MOBILE, Ala. – One of the most important jobs of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is to save, store, and preserve archaeological finds on its work sites or the controlled recreational sites.
The Mobile District collection is the largest number of materials in all of USACE. The University of Georgia’s archaeology department curates most of the District's collection.
Dr. Victor Thompson, Director of the Laboratory of Archaeology at UGA, and his wife, Dr. Amanda D. Roberts-Thompson, Operations Director of the Laboratory of Archaeology at UGA, both stated that the collections stored by UGA are of national and international importance in that they speak to the indigenous Native American History of the southeastern region of the United States and have implications for broader human history.
“Many of the USACE Mobile District collections have what we call Swift Creek ceramics,” Victor said. “These indigenous ceramics have complex designs stamped on them and they are found over a large portion of the American Southeast, especially in Georgia. By studying the designs and now using artificial intelligence matching programs, we are able to establish which communities were connected to one another over 2,500 years ago. The second example is of a specific site in the collection, the Little Egypt site. This is thought to be the capital of the polity of Coosa, which covered parts of Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama. Hernando De Soto encountered this polity and its people, and it plays a large role in understanding the events of the 16th Century in the region.”
Alexandria Knight, USACE Mobile District anthropologist, said the District’s collaboration with UGA has been great and that Victor and Amanda, in particular, have been excellent to work with, especially in terms of the complexities in dealing with Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and A Permit for Archaeological Investigations (ARPA) permitting issues.
“The staff at UGA are invaluable,” Knight said. “They have aided us with ARPA permitting, NAPRA, curation, site recordation, you name it. And they always are so accommodating and respectful of the work being done, especially as it pertains to NAGPRA.”
Amanda said the laboratory’s relationship with the Mobile District has been wonderful. She stated that a considerable part of that relationship’s success is her office’s interactions with and relationship with Knight.
“The Laboratory and USACE Mobile District have had a great working relationship for years,” Amanda said. “We have long developed processes for curation and collection management to care for USACE collections. Most recently, much of the focus has been on ensuring NAGPRA implementation is fulfilled on USACE collections and that ancestors and funerary objects are repatriated and reburied. This is the primary area that we work with Knight on. NAGPRA implementation is a lot of work and requires that there be a flexible and transparent relationship, not just with USACE and Tribal Nations, but also USACE and curation repositories such as the laboratory. As a result, Knight and I often share resources and conversations about collections to make sure that the process of inventory is thorough, but also done in a respectful way. In general, I view our role in the process as one of facilitation. What can we here and the laboratory do to help the Mobile District fulfill its NAGPRA obligations.”
Knight, who has worked for the Mobile District the past 10 years, stated that there is some unique history is behind the Mobile District having the most extensive archaeological collection in USACE.
“Did you know that Mobile, Alabama, is the only city in the United States to have flown over it, all flags of a conquering entity of the U.S.?” Knight said. “Britain, France, Spain, Confederacy, and the U.S. That means most of the cultural exchange in the U.S. happened right here in Alabama. For that reason, that the Mobile District has one of the largest curation collections in the Corps. There is just so much history here.”
Amanda said that a large portion of the collection that UGA stores for the District comes from things collected when many major reservoirs were being built around Georgia, such as current Mobile District sites Lake Sidney Lanier, Allatoona Lake, and Carter’s Lake.
This means that the relationship between the Mobile District and the Laboratory at UGA has been around for a long time and both the laboratory and the District say that the relationship continues to stay strong.
“Much of the collection we curate on behalf of the Mobile District are from large archaeological surveys and excavations conducted many years ago prior to some of the major reservoirs being constructed in Georgia,” Amanda said. “Most of this archaeological work was done by UGA archaeologists and students, which means our partnership with USACE and the Mobile District has existed for well over 50 years. I would say, however, that our partnership is now stronger than ever.”