Leslie Walker, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Coordinator, Linfield Anthropology Museum
Linfield University, McMinnville, Oregon
Feature of the Month - November 2023
Archeological features are typically valuable to archeologists for the evidence of past behaviors contained within them. They can show us what people were doing decades, centuries, or even millennia ago. Sometimes, a feature is equally valuable for what it doesn’t contain though. Excavations of a seventeenth century village at the Carden Bottoms site (3YE0025), conducted between 2010 and 2012, revealed several features that were most telling because of what they did not contain.
Carden Bottoms, located near the base of Petit Jean Mountain in Yell County, has long fascinated archeologists. The site gained notoriety in the early twentieth century due to extensive looting and the subsequent distribution of highly decorated ceramic vessels and other artifacts that were acquired by collectors and museums far and wide. This resulted in thousands of finely crafted, elaborate artifacts sitting on museum shelves with little to no useful context for connecting them to the people who made and used them. Working with funding from an NEH grant, the Arkansas Archaeological Survey began excavations at the site in 2010, with hopes to excavate domestic features—perhaps finally providing insights into who these people were. Over the course of 14 weeks of excavation, three houses (Steeno 2022), several refuse pits and numerous other features were fully excavated. The results of this work revealed an early seventeenth century community relying on longstanding ideas and traditions related to ceramic production, subsistence, and architecture (Hilliard 2012; Walker 2014, 2023). Refuse pits indicated the folks living here were possibly a coalescent society of groups who joined together after the tumultuous upheaval of the preceding century, thriving by drawing on shared ideology (Sabo et al. 2020).
We often expect house floors to show evidence of preparation and use, or at least compaction from foot traffic. This usually manifests in the archeological record as a hard, compacted surface, often containing artifacts, debris, and dark staining from organic materials or smoke from interior cooking. The floor of House 1 at Carden Bottoms was missing these telltale characteristics of use, though. Instead, a virtually sterile surface was found, with only a few small, scattered divots containing dark soil indicative of human use. Other features such as post molds and the hearth inside House 1, were also somewhat unusual, appearing to be truncated, as if the top portions of all features had been removed. Initial suspicions were that perhaps this was due to removal of soil via plowing or other agricultural activity. However, plow scars and evidence of modern agriculture were encountered above the house floor. As excavation progressed, sediments showing evidence of soil disturbance from flooding were observed. House 1 is located on a portion of the site that is slightly lower in elevation and nearer to potentially flood-prone bodies of water. What the absence of expected portions of features and a house floor suggests is the house was largely washed away by a flood.
A central hearth was located in each of the three houses excavated at 3YE0025. In Houses 2 and 3, these hearths were easily visible due to large, baked clay surfaces. Most of the clay surface had been washed away in House 1 by the flooding described above. The term “hearth” is commonly used for pits or surfaces exhibiting evidence of construction, combustion and use by people, but these surfaces may be better described as earth ovens, griddles, or stoves, depending on their characteristics (Black and Thoms 2014). No fire-cracked rock was found in the hearths at Carden Bottoms. This implies cooking pits were not stone lined and the baked clay surfaces may have allowed for cooking in a variety of ways – on a baked clay “griddle,” steamed or baked in a layered “oven,” utilizing the radiant heat of the clay surface.
A final feature from Carden Bottoms that reveals significant information about how people here lived is Feature 90, a large, square stain indicating the floor of House 3. There is an abrupt change in soil color between inside and outside of the house. Other areas of the site, outside and around houses, contains sheet midden consistent with an occupation surface. This is absent in the areas immediately around the houses. A sterile “halo” of lighter soil surrounds each house, indicating a berm of earth purposefully piled along the exterior house walls. This would help insulate the structure and shed rainwater away from the base of the walls (Hilliard 2012, Sabo et al. 2020, Steeno 2022, Walker 2023).
Sometimes it really is the absence of something expected that reveals the most about sites in the past. At Carden Bottoms, features that were seemingly, missing something – sheet midden, a house floor, or the usual hearth features – actually provided a great deal of insight into how the inhabitants of Carden Bottoms drew on traditions in architecture and construction to propel their communities into the future.
Black, Stephen L. and Alston V. Thomas
2014 Hunter-Gatherer Earth Ovens in the Archaeological Record: Fundamental Concepts. American Antiquity 79(2):203-226.
2012 “Carden Bottom Phase Houses” Paper presented at the 77th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, Memphis. April 18-22, 2012.
Sabo, George, III, Jerry E. Hilliard, Leslie C. Walker, Jami J. Lockhart, Ann M. Early, and Rebecca L.F. Wiewel
2020 Carden Bottoms: Indigenous Responses to Europeans on the Far Reaches of the Mississippian Shatter Zone. In Contact, Colonialism, and Native Communities in the Southeastern United States, edited by Edmond A. Boudreaux III, Maureen Meyers, and Jay K. Johnson, pp. 16-34. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.
2022 “Houses at Carden Bottoms” Feature of the Month, August 2022. Arkansas Archaeological Survey.
Accessed October 7, 2023.
2014 Liminal River: Art, Agency and Cultural Transformation Along the Protohistoric Arkansas River. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.
2023 All is Never Lost: Examining Coalescence, Cultural Resilience and Survivance in the Archaeology of a Protohistoric Village on the Arkansas River. Paper Presented at the 88th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, March 29-April 2, 2023, Portland, Oregon.
Feature of the Month Series
Archeological features are elements or structures that are nonportable or cannot be easily removed from a site (such as a wall or a post hole). Archeologists document archeological features extensively in the field to record what will otherwise be destroyed in the process of excavation. The records of these features are often all that is left at the end of an excavation. Excellent record keeping is necessary for these features to provide insight into the archeological record and site formation.
In this series, we present interesting and important archeological features that have helped archeologists to better or more fully understand the sites on which they were working. New features will be added monthly. Find the list of features here.