Poverty Point, Claiborne, and UNESCO

Poverty Point, Claiborne, and UNESCO
      Russell B. Guerin
First, Poverty Point, LA
            My introduction to Poverty Point in Louisiana occurred aboard a plane to Mexico, sometime in the early 1960s. I was on my way to experience some of the joys of seeing the ruins of ancient civilizations, specifically those of the Maya in Yucatan.
            In a chance conversation with another passenger, I was asked a question which might have embarrassed me for my ignorance except for the fact that the question held so much promise. I do not remember the exact words, but essentially he asked, why was I going to Mexico while in Louisiana we have one of the most important prehistoric sites in the United States?
             The inquirer turned out to be an archaeologist. He was friendly and did not mean to challenge me. He meant simply to inform me of something I knew nothing about, even though I was born and raised in Louisiana. His description was brief but impressive. I made a mental note of Poverty Point and resolved to see it sometime in the future.
            I have now been there several times.  I can forgive myself for my ignorance in the 60’s when I contemplate that years later it might still be difficult to engage many of my friends in a knowledgeable discussion of Poverty Point.
            I do not presume to offer an in-depth discussion of this beautiful prehistoric area. Much can be found in extensive articles, with pictures, by the click of a mouse. I will say merely that it is located in the northeast corner of the state, near the tiny little city of Epps. The area is not heavily populated, and were it not for the presence of Poverty Point it would not be of great significance. But the site is in fact one of the largest earthworks in the country, dating back 3500 to 3700 years, plus or minus a couple of centuries. It consists of several mounds and a series of horseshoe-shaped ridges, inside of which must have been a large plaza. It would have taken a very large population of a highly organized community to construct such a site.
            Louisiana’s Office of Cultural Development says the following:
What Is Special about the Poverty Point Site?
  • The earthworks are massive: 5 mounds and 6 C-shaped ridges surround a huge plaza.
  • The geometric design is unique in the world and is a masterpiece of engineering.
  • The site is 3,500 years old.
  • At the time the earthworks were constructed, they were the largest in North America.
  • The site was the major political, trading, and ceremonial center of its day in North America.
  • The people who built and lived at the site did not raise crops.
            So, after all these years, what’s new? What is new is that Poverty Point has been nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are 962 sites in 157 countries, including such as the pyramids of Giza and Machu Picchu. In the US, there are only 21 World Heritage sites.
            It is with great anticipation that we await the conferring of this distinctive designation.
Claiborne, MS
            Again, a question: So, what does all of that have to do with a blog by “A Creole in Mississippi”?
            The answer is found primarily in a multitude of little clay balls. They are found in a few other places, but most significantly in Poverty Point and in an area in Hancock County Ms referred to as “Claiborne.”
            The name appears in various passages elsewhere on this web site. Both Marco Giardino and I have written extensively about the 19th century plantation of JFH Claiborne. His land bordered on Mulatto Bayou, a distributary of the Pearl River. It is close to Hancock County’s most important archaeological area, which is now known by archaeologists as “Claiborne.” The area of course has relatively recent history, but when the port facility was being built in the 1960s, countless prehistoric artifacts were dredged up in the process of construction, giving new significance to the site.
            An excellent description of the Claiborne archaeological area can be found in Marco’s article, Marco’s Overview of Hancock County Prehistory, which can be found on this web site.
            Many of the artifacts were lost forever to treasure hunters. However, some were collected carefully, lovingly, and eventually donated to the Hancock County Historical Society. Included were items commonly assumed to be cooking balls, i.e. baked clay objects which could be used over and over for cooking food. They are also referred to as Poverty Point Objects, or PPOs.
            Not all PPOs are the same. Some are simple, appearing as just balls of baked clay. Others are more complex, showing the marks of the fingers that squeezed the clay into its shape. Still others are more complicated, some with designs and with roughed up surfaces, some with perforations clean through the body of the object. Included among the most complicated group are ones referred to as “mulberries.”
            Sometime in 2010, we received an inquiry from an anthropologist in Wisconsin about those objects in our collection. This scientist had already done research on PPOs and eventually, at his request, several of our mulberries were shipped to him for detailed research. This was done by way of “thin sectioning,” producing slices to be examined for their content of sand, silt and clay.
            We have long know of the connection of the Claiborne site to Poverty Point, but the current investigation promises to make the relationship much more significant than previously dreamed of. The study continues, but a great deal of scientific information has already been sent to us. While this is complicated and we await more results, a quote from the last correspondence follows:
             “This lent considerable support to our previous conclusion that the mulberries found at Poverty Point most likely came from the Gulf Coast since their sandy compositions were similar to the coarse sandy PPOs found at Claiborne and very dissimilar to the silty PPOs typical of Poverty Point….”
            The suggestion that the Claiborne mulberries made their way to Poverty Point begs important questions.  Does this mean that Claiborne came first, or that it had some higher rank than Poverty Point? We do not know yet, but…
            Archaeologist Giardino speculates as follows:
I always had a heretical notion that Olmec people or people being displaced by the Olmec arrived along the Pearl River and settled at Claiborne (and maybe Cedarland) before sending scouts north who discovered the Poverty Point site. Eventually and for some unknown reason, these people ended up settling there. However there is absolutely no archaeological evidence to support such a notion. But the findings recounted by Russell above do indicate contact between Claiborne and Poverty Point and do beg the question: why of all the stuff you own would you export or carry with you PPOs? They are heavy, appear easy to manufacture locally and certainly the raw materials around the Poverty Point site were present in sufficient quantities to assist local manufacturers. So, let’s speculate some more and suggest that maybe Claiborne people traveled with certain types PPOs (mulberries specifically) for some unknown but potentially fascinating reason. At one time I read an interpretation of PPOs as early writing or accounting tools or possibly stamps or seals. Maybe these grooved items were something more than simple utilitarian objects but served for more complex communication, including possibly calendrical or commercial information. Only more research and more discoveries will increase our understanding of the function of various types of PPOs.
            If Poverty Point receives the World Heritage designation, it will bring enormous attention to the Claiborne site. This will be a boon for our historical society and for the county as a whole.
            Preparations will be necessary. It may be that many scientists will want to visit Claiborne, giving new excitement to the prehistory that lies beyond the fences of the port facility. Companies which have industrial plants in the area might have to approve people crossing their grounds. Most of all the cooperation of the folks at Port Bienville will be essential.
            With advance planning, perhaps tours can be arranged, not only to guide visitors to the site but also to maintain the integrity of the land and ruins being visited. Perhaps the commercial companies and the port could even find it to their advantage to cooperate in this venture.
            Stay tuned.