Tiny shards of pottery, arrow points -- are among the secrets long hidden in the Arkansas Delta -- and uncovering and providing historical context to these is the life-long passion of Pine Bluff archaeologist John House.
He had dreaded one day in particular for years but vowed to his wife, Yelena, that he'd retire at 70.
So on Dec. 31, Arkansas' storied state archaeologist closed the door on his past.
House's love affair with artifacts began long before America's infatuation with Indiana Jones. He was a teenager growing up in the early 1960s in Mountain Home when he had his first archaeological encounter.
"I love history and science, and I instantly felt this sense of wonder ... I never really considered another field," House says.
He joined the Arkansas Archeological Society around that time.
"John further developed an interest by picking up artifacts on the farm," says House's friend George Sabo III, director of the Arkansas Archeological Survey at the University of Arkansas.
House, says Jodi A. Barnes of the Arkansas Archeological Survey, "was interested in archaeology at a young age and he recorded a number of important sites in high school."
In 1966, House graduated from Mountain Home High School and seven years later from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, with a degree in anthropology. He was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship and attended Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, earning a doctorate in 1991.
Even then, he was smitten with pre-colonial Delta history. His dissertation was titled "Monitoring Mississippian Dynamics: Time, Settlement and Ceramic Variation in the Kent Phase, Eastern Arkansas."
EAGER TO GET DIGGING
It's not easy to find House's former office: Head through Rust Technology Building's main door, turn left and travel down a long hallway, exit the building and again turn to the left and look for a steel door with a temporary, laminated sign.
Instead of offering directions, House usually meets first-time visitors at the building's front entrance, on the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Short Reeker Street. It used to be harder to find his office, and he softly chuckles as he's reminded and then agrees.
House started out as a research station assistant at the Arkansas Archeological Survey Station at UAPB in 1989. Eleven years later, he was promoted to survey station archaeologist and became responsible for maintaining the massive collection of site records and artifacts housed there.
At UAPB, he taught upper level and honors classes in anthropology. It's part of the job, as well as public lecturing and academic writing.
This is one of Arkansas' archaeological best-kept secrets and under House's tenure, the state's knowledge of its pre-colonial era history has grown by more than a few chapters.
FIFTY YEARS OF DIGGING
During his career, House conducted archaeological field research in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri and South Carolina, and wrote numerous articles and monographs as well as book chapters for others.
Somewhat like the foes Indiana Jones battled, House's work required him to brave venomous snakes, mosquitoes big enough to carry off small children and, worse still, hot sticky Delta summers.
In addition to teaching, record keeping and artifact preservation, House oversaw the excavations of several pivotal sites in eastern Arkansas.
Robert Scott, a survey research associate, has worked for House for about five years but has known and admired him much longer.
House oversaw the excavation at Powell Canal, near Eudora, the first site that reflected the Baytown and Late Woodland periods, Scott says.
"It was a major find," he says.
House says he is currently "doing a bit of follow-up [writing] on it."
The discovery at the Menard-Hodges site near Arkansas Post is believed to be the pre-colonial Quapaw village of Osotouy (House is not sure of the pronunciation). Later renamed the French Arkansas Post, today it's called Arkansas Post.
In part, the area illustrates the settlement patterns along the lower Arkansas River during the era of the earliest European contact, estimated to be between 1541 to 1700, House says.
But it's much more than a GPS mark on a map, and could be argued as House's most significant dig, but more so, he says, "It's dearest to my heart."
THE MENARD-HODGES FIND
It was about 10 years ago when House pushed aside a shadowbox-like case filled with Indian points he was carefully arranging and began recounting the story of the Quapaw village of Osotouy site discovery.
House began, "We didn't know the site existed" until about 1998.
He was the lead on the dig -- outfitted in coveralls, maybe a bit of mud on the knees, and tall rubber boots -- while Southern Arkansas University research assistant David Jeane was digging nearby.
It was about midday.
"I was working on the Menard-Hodges site when David brought up a bag of artifacts that he and the seminar participants had found that morning. He dumped the fragments onto the ground. I was speechless. It was a pretty dramatic find of colonial artifacts."
The initial find included scrapers, points, shards of Indian and 1700-era French pottery, gunflints and other colonial-era artifacts.
"It was like no site collection that I had ever seen before in Arkansas, but I immediately knew that we had found the site of the Quapaw village of Osotouy and of the French Arkansas Post [near the Arkansas River]," House says.
The approximately 10-acre site is in the middle of a cultivated field. Part of the dig is above the plow zone, while the older site rests below.
An archaeological site is approached much the same as a crime scene and, through careful observation of materials, a cultural moment in time can be understood.
House says they found "buffalo, turtle, fish, pig and deer bones there, adding valuable insight about their diet."
Over the next two decades, they've uncovered post holes, a long trench (which might indicate a house) and a large pit at the Quapaw settlement, which could have numbered from a few hundred people to a thousand or more.
