Experts refute claims in 2nd mound report

A controversial stone mound sits atop a large hill behind the Oxford Exchange. Photo: Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/File

Some experts and academics around the state are disagreeing with a University of Alabama archaeologist’s report concluding a pile of stones in Oxford is a natural phenomenon — not built by American Indians centuries ago.

Kelly Gregg, a Jacksonville State University geology professor who has visited the site located behind the Oxford Exchange, has repeatedly said the stone mound is not natural. He was not dissuaded from his opinion after reviewing the report.

The UA archaeologist, Robert Clouse, “is going to very old, out of date works and picking and choosing what he wants to say,” Gregg said of the geology sources cited in the report. “We would never allow a student to turn in a term paper with sources that old.”

The report, which does not cite the opinion of a certified geologist, cites five sources to support its geological conclusions: Two sources date from 1926 and 1930, while the other three were written in 1961, 1962 and 1979.

“We have done a few things since then,” Gregg said.

Clouse, director of the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama and director of the University of Alabama Museums, said in an Oxford City Council meeting last month that a stone mound behind the Oxford Exchange was created by erosion and other natural forces and not American Indians. He backed up his claims with an archaeological report he wrote for the city of Oxford in July — written less than three months after he and a team of UA archaeologists filed with the city a report stating the opposite.

The Star obtained a copy of the second report last week.

The stone mound behind the Oxford Exchange was at the center of a dispute last year, which ended with the city of Oxford backing away from plans to level the mound and use dirt beneath it for fill at a nearby construction site.

Gregg said that in his opinion, the sources in the report are not only too old, they also do not fully support the conclusions Clouse makes in his second report. Gregg noted a Calhoun County soil survey study conducted in 1961, which was sourced in the report and describes the soil in the area as “stony rough land.”

The land description was used in the report to explain how many rocks appeared on top of the hill behind the Oxford Exchange.

Gregg said Clouse apparently left out a couple of sentences from the 1961 source, which would have refuted his claims.

“It goes on to say this land type is at the bases of slopes,” Gregg said. “But this mound is not at the base, it’s at the top.”

David King, professor of geology at Auburn University, said after reviewing the report that in his opinion the conclusion was not valid.

“I tend to think that (mound) has probably been built,” King said.

King said he could not attest to who might have constructed the stone pile or when, having never visited the site himself, but that nature does not tend to create such structures on the tops of hills.

“When soil like that gets weathered away with boulders in it, they tend to want to run downhill,” King said. “For me, to be piled up on top, you need another force of energy. The easiest way to do it is for somebody to do it.”

After looking at the pictures of the mound in the report, King said all the stones appeared to be small enough for a human to carry.

“If there was something too big to carry, I’d wonder about it,” King said.

King added that the report did not identify any similar natural structures in the area, which to him also signified the mound was man-made.

“If it were erosion, every knoll in the area should have a stone cap on it,” King said. “But this particular knoll has a uniqueness aspect.”

Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University, who has studied American Indian sites in the area for years, has been adamant in his belief of the mound’s legitimacy and does not believe differently after reading the second report.

“It lacks any evidence to support the claim it’s a natural feature,” Holstein said.

Holstein pointed out pictures in the report that show a construction crew using a backhoe during Clouse’s examination and indicated to him that the report’s findings may have been incorrect.

“They used teeth on the backhoe, which would have totally destroyed any evidence,” Holstein said. “They totally wasted that mound.”

Steven Meredith, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society, agreed with Holstein’s assessment about the backhoe.

“When you tear into an area with a backhoe and don’t find artifacts, you shouldn’t be surprised,” Meredith said. “It’s a blunt instrument. “If the site you’re excavating is delicate, it’s best not to use a backhoe.”

Meredith, who also read the report and disagrees with its conclusion, said if he had done the Oxford study, he probably would have obtained a geologist to help him.

“I’ve worked on a couple of projects where I’ve had a geologist on site,” Meredith said. “It’s not always necessary. However, if I were going to drastically reverse an interpretation I made, the more experts you can get on your side, the better.”

Stayce Hathorn, archaeologist for the Alabama Historical Commission, wrote in an e-mail to The Star that Clouse’s report fails to mention letters written by the Alabama Historical Commission which stated the mound was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places and advised the mound be preserved in place.

Hathorn, who does not agree with the report, said the Advisory Council on Alabama Archaeology, a legislatively established advisory board of which Clouse is a member and a past president, informed her office recently that they no longer support monitoring as a preferred method of archaeological testing. Instead the council recommended archaeological sites receive proper phase I, phase II and phase III testing.

Clouse indicated in his report only phase II and not the more intensive phase III testing was conducted at the mound during his examination.

“Had the site been the subject of an appropriate phase III excavation there would have been a research design that would have required review and approval by our office before excavations began,” Hathorn stated. “There would have been experts retained in relative subfields such as geomorphology, paleobotany, faunal analysis, and human osteology to name a few (according the UA report, there was a human osteologist onsite during demolition and monitoring).”

The Star attempted to obtain an examination of the report from a member of the Alabama Geological Survey. However, a Monday e-mail from the survey said it was against the agency’s policy for staff members to comment on geologic work outside of its scope.

In a Monday e-mail, Clouse declined to comment on why geologists and other archaeologists disagreed with his report.

“I am currently consulting with geological specialists myself so I am not able to comment on the issue at this time,” Clouse stated.

Clouse did not indicate which geologists he was contacting.