Update on archaeology in a drained Louisiana lake

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Vernon Lake potsherds

Pottery sherds from Vernon Lake. Photo courtesy of Johnny Guy.

FORT POLK, La. — Back in January, we posted a story about archaeologists looking for artifacts in Vernon Lake. The lake had been temporarily drained while the dam was being repaired after Hurricane Harvey. On February 26, I attended a meeting of the West Louisiana Archaeological Club (WLAC), where initial findings about the artifacts were presented.

Johnny Guy, president of the WLAC, recounted the history of the organization’s involvement in the lake. It began in November 2017, when a journalist reported evidence of looting to the WLAS shortly after the lake was drained. Guy requested permission for a surface survey of the area from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, which was granted. That means the WLAS, along with archaeologists from nearby Fort Polk, were allowed to collect ancient and historic artifacts on the surface as samples but were not allowed to dig – including pushing aside shallow layers of sand that collected on top of items.

Vernon Lake point

Arrow point from Vernon Lake. Photo courtesy of Johnny Guy.

As they began their survey, Guy said they quickly realized it was a much larger job than anticipated. Vernon Lake was created in 1963 over ancient Indigenous sites as well as several historic homesteads dating as early as the early 19th century. More than 60 archaeological sites have been registered on the lakebed.

Many of the Indigenous artifacts have been identified as Marksville period, a regional manifestation of the Hopewell culture named for a mound complex located in that central Louisiana town. The Hopewell culture flourished from 200 BCE to 500 CE. Hopewell was centralized in Ohio (where the type site mounds are located), but trade routes extended from what is currently the Lake Ontario area of Canada to Florida. The Marksville culture extended through what is today Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, and, of course, Louisiana from around 100 BCE to 400 CE.

Holes created by looters at Vernon Lake. Photo courtesy of Johnny Guy.

Unfortunately, looters and recreational vehicles have destroyed several of the sites, but the Guy said publicity from local journalists, the presence of the WLAC, and diligence on the part of landowners, game rangers and law enforcement may dissuade some would-be looters. Within the last week, Guy reported, three looters had been caught and charged. In Louisiana, each artifact can result in up to a $500 penalty as well as jail time.

For now, both ancient and historic artifacts found on the lake bed will be kept under the care of Dr. Pete Gregory at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

To keep up with archaeology in Louisiana, you can contact the WLAC through the Louisiana Archaeological Society. You can also read more in First American Art Magazine No. 18, which you can find at most major bookstores or order through our website.

 

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