arts & Sciences has recently become interested in this thing call “Digital Archaeology.” The NEH funded an Institute on Digital Archaeology through Michigan State University. Research, teaching, compliance, preservation, public engagement, and publication – all are being transformed by digital tools and technologies, yet there are very few opportunities for students, scholars, professional archaeologists, or closely related disciplines to build these vital digital skills. The Institute on Digital Archaeology Method & Practice addresses this by providing invited attendees the opportunity to receive hands-on instruction and experience in a wide variety of critical digital skills, tools, and technologies – especially those that fall outside the “traditional” suite of digital tools with which many archaeologists are already comfortable (CAD, GIS, databases, etc). What is so great about this is that you can follow these trainings and projects through YouTube and Twitter. I mean these guys are going to the Institute on Digital Archaeology, they are very active and accessible through social media. Second logical question is, okay that is great NEH, but how can I learn to incorporate new digital technologies in a productive and efficient way into my own field work or CRM work? Technology is supported to simplify our lives and make our work better right? This is where traditional curriculum takes a back seat to student and nonprofit groups who can bring in digital archaeology professionals and supplemental technical training that can be applied in the “real world.” One such resource is Professional Certifications for Scientists (PCS) that offers, as of right now, free courses on subjects like artifact identification or navigation. The Center for Digital Archaeology (CODA) is another site that offers trainings to archaeologists. codaOne of the CRM professionals making it easier for us anthrograds to gain the skills necessary to be competitive in this digital age is Chris Webster. He is the Chief Operating Officer at Codifi, Inc. which is a company devoted to paperless archaeology. This company provides all the support you need on the back-end so that you can just do archaeology, what you have been training for your whole life! Chris also runs his own CRM company DIGTECH, LLC and is the driving force behind the Archaeology Podcast Network (APN). It was first through the APN, specifically the show Archaeotech where I first began to learn about R Code, Python, and why it is important to have some semblance of photography skills. It was as easy as popping in some earbuds on my walk to campus to find out what current working archaeologists are using in the field, whether its drones, software, ipads, etc.

If you are now fired up, like I am, and are a full one hundred, where do you go from here? Well, practice makes perfect, so start practicing, start learning, and take advantage of all the free resources at our fingertips. Here is a techy-list of things that will help get you started in your new digital archaeology journey in the new year:

  1. Codifi Photoboard
  2. Compact Portable Power (also Biolite)
  3. ArchaeoTech Podcast
  4. SoilWeb (Free) USGS soil survey data app
  5. Meshlab (Free) 3-D object viewer
  6. Earthtones ($2.99) munsell soils app
  7. Theodolite ($5.99 on sale) augmented reality overlay app that displays real time GPS, compass, azimuth, bearing, range, and inclination right over the camera
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Have a Great Winter Break!

coffee break

See you when classes resume Wednesday, January 18, 2017!

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Pottery and Other Results at Garcon Point, Pensacola, Florida

This summer we finished fieldwork at Garcon Point, east of Pensacola, and uncovered not only remains of Yamasee Mission San Antonio de Punta Rasa (1749-1761) but also material from Pensacola’s Late Archaic (1000 BC or earlier, up to 3000 BC), Mississippian (ca 1100 AD-Spanish contact), British (1763-1781), Second Spanish (1781-1819), and American periods (1819-present).

The Late Archaic period marked the beginning of pottery, at about 3000 BC in Northeastern Florida and Southwestern Georgia and in Central and Western Florida. Most of the artifacts dating from this time period are ceramics with fibers such as Spanish moss added as tempering agents, and only rarely decorating with designs stamped from paddles. Exchange and other social interactions occurred during this time period from coastal Georgia to the Poverty Point area of Louisiana and perhaps farther west.
The Florida Museum of Natural History has cross-sections and other images of fiber-tempered and other sherds, and we found fiber-tempered sherds from Garcon Point:
During the Misssissippian period, Pensacola existed between the sites of Bottle Creek (interpreted at the University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum) in the Mobile River Delta and the Temple Mound of Fort Walton Beach. Ceramics wise, shell tempering dominates Mississippian ceramics, which often have incised designs. These incisions sometimes occur on the rims of vessels and other times in distinctive artistic motifs. Such designs also persisted into the colonial era. Spacing and depth of incisions provides cultural information; for example the vessel below appears similar to Fatherland Incised vessels which characterize the Natchez of Mississippi and the Bayou Goula site in Louisiana.

