A view of the past

by | Jul 1, 2019 | Features

Photo by Liz Chrisman

It’s still foggy as I drive to the Arkansas Archeological Survey office at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop Petit Jean Mountain. The car winds around forested roads before reaching the fields of Santa Gertrudis and Red Angus cattle dotting the landscape of the former Winrock Farms.  At the top of the mountain, we head toward the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, specifically, the Heritage Farmstead, a series of farm buildings built as replicas of the Westphal family’s property, homesteaders who once inhabited the opposite side of the mountain.
A well house, sorghum press, and rows of trellised muscadines and grapes are visible from the driveway. Beautiful gardens surround the site and a fully stocked greenhouse populated with native plants and heirloom seedlings sits beside the impressive two-story, state of the art, modern barn. Often referred to as the “teaching barn,” this large wooden structure has served as the main office and educational research center for the Arkansas Archeological Office at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute since the station moved from Arkansas Tech University in 2007.
The survey office is one of 10 archeological stations across the state which serve as research centers and public outreach sites for regional archeological research.  Together these sites make up the Arkansas Archeology Survey, a part of the University of Arkansas System. Arkansas’s model of these diversified research sites is highly successful, serving as an inspiration for statewide archeological programs across the world.
Dr. Emily Beahm is the station archeologist with the Arkansas Archeology Survey at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. She has a love for cultural studies and plants, and much of her work focuses on the vast Native American gardens that encircle the barn. These gardens highlight and study the ways in which humans have interacted with the land over time, ranging from plots dedicated to hunter/gatherers crops to intentional plant to domestication. In her position as station archeologist Beahm oversees 11 geographically and culturally diverse countries ranging from the River Valley to the Ozarks and and parts of the Ouachitas. Her central office is located on the bottom floor of the barn, a cozy nook filled with books and posters from the Survey’s extensive public outreach work.
Beahm started out as an assistant to Skip Stewart-Abernathy, the former regional director of the survey. Stewart-Abernathy excelled in harnessing the cultural power of the site at the Rockefeller Institute. Beahm, whose dissertation research focuses on late prehistoric sites in Tennessee along the Cumberland River, became the station archeologist when Stewart-Abernathy retired in 20015. Today the station is home not only to the heritage farmstead and the research gardens but also the survey’s regional collections: a wide array of things including an extensive comparative collection of objects on the ground floor, used for analyzing materials. Beahm offers a tour of the barn.
“Skip accumulated a lot of things,” she explains, opening up drawers lined with little old bits of broken jars and pottery.  “You can search by color lists and shape,” she continues. Clues about the shape of a jar lip, for example, can be used to determine when and where the jar was created. She opens up drawers full of broken blue and white pieces, another is full of green glass. Finding aids accompany the collections, organized by color, size, and shape.  It’s a perfect example of the ways in which archeology can provide clues when there are no written records available.The Barn is also home to an extensive raw materials collections which allow researchers to explore where materials were being quarried and give accurate estimates to found stones and tools. A large room across from the comparative collections contains tubs from excavated sites throughout the region. Several large grinding stones sit next to the plastic tub, a collision of centuries.
The upstairs of the barn is home to her assistant Larry Porter and a room full of site forms, paper copies, and quad maps of both well-known and privately owned sites.  “The site location information is not subject to freedom of info act,” Beahm explains. “So we don’t give it out unless it is for legitimate research.” This extra step of privacy, she explains, helps people be more willing to share information with the survey. “We take calls from folks who ask, ‘I have this artifact what is it?’ Or ‘I think there is an old site on my property.’ And we get lots of calls about cemeteries. People want to find the boundaries,” she explains.
Much of the teaching barn is geared toward behind-the-scenes research and providing access to material artifacts from around the region. But it’s clear Beahm loves public outreach. And the sunlit, large downstairs classroom of the barn is a central part of that community-based work. Near the back of the classroom, she points to an experiment waiting for a group of homeschool students who will arrive in the coming weeks.
There are wooden boxes of large seed pods and a tree bark looking material shaved into delicate, twirled threads. One is the inner bark of milkweed; another is the bark of a pawpaw tree spun for baskets. “If you break it open and peel off the outer bark,” she explains as she opens up the milkweed seed pod, “you get the inner fiber, the bast fiber.” The fiber is silky and strong. This well-known wildflower is found in the
Woodland section of the garden; a sampling of the first domesticated and cultivated crops that were derived from locally available wild plants. Most of us gardeners probably know milkweed as the place where butterflies lay their eggs. But its bark can be used for fiber and cordage, and it was widely cultivated for this usage during the Woodland period, 600 B.C.-900 AD.
Like the milkweed, most of the plants Beahm works with are what many of us would call weeds. Her vocabulary is dotted with the colorful names of Arkansas native plants such as rattlesnake master, little barley, maypops, dogbane and goosefoot. These are plants  we coexist with every day, possibly even spraying them with weedkiller to keep them out of a manicured lawn or mowing them under with a blade. But archeological evidence shows that not only did humans use these plants for food, medicine, and cordage, they also cultivated them, a process that changed their morphology.
“Arkansas is a treasure trove of archeologically preserved plant-based materials,” Beahm explains, “providing researchers with evidence of plant use through time. The Ozarks have preserved plant material that wouldn’t otherwise be preserved because of the constantly dry conditions.” She points to the work of her survey colleague, Elizabeth Horton, station archeologist at Toltec Mounds in Scott, Arkansas. As a paleoethnobotanist (a person who studies plants and their relationship to prehistoric people) Horton’s research has uncovered sites that have yielded examples of baskets and sandals and mats made out of these plants growing here in the gardens at the barn. “We have sandals made out of dogbane and we have baskets made out of both dogbane that contain goosefoot,” Beahm says. “So we have this preserved materials in addition to seeing the seeds change morphologically.”
