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Story Archives: Saunders dedicated career to study of the mound builders
|Saunders dedicated career to study of the mound builders|
For two decades, Joe Saunders has been quietly digging into northeast Louisiana's unrecorded history. Beneath the surface of the earth, he has found relics of the past which paint a picture of the life of Native American mound builders -- especially along the Ouachita River -- who populated this region for centuries.
Now after 21 years, the 63-year-old Saunders is retiring this week as Northeast Regional Archaeologist. He has been based at the Department of Geosciences at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
His work has been recognized nationally and one local project he spearheaded is familiar to many northeast Louisiana residents -- the Louisiana Ancient Mounds Driving Trail. Markers denoting historic mound sites now dot the entire region.
The person who hired Saunders 21 years ago, Nancy Hawkins, says thanks to Saunders' work "we now have a clear understanding of the tradition of mound building in northeast Louisiana, from the earliest beginnings more than 5,000 years ago to the arrival of the Europeans."
Hawkins serves as Archaeologist Manager at the state's Division of Archaeology in the Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism in Baton Rouge. She said Saunders' "meticulous research" has proved the age of mounds in this region: "Louisiana now knows that it is the heartland of mound building, and that the state has mounds older than the pyramids in Egypt, older than Stonehenge, and older than the Great Wall of China."
Before his achievements in Louisiana, Saunders saw a bit of the world previous to moving to Monroe two decades ago. He was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His father, a metallurgist, moved the family to South America when Saunders was a child.
"I had bad asthma and a doctor recommended the altitude in Peru so my dad took a job there in the mining industry," Saunders said. "You couldn't ask for a better situation as a kid."
Although Saunders became aware of archaeology during his early years in Peru, he didn't develop an interest in the field until attending college at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. His first interest was in cultural anthropology. By his sophomore year, he began to develop a greater interest in archaeology.
"The university had a field school as part of training and I learned about digging a site, excavation and procedures," Saunders said. "I also learned about beer."
Though he earned a degree in anthropology in 1970, for a period he strayed and concentrated on fun. He tended bar, worked on an underground newspaper and eventually realized his life was aimless. A college professor helped steer him back on course as did some graduate students.
"I had always feared I wouldn't be bright enough to be accepted in grad school in archaeology, but after working with a few grad students I realized I probably could because some of them were as dumb as bricks," Saunders recalled.
He moved to Dallas, Texas, with his life savings of $50 and moved in with a friend and his wife for $50 a month rent. Saunders went on to earn his masters and doctorate in archaeology at Southern Methodist University, graduating in 1986.
He worked with archeologists in South Africa, which enhanced his growing love for archaeology. Later, he worked on the excavation of a Middle Paleolithic site in the Sudan along the Egyptian border, a stint which inspired him and sealed his devotion to the field.
In 1989, he moved to Monroe and became Louisiana's first regional archeologist. Hawkins, the person who hired him, says the regional archaeology program eventually grew to five archaeologists at five universities around the state, supported by grants from the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.
Hawkins said Saunder's has traveled his 15-parish region "giving talks, meeting with landowners, assisting state agencies, and documenting more than 500 archaeological sites. He also has re-written northeast Louisiana prehistory."
While Saunders hopes all of this work will continue, he thinks work on the mounds trail between Monroe and Jonesville is one of the most important.
"Every prehistoric culture is represented in that stretch along the Ouachita River," he said, including Middle Archaic, Tchefuncte, Marksville, Troyville, Coles Creek and Plaquemine. "The mounds are in excellent condition. I hope it will become a Culture Heritage Area with a museum in Jonesville." The period of time these Native American cultures represent along the Ouachita range from the Middle Archaic beginning around 8000 B.C. to the Plaquemine period beginning around 1000 A.D.
Saunders and his work were recognized at the Sept. 13 meeting of the Louisiana Archaeological Survey and Antiquities Commission in Baton Rouge. Dr. Charles (Chip) McGimsey, State Archaeologist, said Saunders "identified, documented, and interpreted the 39 mound sites" included on the Ancient Mounds Driving Trail of northeast Louisiana. Sanders also wrote the guidebook, prepared maps for the publication and wrote the content for historical markers at each site.
