You can always count on people to comment on two things: tattoos and bandages. In combination, they are irresistible. As a result, I’ve spent a relatively large portion of the day trying to explain the significance of a 3400 year old mound builder site and why I now have one of the hallmarks of the culture on my hand.
First things first: background.
Poverty Point is remarkable for dozens of reasons. It was a ceremonial center and city with thousands of permanent residents sustained, not by agriculture, but by hunters and gatherers. This is important to note because there was outright disbelief that such a thing was possible when the first papers on the site were published. “There’s no way to sustain a population of thousands without farming,” I imagine a very stodgy man with a pipe shouting.
But Poverty Point was built in the right place at the right time. It is situated on what is today known at Macon Ridge, a deposit of very fine and rich soil that runs a few hundred miles and was blown into position about 10,000 years ago. A vast lake sat at one edge of the site, providing a variety of aquatic culinary options. Coupled with the surrounding forest’s plant and wildlife, these people had more than enough to feed themselves by virtue of the natural environment. They had no need to change the earth by farming.
They did it by building.
The architecture of the site’s six half moon concentric ridges is ingenious enough (people living atop could throw waste out into the dips and it would be washed away by rain or possibly a controlled flood from the lake). But the mounds…the mounds are special.
Mound A, or the Bird Effigy Mound, lies to the North of the site. Built as a great Thunderbird and once standing nearly 200 feet tall, she contains millions, millions, of basketfuls of dirt. Basket.fuls. And she still stands around 170 feet. Because after a layer of dirt was placed, a layer of red clay taken from the the edge of the lake was placed on top and allowed to dry in the sun. They essentially made natural armor to ensure that their work would endure. And there are at least five more mounds on site and in the general area.
The Poverty Point Culture had no rival in size or scale in the Americas before or for millennia after. It remains a mystery as to why, after such a run of prosperity, the culture vanished from the site seemingly overnight. But my money is always on disease in those scenarios.
And back to the present (kinda).
I grew up only a few miles from Poverty Point. I spent a lot of time out there as a kid. It was somewhere I always felt calm.
Dennis LaBatt was running the site back then and since he was a family friend, I was allowed into the lab when they were doing digs to see what new microflint or plummet fragment had been unearthed. The whole process of identification and categorizing the finds was fascinating. But every time I went to the lab after a dig, there was only one thing I was really interested in. Had they found an owl?
One of my earliest memories is in the museum there, looking up into the half moon display for the red jasper fat bellied owl beads. My fingers moved along under the words as I read them, hovering just over the glass because I knew leaving my fingerprints there was a bad idea. “Don’t Touch.”
Small white bulb mounted in the top of the stand. Adults wouldn’t see it but I was tiny and on my toes, bouncing slowly from the ball of one foot to the other to keep my balance. Clear plastic made to look like delicate branches had the bead lashed on with fishing line. Again, most wouldn’t notice, but I was looking carefully.
The biggest owl was no bigger than two inches. The smallest, about the size of my 1st pinkie digit now. All easily identifiable as owls, all with a different personality, all so terribly tiny. And all carved with stone tools before a hand drill was used to bore holes so they could be worn.
Even as a kid, I could feel the significance of these beads, their Weight. Macon Ridge has no natural stone deposits so everything had to be brought in from a point along a 1600 mile trading route. The red jasper was a prized item and I can’t imagine they didn’t draw parallels between the red of the clay they used to make cooking balls and the red of the stone. One to nourish the body; one for the spirit.
Weight to the ball of the left foot, weight to the ball of the right foot. I leaned closer, nose so close to the glass I could smell it. There. One of the larger beads, fastened so that it was in profile. It too seemed to be lost in thought, studying something. “That one was made by someone like me.” The thought is shocking in its clarity and its conviction. I remember it more than 30 years later. It was the first time I had a connection to something beyond me, to the idea of a Past that I would’ve had a place in.
Humanity became encapsulated for me in these strange ancient objects. Crafted by human hands for human wearers and now one is embedded in my very human skin.
I had thought that of all the ones I’ve got in my head, this was the one that would hurt. But it didn’t. For me it doesn’t feel like they’re putting anything in. Just feels like they’re clearing something away so you can see what was always underneath.
And as for that burning question you didn’t know you had? Did I, in fact, ever get to hold an owl bead? The answer, as so many are, is maybe. The summer before I went to college I was working on site while a Tulane group did an excavation. They found a very small fragment of red jasper with what looked to be the “feet” of a potential owl.
It was good enough for me.