When Scholarship and Tribal Heritage Face Off Against Commerce
By Campbell Robertson
That the stones are there is beyond argument. But everything else about them—whether somebody put them there, how long they have been there and what should be done with them—became a matter of fierce debate last summer and has continued to yield surprising twists into recent weeks.
The latest episode in the very long history of the Oxford stones began last June, when an excavator showed up on the hill. The city was planning for the construction of a Sam’s Club nearby and intended to use dirt from the hill for the area where the store would sit.
Then a local archaeology professor began making phone calls.
The professor, Harry O. Holstein of nearby Jacksonville State University, had concluded that a stone mound at the top of the hill was constructed by American Indians more than a thousand years ago, and in 2003 he recorded it in a state archaeological registry. The possibility of its being destroyed, Dr. Holstein said, made him sick.
“I’m not against development,” he said. “But some things should just be saved.”
As it happened, the city had already commissioned a study of the stone mound by the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama, which works on a contract basis for such projects. The report, signed by the office’s director, Robert A. Clouse, found the mound to be “definitively cultural” in origin, as opposed to having been created by a natural process like erosion.
But in a recommendation that raised objections from the Alabama Historical Commission, the report concluded that the site was not likely to be archaeologically significant, given that few artifacts and no human remains had been found. The city plowed ahead.
But then the debate over the endangered mound became public. For weeks, it was a recurrent feature on the front page of The Anniston Star, the local newspaper, as well as the subject of protests, a petition, a Twitter campaign and a Facebook group.
Many of the archaeologists and some of the American Indians who lobbied to keep the stone mound acknowledge that its original purpose is a matter of speculation. That, they say, is all the more reason to preserve it.
But when the often delicate ambiguity of scholarship and tribal heritage come up against the vigorous drive for new business and development, especially in a growing town like Oxford, it does not always make for much of a fight.
The historical commission called the stone mound the largest of its kind in Alabama, but there was little the panel could do to protect it, as it sat on land owned by the city. (A bill is currently making its way through the Legislature that would provide more protection for American Indian burial sites—but it is still unclear if that, in fact, is what the stone mound was.)
Sitting in an office crowded with Bear Bryant football memorabilia, Leon Smith, the mayor of Oxford since 1984, was not keen to discuss the issue further. “You’re not going to hear much from me,” he said. “I’m done with Indian stuff.”
Mr. Smith, who says he is half American Indian though he is unsure of what tribe, said he was satisfied by Dr. Clouse’s work—which, he added, was not obligated by law but still cost the city $67,000. Nevertheless, the bad publicity made further excavation impossible last summer.
Eventually, the city made a deal with a local landowner to use his dirt for the Sam’s Club site, and by August the controversy appeared to be ebbing.
But in late January, at an Oxford City Council meeting, Dr. Clouse disclosed the findings of a follow-up report.
That study, which many had not known about, was performed in July in the full heat of the controversy. In it, Dr. Clouse’s conclusions could hardly have changed more drastically.
“It does not appear,” he wrote in the second report, “that this stone mound was constructed by human activity.”
Archaeologists around the state were surprised and angered.
“The consensus of my colleagues,” said Cary Oakley, who held Dr. Clouse’s current position for 28 years, “is that this particular evaluation is seriously flawed.”
Keith Little of Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research, who has visited the mound, suggested that the word “consensus” was not strong enough.
“I’ve been an archaeologist in Alabama since the 1970s,” he said. “And I’ve never seen archaeologists so united on one subject.”
Worse, he said, the stone mound was apparently demolished during Dr. Clouse’s examination, making any further study impossible.
Dr. Clouse, in an e-mail message, declined to discuss the issue.
The tension between history and progress has continued as Oxford has developed other areas in the city. This has led to some surreal disagreements, including a recent debate about whether the city had leveled the remnants of an ancient, Indian-built earthen mound to make room for a planned sports complex.
“It is gone, all of it,” Dr. Holstein said, standing in what appears to be a relatively flat, grassy field.
No, it is not gone, Mayor Smith said, but simply cannot be seen unless someone knows exactly where to look.
1) So the "mound" in question isn't the large dirt mound featured in every photo of the subject? It's only a small stone mound on top of the large dirt mound?
Why hasn't any story made this clear until now? What are the dimensions of this small stone mound?
True, the small stone mound may be significant regardless of its size. But a 10-foot mound may be ten times more significant than a one-foot mound. And a 100-foot mound may be ten times more significant than a 10-foot mound. Distinguishing the small stone mound from the large dirt mound and knowing its extent are two important aspects of the story.
Some of the old stories do refer to the stone mound and the underlying hill as two separate things. But what portion of the hill is the stone mound in question? One percent? Ten percent? Fifty percent? Or...?
Without a clear idea of where one object ends and the other begins, people will assume the stone mound is the entire hill. This is especially true since the dirt hill is studded with loose stones. It's perfectly natural to assume "stone mound" refers to most or all of the hill.
I'm pretty sure most of the activists trying to save the mound thought exactly that. I've never heard one say, "We don't care about the big dirt hill. Only the small stone mound at the top matters." Every article, including this one, should've made the distinction clear.
Why the flip-flop?
2) Why did Clouse change his opinion 180 degrees? Doesn't someone want to speculate?
Did he make gross mistakes in his first report? Not according to other archaeologists. Was he paid off by the city or developers? I'd say the reporter should've raised this issue even if no one was willing to discuss it.
3) Dr. Holstein says the small stone mound is gone, but Mayor Smith says it's still there. One of them is wrong, so can't we figure out which one? Have Smith or a third party identify the mound's supposed location. Get Holstein and Smith together and reconcile their stories. Etc.
It's almost ridiculous to end the story with this uncertainty about whether the mound still exists. Really, it's a stone structure in plain sight. People have been talking about it for almost a year. But no one can tell us how big it is or whether it's still there? Insane!
For more on the subject, see:
Chambliss leads virtual protests
Twittering about Oxford mound
Mayor lies about Oxford mound
Activists protest mound's destruction
Below: Not the mound in question. Rather, the large dirt mound that may or may not have a small stone mound at its top.