MSU-led team studies mussels to unlock Delta archaeology secrets

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

Discussing a research process developed at Mississippi State are (l-r) Brenda Kirkland of MSU’s Department of Geosciences; Virginie Renson of the University of Missouri’s Research Reactor Center; Simon Sherman, MSU graduate student in applied anthropology; and Evan Peacock, interim director of MSU’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology and lead investigator of a NSF-funded study to explore prehistoric trade in the Mississippi Delta. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—An innovative research process developed at Mississippi State will be used to explore prehistoric trade in the Mississippi Delta and provide data that may help conservation biologists in their quest to conserve endangered organisms.

A new National Science Foundation grant of more than $60,000 is supporting the first area-wide study of how freshwater mussel shells and pottery may have been used as ancient trade items throughout the western side of what is now the Magnolia State.

“There is a characteristic of freshwater mussels that allows archaeologists to investigate ancient trade between different groups of people in the past,” said Evan Peacock, lead investigator and interim director of the university’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology, as well as professor in MSU’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures.

“If successful, this in-depth case study from Mississippi will establish the method as one that can be applied around the world,” explained the environmental archaeologist who invented the shell-pottery research procedure during an earlier pilot project also funded by the NSF.

“An additional benefit is that freshwater mussel faunas from the Yazoo Basin will be documented in detail. Typically, archeological shell assemblages contain up to twice as many species as are known from a waterway due to modern biological surveys,” Peacock said. “These data help provide good target baselines for conservation biologists and others who are trying to manage what is one of the most endangered groups of organisms on the planet.”

A member of MSU’s anthropology faculty since 1999, Peacock was born in Clarksdale and reared in Choctaw County. After graduating from MSU summa cum laude in anthropology, he went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Sheffield, England.

His co-investigators on the Delta project include professor Brenda Kirkland of MSU’s Department of Geosciences and Virginie Renson, a postdoctoral researcher at the Archaeometry Laboratory of the University of Missouri’s Research Reactor Center. Working with them is Simon P. Sherman of Ridgeland, an MSU graduate student in applied anthropology.

Peacock said the team will be examining shells and pottery from a number of prehistoric sites within the Mississippi River drainage. Their efforts will refine the shell chemistry sourcing method to better understand trade occurring throughout the region between A.D. 900-500, what archaeologists refer to as the Mississippian Period. 

Shell-tempered pottery found across much of eastern North America currently is thought to have been produced by various native groups, he explained.

As mussels grow, their shells absorb chemicals from streams they inhabit. Because every watercourse has a different chemical signature, “looking at the chemical makeup of the shell-temper in pottery allows archaeologists to tell whether a pot was made locally or in another area,” Peacock said. 

Peacock said the two materials “are linked because beginning 1,000 years ago, Native Americans crushed shells and mixed the fragments with clay when they made pottery.” If shell-tempered pottery was traded into an area, the shell bits in it will have “a different chemical signature than shells indigenous to the area.”

Scientists then may use this to determine which groups were indigenous to an area—and which were only visiting.

“By using shells discarded at village sites to provide chemical background data, against which pottery-temper may be compared, we may be able to identify source areas of pottery with great accuracy,” Peacock said. 

Giselle Thibaudeau, College of Arts and Sciences associate dean for research, said information gained from archeological investigations like Peacock’s is “providing insight regarding past environmental conditions and are valuable to modern-day conservation efforts.

“He is an environmental archaeologist with a collaborative spirit, as evidenced by his involvement of biologists, geologists and cultural anthropologists in his research program,” she said.

College Dean Rick Travis said Peacock’s current and previous grant and contract experiences with national organizations should “help keep the Cobb Institute at the forefront of applied archeological work that benefits our state and region.”

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