Demystifying Lockesburg: Archeologist Discusses Caddo Dig

by | Jan 3, 2020 | Outreach & Impact, Research

Matt McGowanWelcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a research podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan. Today I’m talking to Carl Drexler, assistant research professor at the University of Arkansas and station archaeologist with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. This past summer, Drexler led a major excavation of Caddo mounds near Lockesburg, a small community in southwest Arkansas, north of Texarkana. Lockesburg has an interesting and infamous archaeological history, and Carl’s going to tell us about that. Welcome, Carl, and thanks for being here.

Carl Drexler: Thanks for having me.

MM: Could you remind listeners of the role of the Arkansas Archaeological Survey? Why do we have this service?

CD: So we’re a unit of the University of Arkansas System. We’re headquartered here in Fayetteville, but we have 10 research stations scattered around the state, mostly those are at other universities. We have a couple of state parks as well. We do public outreach things like talks, artifact identifications, public-friendly digs, research, teaching for the both the U of A and host institutions, and we curate the vast majority of artifacts covering Arkansas’s twelve thousand years, at least, of human history. We have this because back in the 1960s a group of Arkansans from all across the state were very passionate about our collective past and wanted to see it studied and preserved. They worked with the U of A museum staff to set up the system and get it put in place by state government. It’s one of the best systems of its kind in the country. Colleagues tell us this frequently, they’re very jealous. And it’s also a testament to the strengths of Arkansas as community connections as there was and is wide support across the state for getting this together and keeping it going.

Carl Drexler at the top of Mound A.

MM: That’s wonderful. Let’s jump to this summer’s project in southwest Arkansas. First, though, can you tell us about the Caddo people?

CD: Well, they lived across most of western Arkansas, you know, as well as eastern Oklahoma and north Texas and Louisiana. Their ancestors had lived in the area for literally thousands of years, but around 800 A.D. they started living in settlements and making things to show a shared culture, some local variations that we call the roots of modern Caddo culture. They’re primarily farmers but also some very skilled traders. They live between basically a forest of the east and the Great Plains, so they had some very strong connections and thought they could leverage. And they dealt in salt. We’ll talk about a little bit more about that later but also bow-wood and some other things. They lived primarily in small hamlets, and then would gather at larger mound centers to hold important community ceremonies. And this way of life endured up until the 19th century when they were pushed out of the state. They remain a distinct sovereign nation. It’s about 6,000 members of the tribe currently. Capital’s over in Binger, Oklahoma, and much of what we do in Arkansas dealing with the Caddo involves working with their national government and some of their artists. And we’re fortunate to be able to work with them and study their history in Arkansas together.

MM: Many people know about the Spiro mounds southwest of Fort Smith, but I think very few people know about the mounds at Lockesburg and then Holman Springs. But that’s changing, thanks to your work. What is the significance of Lockesburg and Holman Springs?

CD: With Holman Springs we know that was a salt making facility. Caddos would use the brine from the marsh to make salt. They’d evaporate in pots, and then collect the crystals. And they could use that to trade. We think this is tied in part to the growth of corn as a dietary staple. When you start eating more and more plant-based material, there’s less sodium in that than there is in meat, and so you need this as a dietary supplement And one of the things that makes Holman Springs really, really crucial is that there’ve only been a handful of Caddo salt making sites excavated ever, and only one or two that are as large as the excavations that have been done at Holman Springs. So getting more and better data, it helps us better understand when salt was being made, what other things we’re going on in the Caddo world in North America more generally, and what this did for the Caddos both within the tribe and on their relations to others. Lockesburg Mounds is a bit more of an enigma. It sits in the middle of a little River Basin, which is one of the least studied areas of Arkansas and the Caddo homeland. The few things that have been written on the region actually don’t even mention the site, which is weird because it’s one of the largest sites in that region. It consists of about 13 mounds that we’ve been able to identify, mostly centered around a central platform mound, sort of square-topped, likely had a temple built on it at one point, and we care about the Caddo Mounds because we use this as a proxy for the significance and importance of the site. Big, multiple mound centers like this would have been places of great power that would have brought people together from very far away for very important occasions. Knowing where the important places in a region are tells you a lot about the social complexity of society, the geographic range of people who look to those sites, and something of their beliefs and how they lived. Not having Lockesburg Mounds, this giant thing right in the middle of a cluster of smaller sites that we already knew about in the area, very seriously skews how we understand Caddo life during the period when it was in operation. And thing is, we’re still trying to figure out when it was an operation. Not having artifacts or samples from the site, we really don’t have a good database for teasing out the details of the place and the lives of the people who built it.

