Saline (USA) : Archaeology study of the County area continues

Terrell Martin

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2835624 hPrehistoric projectile points from Saline County: the Backes site (above) and the Narron site (below). Contributed image

We will probably never know for certain when ancient man first set foot on various regions of North America.

However, the development of the radiocarbon dating method has allowed for the establishment of relatively precise succession of prehistoric cultures. These cultural groups were the ancestors of the Native Americans encountered by early European settlers.

Archaeologists are generally in agreement that man first ventured onto the continent of North America between 12,000 to 15,000 years ago on the ice and land bridge formed between Alaska and Siberia. These early inhabitants, the Clovis people, were hunting mammoths and mastodons, and a Clovis spear point was found in association with mastodon remains at the Kimswick site south of St. Louis. The skeletal remains of a mastodon were found at the junction of Highways 41 and J at Miami in Saline County. However, there was no evidence that the animal was killed by humans. Only a handful of Clovis points have been documented in Saline County.

2835625 mContributed image

What followed for several thousand years in North America after the Clovis period was settlement by various groups of hunters and gatherers. This was called the Archaic period. Then, about 2,600 years ago significant cultural changes began to occur when plant cultivation and pottery production became important. This signifies the beginning of the Woodland period in American prehistory. The Woodland period has been the objective of a three-year study by archaeologists in Saline County and the Big Bend area of Missouri. For 20 years, Terry Martin, the principle investigator for the research, began publishing articles on prehistoric settlement in Missouri that included the Big Bend area. Martin and field director Bruce Hensley have met with dozens of land owners and have documented over 20 new archaeological sites in the area.

This research is currently focused on the Black Sand Culture of the Early Woodland period, a poorly understood period in American prehistory. These Black Sand groups occupied the Midwest about 2,400 to 2,200 years ago. In Missouri, the evidence is primarily documented in the Missouri Valley from the Big Bend area to the Kansas City vicinity.

Martin and Hensley, along with a team of professional and amateur archaeologists, conducted preliminary excavations at a Black Sand settlement in Saline County during the spring and fall of 2016. The Backes archaeological site, located about three miles from Van Meter State Park, produced numerous stone tools and pottery that are typical of the Black Sand Culture. The site was documented after the Flood of 1993 scoured a several-acre hole in the Backes property and deposited the material in a field 300 yards to the east. Subsequently, Black Sand projectile points and pottery were found in the redeposited soil by local residents and were shown to Ted Hamilton, a highly regarded avocational archaeologist. Hamilton contacted Martin and Hensley because of their interest in the Early Woodland cultures. With the Backes site as a centerpiece, The Missouri Archaeologist devoted its entire 1997 volume to this study of the Early Woodland period in Missouri. The Backes property is also where the shipwreck The Malta was discovered.

2835626 hCeramics sherds from the Backes site (drawings to the left) and rim sherds found by Fred Winfrey in Carroll County (on the right half). Contributed image

The fieldwork at the Backes site began with excavating 1-meter-by-1-meter pits and shovel skimming to expose the buried living horizon. Then in October, five trenches were mechanically stripped to expose the undisturbed living floor at the base of the plow zone. The trenches, which were about 190 feet in length, were dug with a 7-foot-wide bucket. Charcoal recovered during the excavation was dated from 52 B.C. to A.D 238 B.C. However, the date range is over 200 years later than dates obtained from other Early Woodland Black Sand sites in the Midwest.

The 2016 excavations did not uncover a significant amount of diagnostic Black Sand artifacts, since much of the living horizon had been disturbed by cultivation and was mixed in the plow zone. However, a sample of charcoal from the site has been submitted to a lab in Oregon for radiocarbon dating. Another Black Sand settlement, the Narron site, is located to the east of Miami at the base of the Missouri River bluffs.

One theory is that the Backes site served terminal for the dispersal of artifacts made from Burlington chert (flint) that is found on the hill slopes at Van Meter State Park. This was prized material for making projectile points and was widely traded in the Midwest and western Plains. Martin has found numerous, large contracting-stemmed projectile points in the Kansas City vicinity that resemble those from the Backes site. The nearest source for this material to Kansas City is the Van Meter State Park bluffs where prehistoric rock quarries are abundant.

A companion research project in the Big Bend area that was recently completed by Martin and Hensley is a study of the large settlements in the area during the Middle Woodland period. This period follows the Early Woodland and dates from around 2,200 to 1,500 years ago.

The people that lived during this period also had pottery with distinctive decorations. The results of this research were published in The Missouri Archaeologist earlier this year. Martin and Hensley also assisted archaeologist Jack Ray during his recent excavations of Middle Woodland quarries at Van Meter State Park.

A major objective of the archaeological research in west-central Missouri is to locate information compiled on Early Woodland sites over 50 years ago by J. J. McKinney and Fred Winfrey of De Witt. Much of their information about the Black Sand sites, including the artifacts collected and the site locations, is no longer available.

The Black Sand sites are distinctive in the styles of artifacts they produce. The projectile points always have a contracting stem, are two to four inches long and have barbed shoulders. The pottery has an exterior surface that has been roughened by a cord-wrapped paddle and then often decorated with V-shaped designs, fingernail impressions or parallel-incised lines.