"Joe's research in northeast Louisiana proved the age of Louisiana's oldest mounds. His study of Watson Brake, Frenchman's Bend, Hedgepeth, Hillman's Mound and others showed that these mounds were constructed more than 4,500 years ago," McGimsey said.
Bill Atkins of Jonesville is one of the many residents in northeastern Louisiana who had the opportunity to work with Saunders.
"Without Joe Saunders' participation and guidance I don't know where we would be regarding our attempt to discover our Native American heritage," says Atkins, who has worked to preserve Troyville mound sites and is spearheading the construction of the replica of the Great Mound in Jonesville, which once stood 82-feet high in Jonesville. Built by Native Americans 14-plus centuries ago, the two-tiered, conical-topped, pyramid-shaped structure was the second highest in North America behind the 100-ft. tall Monk's Mound at the Cahokia Mounds site in Illinois.
This Great Mound was leveled in the 1930s to build the approach to the old Black River Bridge in Jonesville. When construction of the new bridge was completed in 2009, Atkins led a drive to take the soil from the old bridge approach and resurrect a replica of the once mighty landmark.
Atkins said that during work to build the Great Mound replica, Saunders "was present every day the National Guard worked on the project, about three to four weeks. He was also present when the old bridge ramp was being excavated when extensive amounts of cane was recovered. He found some pottery, but most importantly he found pointed stakes and some of the Great Mound wooden steps were recovered."
For Saunders, working with the people who have an interest in archaeology has been a pleasure. Some of his favorite people, he said, include his longtime professional associate Reca Jones, Thurman Allen, James Harty, Dennis LaBatt, the Poverty Point staff, Dr. John Norris, Atkins, Eric Glatzer, Terry Jones, Kelby Ouchley, David Jones and Gloria Swoveland.
"There are many," he said.
He also appreciates the landowners who have allowed archaeological work on their property: "I had the privilege of coring and peeking into mounds over 5000 years in age. And what a view it was."
During the past years, however, Saunders ability to do the work he loves has been tempered by Parkinson's Disease.
"I was diagnosed about eight years ago," he said. "Somedays I do well, other days I shake badly. I'm lucky though in that I am not in pain. But the Parkinson's is the primary reason I'm retiring."
Fran Hamilton, who is the Assistant Poverty Point Station Archaeologist, will serve as interim Northeast Regional Archaeologist through June 30, 2012. Whether the regional archaeologist program continues is in question. Funding for the Division of Archaeology has dropped more than half during the past four years, from $1,028,357 in fiscal year 2008-09 to $470,373 for fiscal year 2011-12, according to the Lieutenant Governor's office.
Saunders says the move to Louisiana two decades ago was "one of the best decisions I ever made." He and his wife, Sunny, don't plan to leave. In fact, Saunders intends to continue working at his own pace.
"It depends on my health," Saunders says of his future. "Big projects are out. Perhaps I'll work on small ones of very limited scope. I may work writing up past projects. I also plan to work on the Great Mound of Troyville."
Despite his being at the top of his field in archaeology, what most who know Saunders appreciate about him is his honesty and sincerity.
"Although Joe reached the pinnacle of scholarship through publication of articles in journals such as 'Science' and 'American Antiquity'," says Hawkins, "he has always been very down-to-earth and ready to joke. His thoughtfulness, generosity, and wit are as much a part of his legacy as are his scientific contributions."
Saunders' colleague Jeff Girard said the two first met at graduate school at SMU. A couple of weeks after Saunders became the first regional archaeologist in Louisiana, Girard was hired as regional archaeologist for the northwestern part of the state. He's based in Natchitoches.
"I've always looked up to Joe and admired him," Girard said. "Joe, of course, is a great archaeologist and a fine scholar. He's persistent in his work and he has a totally ethical approach to everything."
But maybe most importantly, Girard said, is that Saunders is "one of the finest human beings I've known in my life."
Jessica Crawford of Mississippi, who works for The Archaeological Conservancy, said Sanders was responsible for the Conservancy's preservation of eight of 17 sites in Louisiana. But although she values his abilities as an archaeologist, she said his concern about "humanity in general" sets him apart.
"He is one of the kindest people with one of the kindest hearts I've ever met," she said. "The people of Louisiana have been so fortunate to have had him working for their state."
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