OXFORD — Archaeologists who investigated a mysterious stone mound behind the Oxford Exchange said the city should have an expert on hand as the structure is demolished in case it contains human remains.
But a city official says the mound is still intact and hasn't been disturbed. And one councilwoman said she's heard the company hired to remove the mound has ordered its workers not to touch the structure.
The news comes after days of controversy surrounding the destruction of the hill containing the structure. The city is using its dirt as fill for a Sam's Club under construction at the nearby Oxford Exchange shopping center. It was not clear if protests by American Indians halted the city's progress. But the archaeologists' report clearly states the mound was created by native people, though its significance is open to interpretation.
The Star on Thursday received a report prepared by archaeologists at the University of Alabama, courtesy of the Alabama Historical Commission. The report, based on research done this spring, describes the university's testing methods and findings. Its authors surmise the stone mound, similar to others that dot the local landscape, could be around 1,000 years old.
Harry Holstein, Jacksonville State University professor of anthropology and archaeology, says the mound is 1,500 years old and dates to the Woodland era. He also says it could contain human remains.
The report references Holstein's research and notes that "… Woodland mortuary activities are often assigned to stone mounds …" It found no evidence of burials at the Oxford site, however. What it did find through excavations were pottery shards and a piece of hard rock used to make tools, known as chert.
The report drew no conclusions about the purpose of the mound, citing lack of evidence. One possible purpose, theorized by Mayor Leon Smith and City Project Manager Fred Denney, is that the site was used to send smoke signals, a claim disputed by preservation officials.
"If signal fires were placed on the mound, the nature of the stone mound makes recovery of charcoal or cremated remains difficult as any associated material would inevitably percolate through the mound and erode away," the report said.
But the report made one thing clear: the mound was made by human hands.
"The chance that a stone mound of the size found (in Oxford) occurring by natural phenomena is not likely."
The report also leaves open the possibility that the site contains remains, saying they could be located in areas the researchers did not test. It's also possible that remains disappeared because of looting, decomposition or erosion, the report said.
The state Historical Commission said in its comments on the report it was still concerned about the possibility of human remains in the mound. The commission recommended the city leave the mound alone.
"It is our opinion that stacked stones in this location may be a significant cultural and spiritual resource to native tribes who have ties to this area regardless of the presence or absence of artifacts," the Historical Commission wrote.
When Denney was asked if the city followed the report's recommendation and hired an expert in case remains were found during the excavation, he said the mound was still intact. Attempts to determine the true state of the stone mound were unsuccessful because the city has not allowed reporters to visit the site.
"We ain't nowhere near it, but anytime we've been anywhere near it most of the time we've had a man with a doctorate degree there," Denney said, adding. "We're not going to take down that mound till a later time."
Denney said he would have no further comments until an "appropriate" time. Attempts to reach Mayor Leon Smith on Thursday were unsuccessful.
Councilwoman June Land Reaves said she visited the site and spoke with an employee of Oxford-based Taylor Corp., the company hired to tear down the hill containing the mound. She said the company has ordered workers not to touch the site.
"(He said) they were not going to touch that part up there and they were supposed to be creating ways to get up there and get around it," Reaves said.
Councilman Steven Waits said he didn't know if the city has stopped short of destroying the mound; attempts to reach other councilmen on Thursday were unsuccessful.
The UA report drew on many authors whose research on similar stone mounds informed its conclusions. One of the authors referenced is Richard W. Jefferies, a professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky.
While he was not familiar with Oxford's mound, he said larger stone mounds were often used as burial areas, though in some cases it's hard to tell. The UA report listed several similar mounds in Alabama and Georgia, some of which contained evidence of burials. There are several similar sites in Calhoun County.
"If it is a Native American mound I would certainly be in favor of preserving it," Jefferies said.