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Final excavation of Troyville Mounds underway

By Stanley Nelson
Concordia Sentinel Writer

What may prove to be the final excavation of the remains of the Troyville Mounds in Jonesville should be completed in the next few weeks.

The work is being performed by the private firm Earth Search of New Orleans, according to Liz Davoli, Environmental Impact Specialist with the Louisiana Department of Transportation & Development. Because the four-laning of Hwy. 84 through Jonesville is being constructed over part of the mound site the excavation work was ordered as matter of routine, Davoli said.

"The construction approach work will begin later this year for the new bridge and because the Town of Jonesville was built on one of the biggest mound sites in North America, we feel it's important that a study be done," she said. The approach to the old bridge, which will be torn down, will also be studied by archeologists when it is removed.

Excavation work is now underway in the parking lot of the old Babin Motors site along Hwy. 84. Work should be completed in five to six weeks.

Embankment surrounded mounds
"This is where an embankment surrounding the mounds was constructed," Davoli said. "No one knows what the embankment was for though there is speculation that it was to keep people out."

About 15 workers with Earth Search are involved in the excavation and have found pieces of pottery and animal bones.

"The people in Jonesville seem to be happy that this is being done," Davoli said. "They're bringing artifacts they have found through the years for identification."

And some have asked about gold. The reason for that dates back hundreds of years.

The Great Mounds of Troyville and the Indian culture that built them thrived from A.D. 400 to about A.D. 1100. The Indians who lived there built the mounds as ceremonial centers primarily, supporting temples and civic buildings.

According to Davoli, "The Troyville Mounds site in Jonesville was once one of the largest mound sites in Louisiana. This site is the type site for the Troyville culture of the lower Ouachita and Tensas river valleys. The site, located on high ground where the Ouachita, Little, and Tensas rivers meet to form the Black River, once consisted of several mounds (between 9 and 13) surrounded by an earthen embankment. Jonesville was founded in 1871 and utilized some of the mounds and earthen embankment as the town grew."

Part of Louisiana Purchase exploration
One of the first descriptions of the mounds was made by William Dunbar, a Natchez plantation owner, scientist, inventor and explorer. In 1804, a year after the Louisiana Purchase, Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter were appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to study the Ouachita and Red rivers. In a small boat, Dunbar journeyed down the Mississippi River, entered the Red and then the Black before reaching the mound site at Troyville. The Indians there had long since vanished. Dunbar said a French settler named Heberd had constructed a house on the largest mound.

"At this place are several Indian mounds, being mostly covered by a thick cane break," Dunbar wrote. "It was difficult to examine them with due attention: There are five of the usual form placed within the angle formed by the Black River and the Catahoula (Little River), another lies beyond the Catahoula; those are oblong, about 50 yards long by 25 wide on the top, with a rapid descent about 12 feet perpendicular; there exists a sixth mound of very particular construction, the base is nearly square and consists of three stories; the proprietor, M. Heberd, thinks the whole is 80 feet high and the base covers a square of about 180 feet to each side."

The mounds were used by early settlers as bases for homes with the tops leveled for construction. During the Civil War, the once 80-ft. high Great Mound was used as a rifle pit by the Confederates.

Progress destroyed Great Mound
But the Great Mound and others met their ultimate fate in the name of progress when Huey P. Long was elected governor and began to build roads and bridges. The old bridge which crosses the Black River today was considered a blessing by all in the area, and few cared that the approach to the bridge on the Jonesville resulted in the leveling of the Great Mound.

Winslow Walker of the Smithsonian heard about the mound leveling and raced down to excavate what he could. He eventually published a 103-page booklet on his work -- work that he did not complete because of gold.

He wrote: "The subsequent growth of the town of Jonesville resulted in a correspondingly rapid demolition of the mounds, particularly of the Great Mound, which supplied dirt to fill up the hollows and ditches from which it had been taken originally. Even dynamite was resorted to in order to hasten the process...a good sized hill remained which served an extremely useful purpose as a refugee camp during the floods which came between 1912 and 1927, since it was the only spot in town above the reach of the water.

"But the owners still regarded it as a hindrance to the development of their property and determined to get rid of it at the most favorable opportunity. The decision of the Louisiana Highway Commission to build a bridge across Black River just south of the main part of town, to join the ends of the new proposed highway, provided the longed-for chance. A long, high approach had to be built at each end of the bridge and the mound offered the most convenient and satisfactory source from which to obtain the earth needed. A contract was made with the owners to permit the removal of 21,000 cubic yards of dirt, which resulted in reducing the mound nearly to street level."

For months, the people of Jonesville lived in a cloud of dust. The late Elnor Swayze remembered that mothers wrongly feared the dust caused tuberculosis and many kept their children indoors for fear of catching the debilitating disease.

Walker noted, "the demolition work began during the early part of the summer in 1931 and continued for about a month. Day and night shifts were employed, requiring steam shovels, horses and scrapers, along with large gangs of laborers. The hard and closely packed clay which the aboriginal builders had used in their construction was removed."

Rumors of gold halt excavation
Walker and his crew worked feverishly excavating what remained of the Great Mound and others and one day discovered a mass burial grave in a small mound at the end of what is now Mound Street. Walker noted that the local citizenry was most interested in the find.

The locals well knew that the Natchez Indians fought their last battle in their war against the French north of Sicily Island in the 1700s. But rumors had it the Natchez left Mississippi with gold and passed the Troyville Mound site while being pursued by the French. While passing through, legend has it the Natchez buried their gold at Troyville.

When Walker returned the next day to the site of the mass burial -- a site he tried to secure the night before -- he was shocked to find that some local people had removed skeletons and dug about looking for the Natchez gold. Tired, disgusted, frustrated and angry, Walker packed his belongings and left town.

The excavation work in town today is the first since Walker was in Jonesville seven decades ago. It may mark the last archeological study of a mysterious Indian culture which seemingly vanished without explanation.

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