Marksville Historic Site provides look at earliest chapter of Avoyelles' story

Susan Veillon (right), a museum guide, shows visitor Arianna Daye a model of the Marksville Prehistoric Indian park. The model shows visitors how the site looked when it was in use as a sacred ceremonial site from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Susan Veillon, from the Office of State Parks Southern Regional Office at Chicot, explains items used by ancient residents of Avoyelles to Arianna Daye, 10, of Marksville. Items on display are replicas of items discovered at the Marksville archaeological excavations. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Museum guide Susan Veillon helps a young visitor try her hand at the atlatl -- or “throwing stick” -- which the prehistoric hunters of this area used to bring down game to feed their families. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

Museum visitor Arianna Daye, 10, of Marksville, poses in front of one of the burial mounds on the grounds of the Marksville State Historic site. {Photo by Raymond L. Daye}

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{Editor’s Note: Avoyelles oldest tourist attraction has fallen on hard times recently, but there are hopes for brighter days in the future. This article was written last August, just before the state closed the facility, and held in anticipation of those “brighter days.” The site has recently been reopened, without staff, on Fridays. The Office of State Parks and the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe have both said they want the tribe to assume operation and management of the archaeologically-significant site. That effort has stalled but is still considered a viable possibility by both the state and tribe.}
 
   Once upon a time there was a mighty river that flowed through this area. Small tribes of Native Americans lived and thrived in a simple but hard life that pitted them against an environment that could deliver bounty or tragedy.
    Europeans would come many years later, after that mighty river had moved to its current location and become known as the Mississippi.
  The Europeans would call these early Louisianians “savages.” It was only many centuries later that archaeologists would use the term “civilizations” to describe these complex communities.
   In the first third of the last century, archaeologists “discovered” the Marksville Site. It is considered to be an important benchmark in the development of Native American culture in this region. The site was in use from 100 B.C. to 400 A.D. There are six burial mounds within the site and smaller ones outside of the area.
  The men and women who built the mounds and lived in this area were related to the Hopewell Culture of Native Americans in Ohio and Illinois. Marksville was the southernmost Hopewellian civilization. Any archaeological find of similar characteristics and artifacts is now classified as being from the “Marksville Culture.”
 
Historic  Landmark
   The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 by the U.S. Department of the Interior. It is the only national landmark in the parish and one of a very select group of properties in the nation to be recognized for their importance in American history..
  The site’s system of ceremonial burial mounds was constructed using a form of geometry and is now believed to have been built to align with important astronomical events, such as solstices and equinoxes -- similar to Stonehenge in England.
   “This was a sacred site,” said Susan Veillon, an employee with the Office of State Parks Southern Regional Office at Chicot. “Nobody actually lived on this site. They lived outside of the site.”
   The semi-circular 3,300-foot-long earthen embankment around the site was not a defensive wall for a village, but marked the area of the sacred site. There are three openings in the earth works, one on the western side and two on the southern end. Veillon said changes in the position of the sun and moon were important to the early residents.
    There have also been artifacts found that indicate the important role local wildlife played in their lives. Items have been found depicting grasshoppers, cranes, black bears and deer.
   Although there had been previous archaeological sites in the area,  the 1926 excavation by Gerald Fowke, of the Smithsonian Institute,  was the first scientific investigation of the area and produced a detailed map of the Marksville site. James A. Ford, an undergraduate student at LSU, teamed with the Smithsonian’s F.M. Setzler in 1933 to uncover conclusive evidence linking the Marksville inhabitants to the Hopewell Culture in Ohio.
   Many of the items in the museum are replicas of artifacts that were found at the Marksville site. Although they may not be 2,000 years old, they serve to give the visitors -- old and  young -- a better understanding of how early residents of this area lived and worked and worshiped.
   The Native Americans of that time farmed a little and hunted a lot. Many arrowheads and spearheads have been found and are on display.
   A replica of an atlatl, or “throwing stick,” lets visitors hold in their hands what once was used to feed families.
  Ancient Marksvillians combined their reverence for nature with their farming skills and personal pleasures by making clay pipes in the shape of animals and smoking the tobacco they grew.
 
Site information
   The 42-acre site still attracts archaeologists for periodic excavations. Visitors can walk a trail to see the mounds. There are also picnic tables under a covered pavilion with restrooms.
    Under the current self-guided status of the site, there is no entrance fee. The site is only open to the public on Fridays. There are admission costs for school groups or tour buses who schedule a visit through the Office of Parks.
    The Marksville State Historic Site was closed by the state in the budget cuts in 2015 but recently reopened on a part-time bases. There are no staff, but a “floating staff” of parks employees goes to the site for routine maintenance.
   The Tunica-Biloxi Tribe has expressed an interest in maintaining and operating the site until the state can get on a firmeer financial footing. The current administration recently said they are “reaching out” to the tribe to kick start negotiations that stalled as one administration was leaving and another was taking office.
    The Marksville site residents are believed to be the ancestors of the Natchez, Avoyel and Taensas tribes. The Natchez were bitter enemies of the Tunica. It would be ironic -- or fitting -- that the modern Tunica could one day be overseeing the sacred site of their historic rivals.

AVOYELLES JOURNAL | BUNKIE RECORD | MARKSVILLE WEEKLY

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Marksville, LA 71351
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