Left: Fatherland Incised                                                                      Right: Incised/Ticked Rim








In Florida, creamware—with a yellowish tinge to the glaze– offers the best evidence of a British occupation rather than an earlier one since creamware was first marketed in 1762 and the British took Florida as a result of the 1763 Treaty of Paris. Pearlware—with a blueish tinge to the glaze that appears closer to Chinese porcelain– was introduced to the world market by 1779, so can roughly date the Spanish re-occupation of Pensacola by Bernando de Galvez and official move in 1781. Spaniards made plantations on top of older British ones.

In addition to pottery, we found a wealth of glass, but only some the handmade olive green or amber colored glass typical of the colonial era. Nineteenth-century glass and shotgun shells demonstrate the later American period occupation at Garcon Point. All told, we excavated 146 shovel tests—50 x 50 centimeter units up to a meter in depth—and four 1 x 1 meter units specifically focused on areas with the most Yamasee artifacts and Spanish tin-enameled pottery majolicas—particularly Abo, Puebla, and Playa types. Unit excavation showed why we found mixed contexts rather that architectural features: most of the area was plowed, which mixed artifacts and left “scars” in the soil.
Left: Shovel-testing                                         Right: 1 x 1 meter unit shows scars from plowing
20160727_08444116G_05Aug16_U4_lvl4 (2)





Typical Yamasee pottery—termed either San Marcos or Altamaha– includes stamped designs and temper of sand, crushed stone, and/or crushed ceramic.
San Marcos Stamped sherd:20160907_142719Apalachee Indians at their seventeenth-century mission San Luis stamped pottery as well Such pottery occurred at the eighteenth-century Apalachee Mission San Joseph de Escambe in Molino as well as at the Yamasee Mission San Antonio de Punta Rasa in Garcon Point, so may reflect social connections with Apalachees. Yamasees also had a seventeenth-century mission near San Luis so the design may be tied more to the seventeenth-century Tallahassee area than to a particular ethnicity.

Pottery made by Creek Indians who lived on the Chattahoochee River by brushing or roughening the surface, creatively termed Chattahoochee Roughened or Brushed pottery, occurred almost as frequently as San Marcos pottery at Garcon Point.
Chattahoochee Roughened Pottery: 20160907_135522
Interestingly, this decoration is far more common at the mid-eighteenth century Apalachee Mission San Joseph de Escambe located just north of Pensacola, likely because many of those Apalachees lived among the Creek Indians before moving to the Pensacola area. Many Yamasees in the Pensacola area moved there from St. Augustine, but had connections to Apalachicolas and other Creek Indians. Such pottery could thus reflect time spent among Creeks, trade with those groups to the north, or both.

Eighteenth-century Native American potters across Georgia, Florida, and elsewhere in the Southeast also painted pottery red in this type termed Mission Red variety Kasita:
Native American potters in the eighteenth-century Pensacola area, and perhaps elsewhere, at times added both crushed shell and ceramic to the clay. The sherds below seem to combine to one vessel, which was decorated both with stamping more common in the eighteenth century and the ticking on the rim more common before European contact: 20160907_141056
In addition to not quite fitting into our present-day categories, pottery can indicate social contact such as trade or gift-giving, physical movements of entire communities, and tradition in terms of a common landscape or past. Analysis of this eighteenth-century Yamasee pottery assemblage—including comparing it to other pottery in the Pensacola area and other Yamasee pottery outside of Pensacola—will demonstrate continuity and change at a more quantitative level. For now it’s safe to say that Yamasees certainly kept their past traditions alive and well while also negotiating in new social and physical environments. Thank you to staff and students at the University of West Florida and College of William and Mary as well as local landowners for all of your generous support!

