July 25, 2014  

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Oil Threatens Native American Archaeology Research on Gulf Coast

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As the nation’s worst oil spill continues to unfold, a team of archaeologists from The University of Southern Mississippi worry about the future of their research along the fragile marshes of Grand Bay, east of Pascagoula, Miss.

Southern Miss archaeologists received a grant from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) to establish a timeline for cultural activities of the prehistoric Grand Bay area that Native American tribes called home.

The research site location, only a half-mile from booms picking up residual oil from the Deepwater Horizon explosion, could sabotage their efforts if oil continues to drift inland.

“It (oil) would pretty much shut down the ability to do archaeology in a place like this for a very long time,” said Dr. Ed Jackson, team leader and professor of anthropology at Southern Miss.

Researchers are finding large deposits of shells or middens left by natives who fished, hunted and collected shellfish. Many of the sites were severely damaged by the storm surge of Hurricane Katrina and will be further endangered by oil. Much like many Gulf Coast residents today, the natives were heavily reliant on the Gulf of Mexico for food and survival, according to Jackson.

“(Hurricane) Katrina brought a renewed awareness of how fragile these resources are. The shell middens on Grand Bay are as fragile as the marshes that surround them,” Jackson said. “Oil will contaminate the material in the middens, leaving them unfit for scientific investigation.”

Jackson and his team of six anthropology students are especially distraught at the thought of losing the chance to learn about the Grand Bay area Indian culture.

His team includes Lynn Funkhouser of Murfreesboro, Tenn., Michelle Hammond of Wiggins, Miss., Barbara Hester of Gulfport, Miss., Sam Huey of Mobile, Ala., Nicole Musselwhite of Ocean Springs, Miss. and John Ladner of Kiln, Miss. They spend at least seven hours a day digging holes in the ground as airboats nearby tend miles of booms to protect the marshes of the Grand Bay National Wildlife Refuge and Grand Bay National Estuarine Reserve.

“This research gives us another piece of evidence of how people adapt to coastal environments,” Jackson stated.

While little to no archeology research exists on this area, Southern Miss researchers hope to completely excavate the site before the oil comes ashore.

In the meantime, researchers can only take it day by day, watching the water to see if they will have to vacate the site for good.

For more information on Grand Bay research, contact the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at 601.266.4306.