Protector of the Past - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Protector of the Past November 4, 2004

(Mark J. Sindler/LA Office of Tourism)

Thomas Hales Eubanks, president of the National Association of State Archaeologists, recently spoke with ARCHAEOLOGY about his work as the Louisiana state archaeologist. After working as assistant to the Georgia state archaeologist in the 1970s, a time when such positions were a new thing, he studied plantation archaeology, which eventually led him to the Bayou State. Louisiana's cultural heritage ranges from Native American mounds, to French and Spanish colonial sites, to remains of the Antebellum South. The preservation and management of these and other sites, interaction with tribes, public education, and addressing tourism concerns are all in a day's work.

What led you to become an archaeologist? What is your background?
When I was fairly young, I started working at the Cincinnati Museum and basically developed a general interest in natural history. Then, as an undergraduate, I majored in anthropology and geology and was planning on going on to graduate school, probably in geology, but I had a job offer in archaeology. That's what focused me finally in the direction of archaeology.

How did you get started?
The original position that I was offered was the assistant to the state archaeologist in Georgia, which was at that time a new position that had been created in 1972. I took the job as the assistant in 1973. This was the time when states and the advisory council were figuring out exactly how Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act was to be implemented. My early work really began as the archaeologist tasked with looking at 106 projects and trying to figure out how to go forward with them. This was before the advisory council had regulations.

This is the national advisory board?
Yes, the President's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

In what sort of fieldwork were you involved? What were your primary interests?
While I was in Georgia, I had the opportunity to do a lot of survey work on both prehistoric and historic sites. I was involved with the restoration and reconstruction of Mound C at Etowah. I worked at the St. Simon's airport and on Sapelo Island. I developed a major interest in plantation archaeology and decided to pursue that in graduate school at the University of Florida in 1980. For my masters research, I worked at the McIntosh Sugar House in Camden County, Georgia. It was an 1830s attempt by Georgia planters to diversify their crops.

You've also done fieldwork on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, was that your main focus?
I had begun to develop a knowledge base on the industrial archaeology of sugar plantations, and that led me to studying the early history of sugar manufacturing in the southeastern United States. This of course took me to the Caribbean, and then from the Caribbean back to Brazil (before sugar had moved into the Caribbean), and finally back to Portugal and Spain, which were the primary sugar producers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. When I started my dissertation research, I had the opportunity to work in Tobago in the West Indies with the Tobago House of Assembly, funded by Amoco Foundation and the United Nations Development Program. That project was to do a survey of sugar factories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries on the island, look at them in terms of their archaeological research potential, their educational significance for public schools on the island, and also their potential for development as tourist attractions.

Excavations at Mt. St. George Sugar Factory in Tobago, left, and its sugarmill, right (Courtesy Thomas Hales Eubanks) [image]

So you've been involved with public outreach for awhile.
My work at the McIntosh Sugar House--this was a publicly owned site--had included an interpretative prospectus so that the local community that owned the site could develop it for interpretative use. With the sites in Tobago, I selected two sites primarily to be used as tourist attractions, and also for student groups to listen and learn about their ancestry and work on plantations, etc. I worked with the secretary of education and the secretary of tourism to make sure that my research got back into the hands of the local population that would most benefit from it. So there has always been a public component to my archaeological research.

You're not from Louisiana. What brought you to the state in the first place?
I had been in the field in Tobago about eight months in 1989 and was invited to attend what was then the third World Plantation Conference at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I got to see the sugar industry in full production and became interested in how sugar had developed in Louisiana. When the position of state archaeologist became available five years later, I applied and was selected.

