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History rests on history in Biloxi, Mississippi

By Leigh Coleman
Biloxi, Mississippi (AP) July 2010

In a heavy rain, ancient pieces of Native American pottery shards still sometimes surface at the ultra-modern beachfront facility designed by Frank Gehry for the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi.

Most are small, about the size of a thumbnail, but, “It’s a tiny piece of history that remains with us,” says Denny Mecham, museum executive director.

The shards tell her that “across the coast and inland as well, Native Americans used the same clay as George Ohr did.”

Pieces of pottery and skeletal parts dating back centuries have long been found on the 4-acre property, which was once called the “Harvey Site” after the family who lived there prior to Hurricane Camille in 1969.

Artifacts were found scattered throughout the site about three feet below the surface.

Mecham said an environmental review using radar was done in 2000 to thoroughly understand what was there before the museum could be built.

The survey determined everything there was too disturbed by neighborhood construction and past storms for any significance, said Jay Milner, facility supervisor and resident potter.

“It is exciting to see remnants of the past under this museum of history,” Milner said, “To me, they almost seem like tiny treasures, because they are remnants of how pottery was made in this area.”

He said the biggest piece he has found was about 2 inches. He has found Native American arrowheads, clay pieces of ceremonial pottery and some fragments that were possibly molded for cooking. Some pieces have color, some are coiled and others are smooth and undecorated.

He said he has stored a box of the ancient pieces for safekeeping.

Historian Dale Greenwell of D’Iberville directed the archaeological work at the Harvey Site in the early 1970s. He is a former anthropology instructor at USM Gulf Park, has directed an archaeology research team for a dozen years and has coordinated nearly 50 archaeological projects on the coast.

Greenwell said he and a team of archeologists determined that the Native American artifacts were not from the Biloxi Indians, but from tribes from hundreds of years earlier.

The archaeology reports say the Harvey site was first occupied about 2,000 years ago, then substantially about 1,600 years ago.

“Therefore, these Native American tribes were at what is now called the Harvey Site a dozen centuries before the Biloxi tribes entered the coastal area,” Greenwell said.

Greenwell’s team consisted of archaeology undergrad and graduate students from the University of Southern Mississippi.

The city of Biloxi later provided a $1,250 grant for additional work.

“When we first discovered something at the site it was when a bulldozer removed most of the shell cap or middens left by prehistoric people more than 1,500 years ago,” Greenwell said.

“We kept digging and found in the lowest level evidence of structures, or lodgings, that was about 2,000 years old.”

Greenwell said the team also found two burial areas and more than 10 skeletons.

“The volume of debris, broken ceramics and food remains were quite numerous and very significant,” Greenwell said. “We thought the site would perhaps be preserved but that did not happen. Subsequent archaeological tests, which were limited, did not confirm the significance.”

Greenwell has written more than 100 pages documenting the find and passed on to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.

“In the mass burial many bones were missing, suggesting the initial burials were elsewhere, perhaps off the ground,” Greenwell said. “The skeletal parts were later removed from somewhere and carried to Harvey for final burial. That suggests Harvey was more important than a ‘camp.”’

He said the occupation and burials are from the Marksville Period (around A.D. 300-400) of the Woodland Cultural Tradition.

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art honors the exuberantly creative Mississippi master potter George E. Ohr (1857-1918), and its new campus is scheduled to open in November.

Mecham keeps a few of the clay artifacts in her office and says they fascinate her every time she holds them in her hand.

“It is so appropriate that we find something this significant and historical under the place where George Ohr’s life and art will be on display,” Mecham said. “I think he would have really thought this was something amazing.”