Hot, dirty and fun 

Toltec draws a crowd eager to unearth the Indian past.

It was a stifling 91 degrees F. last Thursday under the sunscreens erected at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park to shade, and perhaps preserve from heat stroke, the dozens of people working there. Huge swaths of black plastic laid over pits here and there radiated heat. A crop duster dove a field away, and archeologists' brows furrowed, considering whether their volunteers might be dusted with malathion. The volunteers, who'd paid to work, had been at it since 6:30 a.m., roused an hour earlier from their tents located in a steamy grove just off the park's visitor's center.

A legal secretary from Hot Springs sprayed her face with water from a pink bottle, turning dust to mud. She and the Hendrix College junior she'd spent the past couple of days within a 1-by-2 meter hole were hot, dirty and exultant. "We just learned that bone when it burns is really white," college student Marissa Moyer said with more excitement than you might imagine.

That's generally the rule at the Arkansas Archeological Society's summer training digs: Enthusiastic amateurs, beside themselves over discovering that dirt can be deciphered, that it can yield not just objects like carved bone hairpins and red-slipped pots and arrowheads the size of a thumbnail but a mental image of a house, a fireplace, the building blocks of an earthen mound, a way of life.

This year, around 170 souls from all over Arkansas and eight other states, descended on the state park just outside Scott to work with the professional archeologists of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, just as they have every year since 1967. Dr. Jane Anne Blakney-Bailey, who runs the Survey's station at Toltec and who is directing the dig, is using the volunteer labor to explore the remnants of a mound and structure just touched on in 1978, during a field school conducted by longtime Toltec archeologist Dr. Martha Rolingson, who retired several years ago.

Toltec — the site has nothing to do with the Toltecs of Mexico, it should be noted — is Arkansas's largest and earliest surviving mound complex. It is one of two state archeological parks, the other being Parkin, on the St. Francis River in eastern Arkansas, a significant site presumed to have been visited by the first European explorers to Arkansas.

At least 700 years before the Spanish crossed the Mississippi, the Indians of what is now Central Arkansas were building, in stages, a place of ceremony, games, feasting and burial beside an oxbow of the Arkansas River. The lake and a comma-shaped earthen wall surround 18 mounds. Only three of those mounds were spared the plow of the American farmers who came much later, though remnants of a couple of others can be detected and another has been reconstructed for visitors.

The crew of amateurs, a diverse assembly of folks of all ages, looked at the splotchy soil they'd dug into beneath the disturbed plow zone and, thanks to their training, knew exactly what they were looking at — dirt dumped in basketloads about 900 A.D. to build what's referred to as Mound D. "That is so cool," gushed Veronica Sammon, the legal secretary who was spending her vacation with her husband making square holes in the ground.

Even cooler: The large burned structure that was beginning to be revealed. Blakney-Bailey expects that the Indians of the Plum Bayou culture here intentionally covered the structure's floor with orange clay dug from beneath the humus, for aesthetic reasons — as can be seen in Ozark mounds — that may have been tied to ritual as well as to create a surface that would resist erosion. What appears to be woven cane was retrieved from the excavation of the structure, which predates the mound by 100 years.

Toltec is a huge site — 110 acres — and though it has been studied for 35 years, it will take many more to understand the sequence of construction, the relationship of the earlier structures to the later mounds, and the nature of all the activities that took place there over the centuries — to "connect the dots" across the site. It is unusual in that it looks like later Indian sites but predates them by hundreds of years — "It's [later] Mississippian on the outside but not on the inside," Blakney-Bailey said.

The training dig — which included classes in animal bone identification, basic techniques, site stewardship and other topics — ended Sunday. Blakney-Bailey will go from excavated unit to unit to cast her professional eye on what her amateur workforce has uncovered for her, and begin the slow work of translation of soil colors and associated artifacts, the scatter of variously decorated potsherds, the bone remains, retrieved seeds, the stone points and tools, to Indian history.

"I'm a big picture kind of person," Blakney-Bailey said. Her goal, two years into her career there, is to learn "not just about Toltec but how it fits in with other contemporary sites in the Southeast," and to "add flesh to the bones."

She feels a sense of urgency for a portion of the site adjacent to the oxbow, called Mound Pond. Part of the site is eroding into the lake, and the crew at what's called Mound P has been recovering important artifacts — large red-slipped potsherds that indicate ancient commerce with people in Eastern Arkansas — from the water.


From the ArkTimes store


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Leslie Newell Peacock

  • Arts Center to reveal architectural plan — finally

    The architectural firm designing the renovated Arkansas Arts Center will reveal its concept at the Arts Center starting with champagne at 6 p.m. and the presentation at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 27. Jeanne Gang, whose Studio Gang Architects of Chicago have been working on the design, and Arts Center Director Todd Herman will preside.
    • Feb 16, 2018
  • Argenta Art Walk: Rex DeLoney, Gary Cawood, Glennray Tutor

    Rex DeLoney's exhibition "The Brotherhood of Color" at Argenta Gallery (413 Main St. in North Little Rock) features mixed media works about the former slaves who served on Pullman Cars at the end of the 19th century. That's one show you won't want to miss at tonight's after-hours art walk in Argenta, 5-8 p.m.
    • Feb 16, 2018
  • 60th Delta exhibition gets a jury of three: Christensen, Hembrey, Young

    A distinguished threesome — Les Christensen, Shea Hembrey and Brian Young — have been tapped by the Arkansas Arts Center to judge the 60th "Delta Exhibition" to run May 25 through Aug. 26.
    • Feb 14, 2018
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Eligible voters removed from rolls

    Arkansas Times reporters contacted election officials around the state to see how they had handled flawed felon data from the secretary of state. Responses varied dramatically.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • Real Republicans don't do pre-K

    Also, drifting away from trump, Hudson's downfall at ASU and more.
    • Aug 11, 2016
  • Asa on pre-K

    • Aug 17, 2016

Most Shared

  • A mayor stands up against freeway widening. No. Not in Little Rock.

    Another booming city, Indianapolis, fights ever wider urban freeways. Meanwhile, back in Little Rock .....
  • In the margins

    A rediscovered violin concerto brings an oft-forgotten composer into the limelight.
  • Donald Trump is historically unpopular — and not necessarily where you think

    My colleagues John Ray and Jesse Bacon and I estimate, in the first analysis of its kind for the 2018 election season, that the president's waning popularity isn't limited to coastal cities and states. The erosion of his electoral coalition has spread to The Natural State, extending far beyond the college towns and urban centers that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. From El Dorado to Sherwood, Fayetteville to Hot Springs, the president's approval rating is waning.
  • Arkansans join House vote to gut Americans with Disabilities Act

    Despite fierce protests from disabled people, the U.S. House voted today, mostly on party lines, to make it harder to sue businesses for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course Arkansas congressmen were on the wrong side.

Latest in Arkansas Reporter

  • Historian out

    Another DAH defection.
    • Feb 15, 2018
  • DYS to keep youth lockups

    Will do further study before seeking private provider.
    • Feb 8, 2018
  • ADC can't retain guards

    More than a third of new hires in 2017 left before the year was up. The culture is the problem, former guards say.
    • Feb 1, 2018
  • More »

Event Calendar

« »


  1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28  

Most Viewed

  • Locked away and forgotten

    In 2017, teenagers committed to rehabilitative treatment at two South Arkansas juvenile lockups did not receive basic hygiene and clothing supplies and lived in wretched conditions.

Most Recent Comments


© 2018 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation