Smith Creek Archaeological Project In the Mounds

Arielle up to her shoulders in an archaeological dig site.

Funding Source


Liberal & Professional Studies


Assistant Professor

Project Summary

I am the lab supervisor of the North American Archaeology Lab at the Penn Museum and a teaching assistant on the Smith Creek Archaeological Project. Both are directed by Dr. Megan Kassabaum with whom I have worked closely for four years. I conducted my research on site and in the lab under her supervision.  

Smith Creek is a late prehistoric Native American site in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. It consists of three earthen mounds surrounding an open plaza. Past excavations have dated the occupation of this site as having spanned from 345 BC, through Coles Creek (700-1200 AD) to Plaquemine (1200-1500 AD). These dates indicate the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture and the transitions from egalitarian communities to hierarchal social organization.

I am investigating concretions, small to medium-sized formations of hardened sediment, found during the 2015 and 2018 Smith Creek Archaeological Project seasons. The concretions are analyzed using a geoarchaeological approach that includes examination of geomorphology, stratigraphy and X-ray Powder Diffraction. This analysis is used to support the conclusion that the complex mound building by native tribes during the Late Woodland Period was highly planned and undertaken communally. It required vast knowledge, skill and devotion to cultural and ritual practices to actualize the mounds. Through close examination of the dirt and the placement of artifacts and ecofacts within it, is evident that great care and understanding went into the construction of mounds and this supports the understanding that these mounds held vast religious, cultural and symbolic importance to the people who built them. While excavating in Mound C of the site I found pockets of concretions that I have brought back to the lab to analyze. In addition to the concretions from our site, Poverty Point (a UNESCO world heritage mound-and-plaza site) has offered to give me the concretions found on their site to analyze as well. Understanding why and how they are forming and where were they created could help to better understand the labor put forth to construct the mounds and what the social and environmental impact of these concretions were to the communal activity at the site. This ongoing project will help back the broader goal of the project: by showcasing the legacy of the Native Americans and their genius architecture we further the understanding of the advanced social organization of indigenous groups in the American southwest occurring prior to the invasion and colonization of the Europeans.

This experience has broadened my understanding of archaeological scientific research and offered me valuable experience and responsibilities that will be highly beneficial to my professional career. In addition, using this project as my thesis research has better prepared me for graduate school. I am incredibly grateful for CURF and the Jumpstart for Junior Program without whom none of this would have been possible.