Although tedious and painstaking, the dig site is mapped and each find's location and particulars are noted for future study. Also, House and his team carry out their work with traditional protocols and standards when photographing, processing, cataloging and storing artifacts.
"By following these procedures," House says, an archaeologist decades from now can pick up where he left off.
"It's critical," because they've uncovered only about one-tenth of one percent, so House says he expects the site will keep archaeologists busy uncovering the secrets of the past for another 100 years.
Sabo, who was at the site the day the first pieces were uncovered, says, "It is a real hallmark of John's work."
It is considered such an important piece of history by the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma that House was presented two Pendleton blankets on separate occasions, including one at a March 2015 Quapaw History Conference held at Downstream Casino in Quapaw, Okla.
"Presenting a blanket is a way for the tribe to honor and recognize a person's contributions," Sabo says.
John Berrey, Quapaw Nation Business Committee chairman, says, "Dr. House has been a friend of the Quapaw Nation for a very long time. He has provided us with a lot of assistance and through his archaeological work has helped us to better understand our history in Arkansas. We have great respect for Dr. House and hold him in high regard."
During this same time-frame, the Peabody Museum Press at Cambridge, Mass., invited House to write a book about Edwin Curtiss' 1879 archaeological finds.
The collection, which Curtiss claimed in the name of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, is believed to be one of the world's finest collections of Mississippian earthenware effigy bowls and bottles, decorated with images of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians and humans, and the museum is famous for its Arkansas artifacts.
House's book, Gifts of the Great River: Arkansas Effigy Pottery From the Edwin Curtiss Collection, was published in 2003.
According to the museum, "John House brings us a lively account of the work of this nineteenth-century fieldworker, the Native culture he explored, and the rich legacies left by both. The result is a vivid re-creation of the world of Indian peoples in the Mississippi River lowlands in the last centuries before European contact."
Shortly after its publication, Robert Mainfort, survey archaeologist and House colleague, said, "It's an absolutely wonderful piece for scholars and the public."
Station archaeologists are required to undertake a variety of services such as working with amateurs, helping landowners identify artifacts and lending their expertise to state and federal agencies.
So when the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was planning the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in downtown Little Rock more than a decade ago, its then-director Neil Curry called on House.
He says, "He gave us direction," putting together exhibits, including relevant artifacts from central Arkansas American Indian culture, and he was instrumental in establishing a historical timeline.
House's work remains a part of the center.
MAKING HIS MARK
While some think Northwest Arkansas is the place to be, archaeologically speaking, House is happy to have spent his career in southeastern Arkansas.
"If given the chance to go to [UA] Fayetteville, I would not have taken it," House says.
It's hard to list all of his accomplishments because there are so many, but Sabo says House has influenced a whole generation of scientists in the classroom, on the dig and through his writings.
He is a role model and influenced others through his example "by working closely with the American Indian descendants of the people whose past he studied," Barnes says.
Because of his lobbying efforts at the state Legislature, House was instrumental in establishing the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Sabo says.
His research at a site near the Cache River and the writings he completed in the 1970s and 1980s "were a major contribution" to the historical record of the Woodland and Late Mississippian periods, Scott says.
"John went beyond the minimum work required [by the federal government on the Cache River project] and because of his early model on how to use federal funding to make major archaeological contributions, other researchers followed his example," Sabo says.
Barnes says, "He [House] embodies the mission of the Arkansas Archeological Survey with his commitment to collaboration and sharing his research with the public. He is generous with his knowledge of Arkansas archaeology."
Then Barnes adds, "He's not only an educator and researcher, he's an artist who paints many of the sites that he studies."
A SECOND CHAPTER
By mid-December, House had started packing his personal belongings and papers at UAPB, but he still had much more to do. The long, multi-tiered shelves that create a wall of privacy in House's corner remain full of books.
"I should have started sooner," he says as he offers a visitor a seat on a small sofa next to a large desk, mostly covered with papers.
A few days later, he says, Dec. 31 came and went as most other days, but then again, he's not putting down his shovel just yet. In a few weeks, he'll be involved in a site exploration in central Arkansas.
"Site work is my guilty pleasure," and he plans to volunteer for digs whenever possible, he says.
His lifetime of work earned him the title of Research Station Archaeologist Emeritus -- it comes with a parking space at UA -- and will allow him access to any university resources he needs to support his research or writings. Sabo nominated House for the honor in November.
Perhaps retirement will give him time to work on a second book, titled Contact Era. It refers to the earliest interaction between American Indians and Europeans and examines the graves found near Lake Dumond, dating to the middle or late 1600s.
"We think that the people in the graves, excavated in 1997, are very likely to have been Quapaws and are probably contemporary with the Quapaw village of Osotouy nearby," he says.
Style on 03/17/2019
Print Headline: Treasures unearthed: Arkansas archaeologist retires after years spent digging up the Delta while peering into our past