MM: That’s a perfect segue way to my next question. I want to ask you what happened at Lockesburg back in the 1980s?

CD: So our work is a lot easier if there’s, you know, data to recover, and this has been a big problem with Lockesburg because back in the 80s some folks signed out a mining lease on the site. And this is, you can do a mining lease that we see for minerals or precious metals, but in this case it was actually for Native American artifacts to sell. This is a very industrialized mining/looting operation which creates a couple issues:  one, you know we, you know we need to see what’s coming out of a site to actually sort of know when the stuff dates to, what kind of art is being associated with that. And so we, we lose that data when it, it goes away, but then also when people do bring us things and say, well we found this at this site, we have to take their word for it. It’s not a documented, we call it in situ recovery of an artifact where we can be sure of its provenance, we just, we, it introduces some error that makes our understanding shaky, and for Lockseburg this has been a big problem. You know that for about five years, the looters tore into literally every mound on site with a backhoe. This is incredibly damaging and disturbing, and it was really immense industrialized looting on— There were some archaeologists who actually saw it happening because there was a public road that goes, used to go, right through the site, and they would write about literally go going home shaking with a mixture of anger and sadness over what was being lost. But they weren’t allowed to go out and actually document and recover anything themselves. They didn’t have permission to go out there.

MM: Well this is the question I’ve been dying to ask, and I think that I’m probably going to be a little bit disappointed. What can you say about the, the dig overall?

CD: Well you know with… One of the differences you get between archaeology and relic hunting is that the relic hunters are after the, the big, whole, complete, nice pots. Archaeologists like finding those too when they’re, when they pop up, but we’re also very interested in little, little broken fragments of things. And we got, you know, a good number of small pottery fragments, some stone arrow points, and one of the, one of the things that I think really vexed some of our volunteers is that a couple of the first items that actually popped up were some 19th century English-made ceramics and some iron nails which I’m actually not surprised that we found those. When you get people, farmers moving into an area they want to, tend to want to stay out of the river valleys because they flood. And so a lot of those mounds have 19th century occupations on them, and sure enough we found them. And we also write in that same, same first couple days, found about a four or five thousand year old spear point not too far away. And this is a huge time gap to cover, but I was actually really happy to find that because what that, what that four to five thousand year old spear point is, is that was probably something that was buried in a much older part of the site. And that as the Caddos are pulling up dirt to make the mound, they found this point, and it got worked into the, the fill when we probably would not have found that point without, you know, looking outside of the mound which we were just weren’t going to do. And so what this tells us is that in addition to, you know, the probably five or six hundred year old Caddo occupation, there’s a four to five thousand year old called “archaic occupation” on the site as well, so it gives us a much deeper understanding of the history of the settlement, the site than the mounds that are real clear on the surface. But as we you know we started off digging in the some of the areas that have been disturbed by the backhoes in the 1980s, and as we got underneath that we were getting into undisturbed mound fell. And we’re finding in situ pieces of pottery, projectile points, and we also found a couple pieces of charcoal that are big enough that we can send those away to be carbon dated which will give us an actual direct concrete understanding of when the site was occupied. And also the mound as we finish the excavation that we’re doing this summer, you can see construction layers in the mound itself was built up in several different stages. And having carbon samples from different layers will tell us when each one of those layers put together because these things grow over, over time. They usually, they make one there’s generally a temple on top, and that’s burned at some point and then capped new. And so they build up, and we’ll be able to get each one of those layers going up as we move forward with the analysis.

MM: Carl, thank you for coming here today. I really appreciate your, your work and learning more about it and look forward to hearing more about this, this specific dig and others around the state in the future. Thank you.

CD: Thank you for having me.

MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by local musician Ben Harris. For more information and additional podcasts visit, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.

A version of this story also appeared in the U of A’s Research Frontiers publication.

Matt McGowan

Science and Research Writer, University Relations 

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