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Building The Brafferton Exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum

Open Tuesday-Friday 10-5, Saturday-Sunday Noon-4

Homecoming Reception

The Department of Anthropology would like to invite all of the friends of the department — current students, alums, future students — to our Homecoming Reception on Friday, October 14 from 2 – 4 pm.


So great to have you back!

Zable Stadium, Homecoming 1948

Zable Stadium, Homecoming 1948


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Richmond’s Urban Archaeology Corps in Summer 2016

IMG_5560_sm_cropWelcome back to the school  year, everyone! While many folks have been off in exotic climes, I’ve been excavating a mere ten blocks from my apartment in Richmond, at Chimborazo Park. I was lucky enough this summer to be the Project Archaeologist for Groundwork RVA, a non-profit that works with the National Park Service to do a variety of programs connecting students from local public high schools with conservation projects in national parks. This summer and last, Richmond was one of the cities selected for the Urban Archaeology Corps program, a project funded by the National Park Service to increase participation of youth and diverse communities in historical preservation and research. On this project, eight Richmond high school students were selected for an eight week paid summer internship during which they learn archaeological theory and methods, explore Richmond history, do archaeological fieldwork, and give back through several final projects. In addition to myself, the project was run by Groundwork RVA Green Team Manager Kendra Norrell and Groundwork RVA Executive Director Giles Harnsberger. We received a lot of support from the National Park Service throughout as well – Kristen Allen, Andrea Dekoter, and Ethan Bullard especially, from the Richmond National Battlefield Park, and Erik Kreusch, the Northeast Region Cultural Anthropologist/Archaeologist. I definitely learned a lot about NPS operations along the way!

IMG_5316_smChimborazo Park was chosen as our excavation location this year because it’s one of two urban National Park Service properties in Richmond (the other being the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site). Chimborazo was established as a Civil War hospital in 1862, and became the largest hospital on either side of the war. From the departure of the Confederate Army until 1870, the city of Richmond was held under martial law. Chimborazo Hospital was one of the locations where ex-Confederate prisoners would decamp to get their ration and transportation tickets before departing to their hometowns. Recently freed men and women of color were required to have work passes and gainful employment, and freedmen found without were sent to Chimborazo in the early days after the war’s end. By 1866, Chimborazo was a freedman’s camp, providing living quarters for some of the many destitute freed men, women, and families of the city. A freedman’s school was established at the site, providing newly-freed children and young adults access to an education. So, the site has many associations with significant events in the city, particularly around the events of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, which has been the focus of many regional and national sesquicentennial anniversaries in recent years.

IMG_5259_smThe program includes two weeks of fieldwork experience, along with classroom instruction, trips to local historic sites, a camping excursion, a community service project, and several weeks where the UAC youth develop a final product to give back to the community and the park. When we started archaeological survey at the site, we didn’t have much of an idea what to expect because the only other archaeological investigations on the site were done in response to some slopes collapsing after a hurricane. So, we started the first week with shovel test pits (STPs) – 50cm x 50cm holes dug down to learn about the site’s stratigraphy and artifacts. From those STPs we found a considerable amount of oyster shell, coal, clinker, brick fragments, and in one, animal bone midden. We selected two of the most promising STPs to have 1m x 1m test units excavated adjacent to them, which gave us a larger window for assessing soil stratigraphy and looking for features. On July 30th (pictured below) we had a public day when folks came out to see the excavation and learn a bit about what we were finding!

