Review of Bottle Creek Reflections: The Personal Side of Archaeology in the Mobile Tensaw Delta, by Ian W. Brown

14 Jul

The incredible Bottle Creek Mound complex, featuring some eighteen earthen mounds, is the largest Mississippian mound site on the Gulf Coast. The site was occupied circa 1250-1550 and during the era stood as the largest community in the region. It is located in the middle of the vast Mobile-Tensaw Delta on Mound Island, inaccessible except by boat. As part of the cruise offerings by Historic Blakeley State Park, I get to take visitors to this unique site each winter and help lead walking tours in which we share some of the history of what is in truth an amazing ghost town. Most of the information I share is derived from the dedicated work of archaeologists who have investigated the site, especially Dr. Ian W. Brown, recently retired from a long and distinguished career at the University of Alabama.

Bottle Creek Reflections

Owing to the site’s remote location and the difficulty of staging large excavations there, Bottle Creek is in truth one of the least-studied mound complexes in the southeast. In the 1990s Dr. Brown conducted three summer excavations of the site with teams of colleagues and students, however, and his work forms the core of what is known about life at the site. I have reviewed his edited volume on the findings derived from the excavations of the site, contained in Bottle Creek: A Pensacola Culture Site in South Alabama, previously in this space. Today I offer some thoughts on his book chronicling the process of the excavations, Bottle Creek Reflections: The Personal Side of Archaeology in the Mobile Tensaw Delta.

The book is derived in large part from the journals he kept during work over the course of three summers. There are numerous details about what the team was finding in the notes, and numerous photographs and sketches of the progress of the digs illustrating the incredible story of habitation the team was revealing. But this book is less about technical processes and scientific findings than the actual logistics of arranging for complex archaeological study in one of the more difficult environments America has to offer.

The crew, temporarily living in housing nearby, was forced to travel by boat to the site daily in the middle of the Gulf Coast’s hot and humid summers. The region is one of the rainiest in the country, and frequent and sudden thunderstorms hampered the work at times. But so did the innumerable biting insects and poisonous plants the workers had to deal with, not to mention the frequent mechanical issues with their sometimes-unreliable boats and ground transportation. The book reads as high adventure in a virtually unknown region, featuring numerous trials and tribulations involved in merely getting to the site, and no few mishaps—the sinking of a boat, nearly losing a van into the dark waters of the Delta, almost colliding with a large barge in thick fog, and several other hardships and handicaps. But it also shows the comraderie of the teams Brown assembled, the wide-ranging interest his work generated throughout the state and region, and how discovery of a previously little-known and barely-studied community was taking place before their eyes. As Brown’s professional work comprises the essential record of what is known about one of Gulf South’s most remarkable prehistoric sites, this book will serve as an entertaining compliment to the published reports it generated. It is indeed the personal side of archaeology, and one anyone who has attempted to work in any capacity in the dense and remote forests and waters of the Delta will especially appreciate the tale.


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