Digging for history

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – A buried piece of metal caused a minor stir at Pierce Street Elementary School on Thursday.
A team from the University of South Carolina and the Chickasaw Nation was hunting for relics from the Battle of Ackia, which took place on and around the school grounds on May 26, 1736.
Tom Pertierra, operations director for the Southeastern Paleoamerican Survey, swept a high-powered metal detector over the grass.
“This is what they use for crime scene investigations,” Pertierra said of the detector.
When the machine’s magnetic pulse signaled the presence of iron, John Lieb, a retired archeologist, used an ordinary shovel to dig it up.
The result turned out to be the metal part of a pencil eraser. The team also found coins, a Cub Scout’s kerchief holder and a paper clip.
“There might be a school here,” joked Brad Lieb, a cultural research specialist for the Chickasaw Nation.
“We’re finding a lot of lunch money,” Pertierra said.
Archeologists are used to misses. It’s part of the process of uncovering the past.
“When you get a yes, it’s a sweet one,” Pertierra said.
John Lieb added, “You’ve got to savor the ‘yeses.'”
The project, which began Monday and will wrap up today, has had its share of “yeses.” Researchers have found whole musket balls, as well as those that Native Americans had turned into decorations.
“They’re called ‘tinklers’ because they make noise,” said Charlie Cobb, an archeologist with USC.
Team members have dug up iron from the butt of a rifle and brass from kettles.
“We’ve found some pretty standard Chickasaw pottery,” Cobb said.
The pottery shards resembled rocks, but Cobb said the fact that the pieces are flat on both sides is a clue. There also are white specks in Chickasaw pottery because the makers ground muscle shells to make clay more stable during the firing process.
“There are a ‘bazillion’ muscle shells around here,” he said.
The Battle of Ackia was an important conflict in Colonial America, Cobb said. The English were aligned with the Chickasaw. The French hoped to hit the Chickasaw hard and deny the English access to the Mississippi River.
“The Chickasaw were ready,” Cobb said. “It was a massacre.”
Cobb said USC is interested in the Chickasaws because tribe members did significant fur trading with the English in Charleston, S.C., during the 1700s.
“We had to come to Mississippi to see what Chickasaw artifacts look like,” he said.
In addition to searching the school grounds, team members spread out around the Lee Acres subdivision. Much of the property has been disturbed by construction over the years, but there were spots here and there that seemed to stick to the contours of the land from 275 years ago.
“Because we’re in suburbia, we’re trying to be low-intensity,” Cobb said. “It’s like on a golf course. We pull up a divot and put it back.”
The dig was made possible by a grant from the National Park Service’s American Battlefield Protection Program. The team expects to return in March for more field research.
Some of the “yeses” the team finds will be put on display at Pierce Street. A “no” or two also might be included.
The metal piece of pencil eraser was discarded, but the Cub Scout’s kerchief holder was bagged and tagged as a significant modern-day find.
scott.morris@journalinc.com