Probably the most important find of the IMG_5444_smsummer was the dense deposit of cow and pig remains (we recovered 253 pieces of animal bone and teeth from a single strat in a 50 x 50cm STP). Because it was located under a clay fill layer deposited when the area was turned into a city part in 1876, and the diagnostic artifacts in it were predominantly from the late nineteenth century, this layer likely dates to around or just after the Civil War. Since we know that the refuse disposal was very tightly controlled during the Civil War hospital period, we most likely have a deposit of animal bone relating to the area’s use as a freedman’s camp! This was the exact period many of us were most interested in learning more about, so we’re looking forward to getting the artifacts cataloged and furthering those interpretations. Probably the most significant aspect of our fieldwork this summer is that it demonstrates that some areas of the park have archaeological integrity, despite a lot of skepticism about the damage that might have been caused over 140 years of park landscaping and maintenance.

Savage Smith Map_detail_arrowThe Savage Smith map, a drawing made by an orderly or patient at Chimborazo, provides us with a few clues about why such a large deposit of animal bone might have been found right along the edge of a city street. Based on a georeferenced version of this map, it’s possible that the midden was associated with a well along 32nd Street, dug to supply water for the hospital. Once dry or disused, the well may have been used to dump refuse during the site’s use as a freedmen’s camp. If the project continues next year at this location, getting a better sense of the archaeological integrity across the National Park-owned portion of the hospital will likely be a priority, as will returning to the site of this midden so that we can expand our investigation area and look for signs of that well!

exhibitThe last phase of Urban Archaeology Corps was the construction of a temporary exhibit by the youth working on the project. Given the absence of signage relating to the post-hospital use of the park, the participants developed a focus on understanding the students who learned to read and write at Chimborazo School, following their lives through censuses, marriage licenses, and death records. They also investigated the conditions of the camp, the racial tensions that developed between the camp residents and the surrounding white neighborhood, and the type of education provided by the school. This information was all combined into an exhibit that included an outline of one of the former hospital wards, denoted by interpretive signs that filled in some of these missing stories. On Friday August 19th, this work was unveiled at a presentation designed and planned by the high school participants. It was a great success! An entire Montessori class from down the street showed up (they especially loved the screening of our video documentary and playing trivia bingo at the end). 2016-08-19 10.26.43-2And the audience was a great mix of folks from the neighborhood, National Park Service, parents of the participants, W&M archaeologists (thanks Derek Miller and Michelle Lelievre!) and city residents interested and curious about the archaeology. We even got a visit from Buddy the Bison, the NPS mascot practicing for his debut at the Saturday Flying Squirrels game! Of course I took a shameless selfie. That temporary exhibit is up at the park now, so check it out if you get the chance to visit Richmond this weekend!

To meet the young people at the heart of this summer’s program, check out the documentary video shot by NPS Museum Curator and secret film production expert Ethan Bullard:




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Day of Archaeology 2016

What is Day of Archaeology? Well archaeologists from all over the world post about their research, fieldwork, and experiences to create awareness and community.

Here is our post, in video montage form, of course.

Day of Archaeology

18th Century Yamasee Mission Site, Pensacola, Florida




29 July 2016

Post 1 of 1

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Oddcast: Students of Humanity Episode 1


In this episode of Oddcast: Students of Humanity, we dig into the past with 5th year doctoral candidate Patrick Johnson about his archaeological and historical work on 18th century Yamasee Indians. He reveals his secrets for discovering an archaeological site, surviving graduate school, becoming a successful archaeologist, as well as entertains us with some awkward encounters in the field!


Oddcast: Students of Humanity Episode 1

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The Social Implications of Ceramic Variability at a 19th Century Sugar Hacienda

sugar cane fieldsAs opportunities unfolded, I ended up specializing in 19th century imported Britishwares at Illinois State University under the mentorship of Dr. Kathryn Sampeck, Dr. Elizabeth Scott, and Dr. Jim Skibo. Due to my cursory experience with high school and college-level spanish courses, I chose to analyze a collection of ceramics from the Sonsonate region of Western El Salvador. Below is a brief overview of my ideas and findings, which I hope to expand and explore through my dissertation at the College of William and Mary.tortillas1