What is your role as the state archaeologist in Louisiana?
All states don't have state archaeologists, first of all. In some states the ranking archaeologist in the State Historic Preservation Office or in academia may be the state archaeologist. And then there are states like Louisiana that have a legislatively mandated state archaeologist. I serve essentially as the advisor to the lieutenant governor and governor on matters concerning archaeology, and I have specific responsibilities when it comes to archaeology that's done on state property. These are under state laws. I'm also charged with maintaining the archaeological site record files for the State of Louisiana and for curating all artifacts from excavations on state lands.
   Also, the Division of Archaeology is half of the State Historic Preservation Office, so I also have the responsibility for implementation the National Historic Preservation Act as it relates to the state of Louisiana and archaeology here. The other half is the division of historic preservation, and they take care of the historic buildings. And, we share some federal program duties.
   Then, under federal and state law, we have an education and outreach component. We have mandates to do archaeological survey, identify properties that are eligible for the National Register, develop a comprehensive archaeological plan for the state that enables us to make judgments about site significance, appropriate mitigation if a site is going to be disturbed or destroyed, and set the standards by which archaeology is done on state lands and under the federal law. So that's the other half of the job.

What would you do during a typical day?
On a day-to-day basis, I am the director of the Division of Archaeology, which has in the case of Louisiana about 10 employees including myself that implement the program administratively. We take care of the records, do project reviews, that sort of thing. I also oversee the curation facility here in Baton Rouge. I'm ultimately responsible for supervising archaeological collections and all the associated records from excavations on state lands. We also curate collections for federal agencies that do work in Louisiana.

What type of different excavations do you have to supervise?
I don't actually do the excavating. People apply for a permit to do excavations on state lands. We review the permit, monitor the results, and make sure that the report meets our standards. I personally feel that any archaeology that's done on state land needs to be done to the highest standard possible, because these sites are protected for the public. Sites on state land should not be used for field school training. They should be used only when there's a legitimate research issue to be dealt with that can't be answered someplace else. Because there are so many sites that are excavated on an annual basis because of compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act, we don't need to be using the premiere sites on state property as a training ground for students. We need to ensure that all the research carried out is--because it's destructive--done at the highest standard and reported back to the public, for the public's benefit.


The path ascending Mound A at Poverty Point, a site near Epps, Louisiana, dating to 1500 B.C. (Amélie A. Walker) [LARGER IMAGE]

What are some examples of the projects you have to approve?
Recently we had two permit applications for research on state land. One was at Poverty Point from the regional archaeologist, Joe Saunders, who is known for his research on middle and late Archaic mound sites. He's looked at middle Archaic mounds through very recent mounds by coring them and doing other minimally destructive investigations. He applied for a permit to re-open previous excavation units at Poverty Point in a systematic way, to excavate the back dirt, clean up the old profiles, and re-record the profiles. So he will reinterpret excavations that were done decades ago, taking into account the information that he's gained from his other research and using soil scientists to evaluate the ridge and mound fill.
   The other permit request came in from a contract archaeologist who had been working at Angola State Prison for a number of years. She had worked there previously because of the federal National Historic Preservation Act, and Corps of Engineers' involvement in rebuilding the levees to protect the prison from Mississippi River flooding. She applied for a permit to do testing at an archaeological site that was discovered as part of the levee construction project. A limited testing program was done initially, and they discovered a site that was late prehistoric. Now that the federal involvement in the project has concluded, she submitted a research design to go back and do more in-depth research at the site to determine whether or not it might be one of the protohistoric Tunica Indian sites that were known in the prison area. She is undertaking intensive testing to determine more about the significance of the site.

How are the permits processed?
Before permits go through the Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission, my staff reviews them. We ask for changes as necessary and then provide the redrafted permit to the antiquities commission members. They vote on whether or not to approve it. The secretary of our department and I then issue the permit jointly to the researcher with a legal contract that binds him to carry out a research design as submitted and report the results within a given period of time.

You also interact with Native American tribes. Can you talk a little bit about that relationship?
When I came to Louisiana as state archaeologist in 1994, it was shortly after Congress had passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Also, the 1992 amendments to the National Historic Preservation Act provided much more of a role for federally recognized tribes, managing resources on tribal lands and having a say in how to deal with resources that are ancestral to them. I felt it was important for me to begin working with the federally recognized tribes in Louisiana, because we have the common interest of trying to protect archaeological sites.
   I think we have a trust relationship based on the fact that we're all interested in protecting and preserving the sites, and we realize that's not always possible. Together we try to make sure that the benefit of the investigation, when a site is investigated, gets back to the people who are the descendant populations of the individuals who created the site originally.
   I guess my first contact was with the Tunica-Biloxi in Marksville. I worked with their preservation office and actually assisted them in their process of applying to the National Park Service to become a 101(d)(2) tribe. This allows them to be recognized by the Park Service as a tribe that has its own Tribal Preservation Office and to take over the responsibilities of the State Historic Preservation Officer for their own lands.
   From that I began working with the Louisiana Army National Guard. We wanted to develop an agreement that allowed the Guard to do their job while also protecting resources in their training areas so that they can avoid damaging significant sites and traditional cultural properties. Our project was to bring all of the tribes in the state of Louisiana, or federal tribes that have an interest in Louisiana, into the process of developing management usage plans for archaeological sites on land that the tribes have an interest in, or that the state has an interest in if they're not Native American sites.

