See the signs of 'progress' in Oxford
by Harry Holstein
Special to The Star
Jul 16, 2009 | 4163 views |  8 comments | 134 134 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I have been reading with interest the opinions expressed by The Star's readers concerning the impending destruction of the prehistoric stone mound behind the Oxford Exchange.

As many know, I am a professional archaeologist and I am in favor of preserving this sacred Native American site. Thus said, I feel compelled to clear up a few misconceptions concerning this stone mound.

I strongly believe this structure was constructed by Woodland or Mississippian peoples between 500 and 2,500 years ago. As the first explorers, traders and then early settlers moved into the interior regions of the now-eastern United States, they asked the Native American inhabitants about these strange rock piles, walls and animal effigies that dotted the rugged landscape atop hills, ridges and mountain slopes. Their initial investigations of these rock piles led to the discovery of Native American artifacts and other sacred offerings beneath these structures.

They were also told by Cherokee and other Native Americans that these rock sites were sacred commemorative markers of past loved ones and important cultural events (similar to your relatives' tombstones or our cultural marker, the Washington Monument). In the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, archaeologists continued to investigate these stone structures and found substantial evidence linking their construction to prehistoric Woodland and Mississippian groups for religious purposes. Google "Stone Mounds" and read the overwhelming amount of data substantiating the prehistoric construction of stone mounds with prehistoric Native Americans in the eastern United States.

Jacksonville State University's Archaeological Resource Laboratory (ARL) has, likewise, investigated several of these sites over the last 25 years on federal properties and determined they, too, were of prehistoric Native American construction.

How do we know if the Oxford mound is prehistoric and not historic? First, it fits the geographical profile of many proven prehistoric stone mound sites, which is a man-made pile of cobbles and/or boulders sitting atop a narrow hilltop, which would be impossible to farm. Second, the stone mound is within sight of a major prehistoric Woodland and Mississippian town along Choccolocco Creek. In all likelihood, the residents of this town constructed the stone mound. Third, the University of Alabama's test excavation in April 2009 confirmed there are prehistoric Woodland artifacts under the structure, including a piece of Bangor chert that could have only been obtained by the builders from the Tennessee River drainage. Finally, common sense would say that a pile of rocks 42 feet long by 18 feet wide by six feet in height would have taken considerable time and effort to gather up and pile atop that rugged, stony hill. Settlers had no cultural motivation for such pursuits.

However, we know from ethnographic and archaeological data that Native Americans did construct stone and earthen monuments across the landscape and placed many of the monuments in hard-to-reach places that they believed to be sacred and holy. We don't know if there are bodies in the mound. But based on the fact that hundreds of previously recorded investigations into similar stone structures revealed Native American human remains, it is likely this large stone structure may, likewise, contain human remains.

In addition, when the massive, earth-moving bulldozers begin to push thousands of pounds of boulders over the edge of the hill, any fragile human remains that may have survived hundreds of years in the ground will, in all likelihood, be crushed into powder and impossible to discern by any nearby observer of the mound removal.

Some have asked why we waited so long to complain about the mound removal. I was aware of this mound in the 1980s, but at that time the mound was not in danger of destruction. Bringing attention to it at that time may have led to vandalism of the unprotected site. However, by the 1990s it became clear the rock quarry, at the base of the hill, was encroaching on the site. The ARL archaeologists visited the mound and officially recorded the site with the state in hope of preserving it. Again in 2007, while working for the city of Oxford on its proposed sports complex along Choccolocco Creek, the ARL conducted an initial archaeological investigation at the significant historic and prehistoric Davis Farm site.

We wrote in our final report to the city that the stone mound sat adjacent to the prehistoric town and that it was archaeologically significant. We were verbally assured the stone mound would not be disturbed. And to those who have said the Native American protestors should stay "in their own hometowns," how little you know, or maybe how little you care, about your Alabama history.

Until the 1830s, the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw and other Native American groups were in their hometown — present-day Oxford, Anniston, Jacksonville and for that matter all of Alabama until they were forced from their homeland at the end of a gun to make way for what American settlers looked to as 19th-century progress. It's a shame we forcibly removed the people in the 19th century, and today Oxford is purposefully trying to remove one of the few cultural, sacred, stone monuments they left behind. All in the name of progress.

Harry Holstein is a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University.
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See the signs of 'progress' in Oxford by Harry Holstein
Special to The Star

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