The goal of this thesis was to capture a snapshot of life on a sugar hacienda in the 19th century. The hacienda has been explored archaeologically and historically in Ecuador, California, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Jamaica, and Peru (Alexander 2003; Barrett 1970; Chevalier 1963; Delle 2008; Dunn 1972; Jensen 1955; Keith 1977; Lauria-Santiago 1999; Lindo-Fuentes 1990; Lyons 2006; Meyers 2005; Monaghan et al. 2003; Wolf and Mintz 1957). Researchers “have been attracted to this topic, because the era of hacienda expansion in Latin America was a critical period of economic and social transition” (Alexander 1997:331). These are my observations on the years leading up to La Matanza (The Massacre), a 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising in western El Salvador that resulted in the slaughter of thousands of Salvadoran people, which concentrates on local patterns and local individuals. This research has the potential to open up a new level of historical research in western El Salvador.

hacienda Ariete

Contexts of Hacienda Ariete

el salvador
Large estates, called haciendas, dominated the Latin American countryside beginning in the colonial period through the twentieth-century and played an important historical role in shaping social, economic, and political systems (Lyons 2006). Actually, haciendas still dominate the countryside, though agrarian reform has affected them in some cases, like converting them to large, communally-held haciendas or for-profit bed and breakfasts. I examined the social organization through a systematic analysis of ceramic variability and a study of spatial distribution. I explored theories of agency, free will and authoritarian constraint, consumerism and spatial analysis, and landscape within a multiscalar approach.annular

I analyzed the 687 imported British ware and 885 lead-glazed European-style redware sherds from 18 contexts. The British wares were imported into the country and accordingly these ceramics were probably higher priced than local wares. This inflated price and the constraints of international trade networks would presumably have limited access to these ceramics. The lead-glazed redware found on the hacienda was abundant, suggesting that it may have been locally produced and seems to have been easily accessible, as all people living in the area show evidence of access to these goods. The 18 contexts were delineated into zones and subzones based on extant architectural remains and interviews with local residents. I conducted the ceramic analysis while considering whole vessels with a minimum vessel count for the vessels by grouping the sherds together that were most likely from the same vessel based on ware, form, and decoration.


There are three chronological divisions that appear to designate contemporaneous settlements. The structural hierarchy of social power woven throughout the strata of owners, overseers, managers and laborers on the hacienda is clearly evident in the ceramic discrepancies and distribution on and around the hacienda. The three chronological grouping on the hacienda help clarify the specific patterns of consumption in each region’s ceramic assemblage. There was evidence of class corroboration, like in the examples of Ariete and Quequeisquillo Norte contexts, where the same ceramic ware, vessel form, decoration and decorative motifs were chosen or passed down through family by the people in this area. This helped secure the social, political and economic position of these individuals at the top of the hacienda system. If there was a time lag between similar patterns, the evidence pointed towards emulation, as in the cases of San Antonio, Los Caminos and Los Obreros contexts. These contexts exhibited similar ceramic trends, but about thirty years after they first appeared on the hacienda.  In addition, there were some people who had high numbers of whitewares throughout these chronological periods, which indicates a class boundary with those who had low numbers of whitewares throughout the chronological periods.

Artifacts carry meaning. The hacienda ceramics were both utilitarian and symbolic (Orser 2005). This research should be considered a preliminary exploration of social power and identity at a nineteenth century sugar hacienda in Western El Salvador. The simple yet extensive organization of labor at this sugar hacienda was underscored by a complex set of power relations.

Works Cited

Alexander, Rani T.
1997 Haciendas and Economic Change in Yucatán: Entrepreneurial Strategies in the Parroquia de Yaxcabá, 1775-1850. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 4(3/4):331-351.

2003 Introduction: Haciendas and Agrarian Change in Rural Mesoamerica. Ethnohistory 50(1):3-14.

Barrett, Ward
1970 The Sugar Hacienda of the Marqueses Del Valle. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Chevalier, François
1963 Land and Society in Colonial Mexico: The Great Hacienda. University of California
Press, Berkeley.

