Photo courtesy New Orleans Public Library
An image where Bayou St. John meets Lake Pontchartrain, possibly taken around 1948.

FEMA Archaeologists Discover Native Artifacts in New Orleans

February 21, 2013

Pottery sherds, animal bones and pieces of clay tobacco pipes weren’t what they were expecting to find, but it’s what a team of archaeologists contracted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency found while surveying land near Bayou St. John in New Orleans, Louisiana this month.

“It was a bit of a surprise to find this,” said FEMA Louisiana Recovery Office Deputy Director of Programs Andre Cadogan, referencing a small, broken pottery fragment. “We clearly discovered pottery from the late Marksville period, which dates to 300-400 A.D. The pottery was nice, easily dateable, and much earlier than we expected. This is exciting news for historians and tribal communities as it represents some of the only intact prehistoric remains of its kind south of Lake Pontchartrain.”

According to The Woodland Southeast (University of Alabama Press, 2002), edited by David G. Anderson and Robert C. Mainfort Jr., “Early Marksville pottery include birds, curvilinear designs, stamping and deep U-shaped incisions. These motifs, as well as specific rim modes and vessel shapes, may indicate close ties with Havana-Hopewell groups in the Illinois Valley.”

Other sources also suggest the Marksville were influenced in their mound building by the Hopewell culture. The Hopewell flourished in Ohio and Illinois at about the same time the Marskville were in Louisiana. “By at least the first century A.D., groups of Louisiana Indians had met Hopewell travelers and had learned about their culture,” states Louisiana Prehistory (Louisiana Geological Survey, 1969) by Robert W. Neuman and Nancy W. Hawkins. “Marksville burial mounds, pottery, pipes, and ornaments resembled those of the Hopewell Culture.”

Bayou St. John has, since the time of the Marksville Indians, seen a French fort, a Spanish fort, an American fort, a resort hotel and an amusement park. FEMA archaeologists have found evidence of the Marksville, the colonial period and the hotel.

“The historical record tells us that the shell midden (or mound) created by the Native American occupation was destroyed by the French when they built their fort here,” said Cadogan in a FEMA press release. “However, we’ve discovered, through archaeology, that rather than destroy the midden, the French cut off the top of it and used it as a foundation for their fort.”

The work FEMA is conducting in New Orleans is part of an agreement with the State Historic Preservation Office, Native American tribes and the state to do archaeological surveys of parks and public lands in the city.

When FEMA funding was used to reconstruct homes throughout Louisiana, the release states it would have been nearly impossible to evaluate every property for archaeological remains, so FEMA and various other agencies agreed to conduct alternate archaeological surveys.

“The surveys not only offset potential destruction of archaeological resources on private property from the home mitigations but also give us a leg up on any future storms. We are helping the state of Louisiana learn about its history as well as provide information that leads to preparedness for the next event,” said Cadogan.