Sometimes a broken bit of pottery can tell a story of a people's forgotten culture.
A team of Mississippi archaeologists is reanalyzing part of the state's history as they sift through thousands of Chickasaw artifacts unearthed during the late 1930s.
"We're getting a better perspective of Mississippi's colonial history," said John O'Hear of Mississippi State University's Cobb Institute of Archaeology.
O'Hear, a specialist in North American archaeology, and Jay K. Johnson of the University of Mississippi are using a $75,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study the pottery shards, glass beads, metal tools, and human and animal bones.
The artifacts were excavated in the Tupelo area by the National Park Service between 1937 and 1941. Because of the outbreak of World War II, the collections were never analyzed in their entirety, and, until recently, were stored by the park service in Florida.
"This is the first time that archaeologists from two major Mississippi universities have collaborated on a single project, but we may have bitten off more than we can chew," O'Hear said, referring to thousands of artifacts now at the Cobb Institute.
Johnson said the English colonists used the natives as surrogate caretakers during the 17th and 18th centuries. "Because the Chickasaw were at the halfway point between New Orleans and Illinois, they separated the two French colonies of Louisiana and what is today Canada," he explained.
Historians traditionally have assumed the Chickasaw were allied with the British against the French, but some archaeological and historical evidence suggests factions within the tribe may have traded with both colonial powers, O'Hear said.
Brad Lieb, a Cobb Institute junior research associate, said the artifacts show how the Chickasaw "adapted to being thrust into a global economy involving deerskins and Indian slaves for trade with Europe and the Caribbean, as well as how their value system and political organization changed.
"If we can understand these processes, we can hopefully understand more about human culture and why cultural groups do what they do," he added.
O'Hear said the study is unique since it is being conducted with the support of the Tribal Government of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma. "It is one of the few projects that teams up Native Americans and archaeologists," he said.
Two Ole Miss graduate students, Donna Rauch and LaDonna Brown, are members of the Chickasaw Nation who were recruited to help with the analysis. Rauch said becoming an archaeologist has been her lifelong dream.
"A lot of my family history is in this area. I'm handling things that my ancestors could have handled," she said, adding that analyzing the artifacts is "an eye-opening experience for us."
Brown noted the research will help the modern Chickasaw better understand their culture and history. When the Chickasaw left Mississippi in the 1830s, they had already adopted the Euro-American culture, she said.
O'Hear said some of the artifacts eventually will be repatriated to the Chickasaw. Until then, the pottery shards and other objects have still much more to reveal.
"We're not yet sure what we'll find," he said.
For more information about the Chickasaw project, telephone Mr. O'Hear at (662) 325-3826.