Delle, James A.
2008 An Archaeology of Modernity in Colonial Jamaica. Archaeologies 4(1):87-109.

Dunn, Richard S.
1972 Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill.

Jensen, Amy Elizabeth
1955 Guatemala: A Historical Survey. Exposition Press, New York.

Keith, Robert G. (editor)
1977 Haciendas and Plantations in Latin American History. Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., New York.

Lauria-Santiago, Aldo
1995 Historical Research and Sources on El Salvador. Latin American Research Review

Lindo-Fuentes, Héctor
1990 Weak Foundations: The Economy of El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Lyons, Barry J.
2006 Remembering the Hacienda: Religion, Authority, and Social Change in Highland
Ecuador. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Meyers, Allan D.
2005 Material Expressions of Social Inequality on a Porfirian Sugar Hacienda in Yucatán, Mexico. Historical Archaeology 39(4):112-137.

Monaghan, John, Arthur Joyce, and Ronald Spores
2003 Transformations of the Indigenous Cacicazgo in the Nineteenth Century. Ethnohistory 50(1):131-150.

Orser, Charles
2005 Symbolic Violence, Resistance and the Vectors of Improvement in Early Nineteenth Century Ireland. World Archaeology 37(3):392-407.

Wolf, Eric and Sidney Mintz
1957 Haciendas and Plantations in Middle America and the Antilles. Social and Economic Studies 6:380-411.

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Southeastern Native American Rituals

I guest-posted at the Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History about working in Mexico’s National Archive and some other under-utilized archives for colonial Spanish documents. If you’re interested in archives, do also check out Casey Schmitt’s post about working in Spain, Hannah Bailey’s post about French archival work, Jessica Parr’s about research in London, Christopher F. Minty’s about archival work in North America, and Aaron Graham’s about researching in Jamaica.

Here, though, I want to springboard from a presentation I gave at William and Mary’s Graduate Research Symposium in 2015 about the role of Native American ritual as demonstrated in colonial documents. Insights from one expedition, and other historical documents, can speak to political and economic concerns of both historians and anthropologists as well as specific interpretations of Southeastern Indian materials recovered by archaeologists.

My translation of a 1790 report of a ferocious beast guarding a silver mine in Central Florida is now hosted on the Early Americas Digital Archive.  This translation was done in Allison’s Bigelow’s Colonial Translation course at William and Mary with help from her as well as Danielle Tassara, Hannah Berk, and Claire Gillespie in the course with comments also from Jack Martin, Stephanie Hasselbacher, and Felicity Meza-Luna. Cameron Strang has already published about this fascinating report in his 2013 William and Mary Quarterly article where he interprets the journal and related testimony of the expedition by Lower Creek Indian Yaolaychi, translator Alonso Hill, and a reputable gentleman Don Bartolomé de Castro y Ferrer. True to current trends in colonial history, his article provides a wealth of insight into geopolitical ramifications. However, what drew my attention and John Worth’s—who pointed me toward the document (as he has countless other resources!)—was ritual practice and place-making. To stereotype a bit, anthropological interpretations of such themes seem lacking in much historical research, while insights from colonial documents is similarly often missing in archaeological interpretations of prehistoric rituals and materials in Native North America.

Bernardo de Gálvez took advantage of the American Revolution to retake Florida from the British in 1781. He appointed Colonel Vicente Manuel de Céspedes y Velasco Governor of East Florida and a cousin, Bartolomé Benites y Gálvez, treasurer. Benites y Gálvez, in his role as treasurer, commissioned an expedition to search for a silver mine, and his documents in the East Florida Papers include a detailed journal the expedition and interrogation of Yaolaychi. From the 1770s-1790s, material by Bernard Romans, William Bartram, James Adair and others was published for an English-speaking audience, and their works have added a great deal of knowledge to Southeastern Native American conceptions of place. However, Yaolaychi’s interpretations (and perhaps manipulations of rivalries between the Governor and Treasurer of East Florida!) offer even more.