“One of the things I did is develop these teaching gardens so that we can look at which shows plant use through time in Arkansas,” explains Beahm. There are three main gardens: the Arkansas Native Plants Walkway, which includes varieties of sun and shade growing native plants including ferns, acorns, pawpaw, dewberries, maypops and pokeweed. It’s a hunter/gatherer inspired landscape that is meant to mimic human interaction with the landscape between 8500 and 650 BC. The Woodland section mentioned above is filled with knotweed, marsh elder, squash, bottle gourds, dogbane, and rattlesnake master. It also contains wild grains that were domesticated over time. The third garden, the Mississippian period garden, is probably the most familiar to gardeners of today. It represents agricultural practices post 900 AD, including the domestication of corn and beans from Mexico. “It’s the traditional corn, beans, squash often referred to as three sisters,” Beahm notes.  “I also added a historical sorghum and cotton plants,” Beahm explains.These are plants that correspond to the homesteading buildings. “But the cotton hasn’t worked,” she laughs. “So this year we’re doing a historic herb garden including culinary herbs and medicinal herbs.”
All of the work of the garden is funneled into education programs for Arkansans of all ages. Beahm, alongside fellow Arkansas Archeological Survey archeologists Jodi Barnes, Eizabeth Horton and George Sabo are the authors of a fifth grade social studies curriculum entitled Gathering, Gardening, and Agriculture: Plant-based Foodways in the Southeastern United States. The curriculum offers instruction and hands-on activities for teachers and students allowing public school instructors a way to bring the past to life and help students gain a deeper understanding of their homes.
Last year Beahm also began a homeschool education program and this year they have created a curriculum: “Not Just Food: The Many Uses of Plants in Arkansas History.”  “We used last year’s work as a starting point but expanded it a lot,” she explains. Last year they had kids work in the garden and harvest once a month for six months, she explains. “This gave homeschool students the chance to see the garden change through time and engage in the tasks and watch the bounty transform with the seasons.” This year they’ll start looking at plants as materials for baskets, for medicine, clothing, and tools. “The first class of the season,” explains Beahm, “will focus on gourds and gourd grafting.” As the summer continues, they can expect to make cordage from rattlesnake master, use a drop spindle, and use native plants to make dye. Her goal is to approach the classes as a “springboard for other contexts, including technology.” Beahm wants students to think about how archeologists can make inferences based on form and also decoration. “Why do people decorate?” Beahm asks.
But it’s not just homeschool students who get to participate in the gardens or utilize the resources at the survey atop the mountain. The teaching barn and the Rockefeller Institute is also a site for Project DIG, a program for 5th and 6th grade Gifted and Talented students six Pope and Yell County schools The core goal of the long-running project is to teach kids about the scientific nature of archaeology. The project has existed for 11 years, but Beahm is putting her stamp on the work. “I’m trying to instill a sense of the importance of cultural heritage so they don’t destroy archeological sites, basically,” she explains. “I talk to them about how important culture is and how it influences everything they do,” Beahm explains. “The most important thing is that it shows kids that the way they live is not the only way to live either now or in the past.”
Students engage in this concept by creating a new culture, explains Beahm. “We create a new culture; we make artifacts, and I break those artifacts and then a different class excavates those and tries to learn about the culture,” she explains. At the end of the program the students conduct a research symposium at the Rockefeller Institute and present their findings. The Institute prints up programs and signage, providing materials to mimic a professional symposium. The most recent symposium was just held this past April.
As we walk through the gardens Beahm points out the pawpaws growing on the trees and persimmons, blackberries, and pokeweed. It’s a beautiful location and full of ever-changing tools for research. The hunter gatherer area is  fascinating, and the three sisters area makes my gardner heart happy. But it’s the Woodland area where we spend most of our time talking. To the untrained eye, these native plant gardens encircled in stones look like well-manicured weeds. “These are wild progenitors of those domesticated varieties,” Beahm explains as she points to the dogbane, milkweed, maypops, and columbines.  Maypops, often referred to as passion fruit, produce edible wild fruits. Goosefoot provides edible seeds that ripen in summer and fall.
Beahm points to some little barley, a thin, weedy grass that looks exactly as you might expect. In fact, you can probably go outside right now and find some of you own growing around your mailbox. “Little barley is super common,” Beahm explains. But how exactly it was used is still a puzzle. “We know Woodland people planted maygrass for grain,” she explains. “It’s ready in early spring and is easy to harvest. But no one is quite sure how little barley was processed for food.” Beahm says that they know the tiny grains were removed from the shaft because they find it preserved this way in some of Arkansas’s own sites. So she and the staff are experimenting with the wild growing grain, trying to figure out how earlier humans might have effectively removed the tiny grains from their coating.
Unlike the fairly stable conditions in the barn filled with artifacts, these teaching gardens have a mind of their own. Though Beahm has tried to plant these wild foods in well contained circular gardens with well-outlined plots and readable labels, the plants are forever popping up in places uninvited, especially the maypop and goosefoot, which has ignored its plot altogether and has instead started coming up in the gravel rock path between garden plots. “But this is all part of the research,” laughs Beahm.
You can follow along with the activities of the teaching garden online at their webpage at www.archeology.uark.edu/wri-native-gardens. From there you can a link to their facebook page which is regularly updated with kids workshops, plant growth pictures, and links to upcoming events.

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