Ancient artifacts from Blue Spring are finding their way back home

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

EUREKA SPRINGS -- Some of the 9,000 to 10,000-year-old artifacts from under the bluff shelter at Blue Spring Heritage Center haven't seen the light of day for more than 35 years, but now they have come home from the University of Arkansas (UA), thanks to the efforts of Center Coordinator Carma Lewis.

Lewis, who has a degree in anthropology from the UA, completed an internship while in school in museum exhibit design.

"They closed the museum at the university four or five years ago," she said. "These artifacts have been sitting in stacks where no one could see them."

She said to Blue Spring Executive Director Johnice Cross, "Let me call them and see if we can get them back."

She did, and curators from the university came to look at Blue Spring museum's climate control. They said, "You can have whatever you want."

Lewis sifted through nine boxes of what she calls "refuse."

"They started in 1970 and dug down to excavate the site under the bluff shelter," she said, "and finished it in 1971. Usually what archeologists find is a refuse pile. That's an archeological gold mine. You can tell what people wore, ate, worked on, etc. If they were working on a point and they broke it, they threw it down. It's rare to find a whole pot."

Field notes from Robert Chenhall and 18 university students note two superimposed fire pits uncovered.

The artifacts under the shelter included many shell-tempered potsherds (pieces of clay vessels strengthened with ground-up mussel shells); "metate," or mortar-and-pestle grinding stones; bone tools used for incising, weaving and sewing; chert points, scrapers and choppers; many animal bones, some shaped into tools for piercing; a stone with a shallow depression for cracking nuts; clay lumps; and numerous mussel shells.

Also on display on loan, Lewis said, are artifacts from other bluff dweller sites in Northwest Arkansas, including pieces of woven basketry, a whole pot and very small corn cobs ("The smaller the corn cob, the older it is," Lewis said).

Lewis did not bring everything back to Blue Spring because much of it was large quantities of things like 10 pounds of mussel shells, so she brought a few.

"I went up there and pulled what we could use," she said. "You have to decide what people want to see and how to arrange it for them to understand. I pulled what I thought would tell a story of bluff dweller life 9,000 to 10,000 years ago."

That life was one of abundance, as the paleo-Indians were drawn to the spring for its clear water and to the White River.

"There was an abundance of mussels and game," Lewis said.

The bluff dwellers ate deer, bear, elk, raccoon, beaver, birds, bison, fish and mussels. They also grew corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers and gourds and collected wild fruits and berries.

The shelters were used year-round, which archeologists could tell by deer skulls found both with and without antlers.

Their pottery did not have much decoration, and their weaving was simple.

"In winter, they would have covered the opening of the shelter with big straw woven mats," Lewis said, "probably made of cane because there was so much of it down by the river."

Little is know of what happened to the bluff dwellers, said Lewis. They seem to have disappeared.

"No one knows why, whether they were forced out or just left."

Later groups of Natives came through the area, such as the Osage, who claimed they came down from the sky and were scattered into other tribes by "a great flood."

Lewis said the Blue Spring gardeners are still finding pieces of pots and chert flakes all the time. The area is still rich with artifacts.

Not only were bluff dweller artifacts found under the shelter, but white settlers' artifacts from the mid-1800s, such as buttons, a zinc bottle cap, square nails and colored glass fragments.

Blue Spring, which pumps out 38 million gallons a day, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Dives have taken place in the spring itself and artifacts from its past as a water company and a mill have been brought up. A video about this part of its history will soon be released.

Blue Spring has many interesting attractions. In addition to the bluff shelter, visitors can enjoy the medicine wheel garden, feeding trout from the pavilion, a theater with a film about the history of the spring, and a self-guided tour and picnicking.

Blue Spring opens for the season on Thursday, March 15. Hours are 9 am. to 6 p.m. daily. Admission is free to Carroll County residents with I.D. and otherwise is $7.25 for adults, $4 for children 10 to 17 and free to those nine and under.

It is located five miles west of Eureka Springs on Ark. Highway 62. It can be reached at (479) 253-9244.

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