A wealth of place-names, translated by Jack Martin, dot the journal. Many are simply straightforward terms in Muscogee, e.g. “big spring” or “little spring” (oykeyw-oci) or “Water near the town of Itocome” (Oichitocome). Others speak of danger– Chitosase is Muscogee for “there are snakes there.” One reference in particular, though, speaks of reverence, even by the Spanish, who note a place where three rivers meet, describing it as a sort of pit, which is named YcanaJauque. This term literally means “Earth Door” or “Open Ground.”

“With His Breath He Attracts and Cuts the Spirit of the People,” is one of the phrases used to describe this beast and seems to refer to Creators of Southeastern Indians. For the Yuchi, ritual ceremony honors the “One who is Breath” who united the four winds and granted them life.[i] Perhaps even more relevant is the Mikasuki term for the Creator– fisahki:komihci—the maker of breath and life.[ii] Hitchiti, the dominant language of Yaolaychi’s hometown, was mutually intelligible with Mikasuki so this description as a deliberate reference to the power of creation seems plausible.

Alonso Hill interpreted Achuquilipalasco, what he called the beast, as meaning “very fierce animal.” This term is difficult to translate literally, but a term in the center, killi, is a Choctaw word that can mean either large or growling,[iii] which seems to fit Hill’s interpretation. To prepare for hunting it, Yaolaychi took off his clothes aside from a breech-cloth and spread musk over his face and neck, which matches other descriptions of hunting strategies. Yaolaychi described hearing the beast had a “head similar that of a bear; though without ears, or with anything adhered to the head, and with a gold-colored head and neck, whose tongue is parted in half in the form of scissors, or like a serpent, with a body looking like a bear, with a short tail. And, it had very tough skin, which he verified by its being shot at and rejecting bullets that instead rose up in powdered form, or like smoke at the spot where they were given.” He goes on to say “if it discovers a bird, deer, any other animal, even a man, it exhausts him, causing him to faint and be surprised so much that he cannot move or take any action, all of which is necessary for the beast to sustain itself.”


Drawing by Dessa Lightfoot

Yaolaychi nervously leads them around a mound, which he says is over the beast’s cave and the Spaniards agree the spot was noteworthy in being the only bit of non-flat land. After turning, Yaolachi sees the beast and runs away. Hill and Castro also “both saw the beast, which was on foot, heading to his cave, and they were able to observe that its head was as had been explained, its shining back and body so intensely silvered that the sunlight refracted off it in the same way as the moon shone off a mirror.”

Benitez y Galvez asked if other similar beasts existed elsewhere, and Yaolaychi mentioned one near the Cherokee Indians, another close to the town of Nocasuque, and another distant from the royal road of Tocoy to the north. Such a broad regional distribution of this belief seems likely—nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists have described similar creatures, such as Cherokee Uktena[iv] and enormous Horned Serpents.

Jackson Lewis[v] described the Horned Serpent, an animal present in many Southeastern Indian traditions, to John Swanton as “This snake lives in water and has horns like the stag. It is not a bad snake. It crawls out and suns itself near its hole. . . . It does not harm human beings but seems to have a magnetic power over game. If any game animal, such as a deer, comes near the place where this snake is lying it is drawn irresistibly into the water and destroyed…”[vi]

The tie to deer consumption is interesting, but this beast had disposed of a hunting party so may not match such a description as John Swanton collected over a century after the 1790 expedition. However, a similar magnetic power of a water-dwelling beast that guards power and metal, who can only be approached through ritual preparation, certainly ties with a variety of Southeastern and broader spiritual beliefs about Creation and the World.