How does it usually work?
We consult with the tribes on a regular basis when we have older sites that are significant to them as a group. If it is a Choctaw trading site on Lake Pontchartrain or a Caddo village in northwest Louisiana, we would deal specifically with those groups. Regularly someone will uncover a burial by accident. Under state law, the sheriff and the finder must notify the state archaeologist within a reasonable period of time. If it's determined not to be a crime scene, we work with the tribes to protect the site if it's a tribal site. If it can't be protected, we work to repatriate the human remains and any associated artifacts to the tribes. We try to make sure that the tribes are part of the decision-making process from the beginning.
   And then, under federal law, when a site is being mitigated because of a federal construction project and it's a site that involves one of these tribes, we work directly with them to develop a discovery plan for the site in case human remains are found that have not been anticipated in the research design.
   Of course, then there's the archaeologist who's out doing traditional academic research who encounters a burial, we serve as a clearinghouse to notify the tribes. We can literally take a cell phone call from the archaeologist in the field and conference call with tribes to work out means for dealing with the situation immediately and to plan for the long term care and proper disposition of the burial.

Something with which you've recently been involved is the Louisiana Ancient Mounds Trail. How did that develop?
Our state has some of the oldest, best-preserved, and most abundant Indian mounds in the country. The Ancient Mounds Trail is a way of sharing those cultural resources with people who live, work, and visit in our state. We want the public to have an opportunity to learn more about our mound sites through first hand experiences. The driving trail is in northeast and central Louisiana, and it will link three state-owned mound sites with 36 privately owned mound sites that can be seen from public roads. These sites are receiving historic markers that interpret the mounds. About half of the markers are now in place, and during the spring of 2005, the remaining ones will be installed. By this time next year, we will have a printed trail guide to distribute, as well.
   The trail would not be possible without the private landowners who have been stewards of the land and have protected the archaeological sites. More than 80% of Louisiana's land is privately owned, so the vast majority of the mounds in the state are on private property. Our landowners have taken a deep interest in protecting mounds on their properties, and almost all have enthusiastically agreed to participate in the trail project when asked.
   Through the heritage area itself--the sites that are in northeast Louisiana that landowners have agreed to protect--and the trails program--the ones that are visible from highways--we are working with the landowners to educate the public about the importance of the sites. Through these efforts, the public has a better appreciation of its heritage and the cultures that once lived in Louisiana.

[image] Tom Eubanks, antiquities commissioner Marc Dupuy, and regional archaeologist Charles McGimsey unveil a historic marker at Marksville, the southernmost site on the Louisiana Ancient Mounds Trail. (Mark J. Sindler/LA Office of Tourism) [LARGER IMAGE]

Do you ever run into problems balancing preservation, education, etc. with tourism goals?
I really don't. I think we're all partners in the sense that we share the common goal of helping people understand and appreciate Louisiana's natural and cultural resources. We all want to get the information out correctly, so people visiting Louisiana have a quality experience while they're here. The state is committed to making sure that the experience is as accurate and honest as it can be, whether it is our music, our food, our culture, or our Indian mounds. The public outreach and education is really what guides the whole. As state archaeologist, my goal is site preservation and stewardship, but I also try to get these other groups as interested and excited as we are about the resources that we have. In Louisiana, we strive to find ways to enhance the visitors' and our own students' experiences and their appreciation of our heritage and our culture.

* See also our article about the Louisiana Ancient Mounds Trail.
* Visit the Louisiana Division of Archaeology website.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America