I dreamed of being an archeologist.
Daddy insisted on secretarial school. (Yes, this was back in the dark ages when fathers did that.) The dream died.
Fast forward thirty-five years. My husband and I chucked city jobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and moved to the hills of northern Arkansas. I soon discovered I was meant to be an Ozarks-dweller. I began writing about the area I loved, and before long was a regular contributor to regional, national, and international publications; as well as an Ozarks-based reporter for radio news.
Then I decided to try my hand at mystery writing. The “Something to Die For” series was born. Two books into the series I was doing research for a third novel set in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, when the park curator mentioned she’d been cataloging artifacts for Dr. Caven Clark, Staff Archeologist at Arkansas’ Buffalo National River.
Archeologist? I knew the Buffalo area as a three-county-long landscape with a wild river known to offer canoeing, fishing, and hiking amid spectacular scenery. I knew the river had cut deep canyons like a mini-Grand, but…archeology? Timidly I picked up the phone and called Dr. Clark. Yes,
he was willing to help me. I was IN.
After repeated discovery trips to the Buffalo, after exploring bluff shelters with Caven Clark, after many questions and interviews, I now know that the Buffalo National River area rivals the canyons of Arizona and New Mexico for archeological wealth. Ten thousand or more years ago Paleo Indians hunted and camped along the river, leaving chipped points. Centuries passed, and families began accompanying their hunters. The family groups spent more and more of the year here, learning to scratch soil and scatter seed gathered from wild food plants. They stayed during the winter, living in dry bluff shelters and caves along the Buffalo and elsewhere.
The word dry is important because, just as happened in the American Southwest, even fiber objects like woven garments, nets, sandals, and cradle boards survived inside the dry shelters. More commonly preserved throughout were chipped stone hunting points and tools, as well as pottery. (Pottery making began about 500 BCE.) A legacy of life, a cultural heritage, was collecting.
Then Europeans came. Spaniards passed through the area during the 16th century, including a party led by Hernando de Soto. By the early 1800s, white settlers were moving into valleys near the river. Children and adults enjoyed exploring the world around them, often picking up curious-looking objects they found in caves and shelters or dug up in their fields. This collecting by individuals continued, year after year. A cultural legacy began vanishing.
Such “looting” was not yet a crime. But, by the beginning of the last century, the cultural heritage found in Arkansas had been recognized, and archeologists came to collect artifacts for museums in the East. The struggle to preserve what was left had begun. As Dr. Clark now writes: “My job as an archeologist is no longer the digging of square holes for the extraction of scientific data, but the struggle to leave as much in the ground as is possible, to preserve what remains of the past for future generations…(and to) responsibly interpret these remains.” (Epilogue, A RIVER TO DIE FOR.)
It’s not easy. There isn’t enough staff to patrol the 36,000 acres of the Buffalo National River. In recent years, due partly to the ease of advertising and selling objects on the Internet, as well as to the hunger of European clients for American Indian artifacts, looting at the Buffalo and elsewhere has become big business. It’s often linked with the production and purchase of methamphetamines and other drugs.
Finally, after years of “slap on the wrist” law enforcement, some looting cases have been successfully prosecuted under the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act, which bans the removal and sale of artifacts from public land.
You can see where I am going with this. Radine, now an archeologist by proxy, was on her way to creating a mystery novel about archeological looting.
Challenging? Yes. Fun? You bet! Caven Clark let me poke my fingers through the dusty floors of remote bluff shelters, identifying such things as the tiny shells of river creatures that long-ago people used for food. After one hike I sat in a now well-known Buffalo destination, the Indian Rock House, imagining (as does Catherine King in my novel) what living there might have been like several thousand years ago. Then, stuffed with atmosphere and information, I returned to my office to dream like an archeologist, and to write. A RIVER TO DIE FOR is the result.
I never worked as a secretary but, by golly, I have brushed the life of an archeologist. And I was right. It would have been a great career.