These spiritual beliefs existed before European contact. Based on nineteenth and twentieth century anthropologists such as John Swanton, archaeologists have interpreted hybrid animals like Yaolaychi’s Beast and Jackson Lewis’ Horned Serpent, as well as powerful thunderbirds and underwater panthers, as being both breathtaking and dangerous. At times, conflicts arose between these beings, as depicted as competing influences on pieces of art, such as this shell gorget of the Caddos of present-day Texas.

Other beings guarded nexuses between our World and Upper and Lower Worlds. This stylization of Mississippian-era worldviews by Jack Johnson and Kent Reilly includes a water panther in a cave under a mound, perhaps akin to Yaolachi’s beast.

upper_lower_worldsMississippian-era cosmos as interpreted by Kent Reilly and others, depiction by Jack Johnson. Incidentally, Kent Reilly is presenting “George Stuart and the Archaeological Site of Etowah, GA: The Imagery of Ritual and Symbolism in Mississippian Art” at the Pre-Columbian Society of Washington, DC on Friday June 10 from 6:15-8:45.

While the Spaniards were ignorant of any broader meaning behind the mine’s guardian, they may have participated in a ritual for safety and good fortune on the way home:
“During this morning, after they had passed a very bad night with a great deal of rain and cold, they made specific signals for the day, which were two clouds of smoke with gross herbs and tree moss and two musket-shots; then the same again. They hung a quilt in a tree, and made several other movements and fires to draw attention. But nothing was sufficient, and a second bad night happened.”

Common themes of Cherokee spells involved addressing the vulnerability of night using the power of smoke[vii], with one spell in particular involved draping cloth over a particular species of tree and wafting smoke from tobacco, gunpowder, and different herbs at daybreak. As was probably the case in 1790, knowledge of the specific materials needed for the ritual is restricted, which, coupled with the lack of concentrated interest by colonial Europeans, makes precise comparison of eighteenth-century to twentieth-century ritual practice difficult.

Strang’s 2013 article rightly considers this expedition in light of other Southeastern Native American stories of hunting and of spiritual danger. His perspective as a historian of science allows him to show that even in the eighteenth century, European officials could still be confused about their New World. But curious and stubborn Europeans like Benites y Galvez, when they utilized insight from Native Americans, offer more than just insight into geopolitics and science. These and other eighteenth-century documents[viii] remain underutilized by historians, archaeologists, and cultural anthropologists for connecting present-day anthropology of Native Americans to the colonial era and even a more distant past. This expedition, authorized by an irritated cousin of a war hero, and carried out by Spaniards ignorant of scientific methods that held a Lower Creek family hostage, only scratches the surface of eighteenth-century insights into Native American worldviews. Further interpretation of historical documents, even ones filed in financial papers, have so much more to say about the survival and transformation of Native American ritual and religion from prehistory to the present!

[i] Jason Baird Jackson 2003. Yuchi Ceremonial Life: Performance, Meaning, and Tradition in a Contemporary American Indian Community

[ii] Bill Grantham 2002. Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians.

[iii] Byington 1915 Dictionary of the Choctaw Language.

[iv] James Mooney 1902 Myths of the Cherokee

[v] Jackson Lewis’ great grandson published Creek Indian Medicine Ways: The Enduring Power of Mvskoke Religion

[vi] This quote, from Swanton’s 1927 “Religious Beliefs and Medical Practices of the Creek Indians” was quoted from pg 494 of the Creek Sourcebook edited in 1987 by William Sturtevant.

[vii] see Alan Kilpatrick’s 1997 The Night Has a Naked Soul: Witchcraft and Sorcery among the Western Cherokee as well as work by his parents Jack F. and Anna G. Kilpatrick.

[viii] See for example Greg Keyes’ “Myth and Social History in the Early Southeast” pp. 106-115 of Patricia B. Kwachka’s 1994 edited volume Perspectives on the Southeast: Linguistics, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory.

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Anthropology Commencement Schedule

Anthropology Diploma Ceremony

Sunday May 15, 2016


Jefferson Statue

*rain site-Washington 201*



Anthropology Graduate Reception

Sunday May 15, 2016


Washington Hall 101

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