UA professor defends claims about Oxford mound
by Patrick McCreless
Staff Writer
Jan 28, 2010 | 8198 views |  49 comments | 102 102 recommendations | email to a friend | print
OXFORD — A University of Alabama archaeologist Wednesday said more investigation had led him to believe natural forces created a pile of stones that an earlier report bearing his signature said had been erected by humans hundreds of years ago. [View the report: Part 1 | Part 2]

The stone mound was at the center of a dispute last year that saw the City of Oxford back away from plans to level the mound to use dirt beneath it for fill at a construction site at the nearby Oxford Exchange.

Robert Clouse, director of the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama and the director of the University of Alabama Museums, said in an e-mail to The Star "the discrepancy between the two reports is the result of additional information gathered from actual on-site review of the make-up of the mound and additional research into the geological events surrounding the gradual disintegration of the makeup of the mountain."

A team from UA excavated a portion of the mound in early in 2009, and concluded in their report it was almost certainly made by humans. Clouse reportedly supervised the team's work, and signed their report. It said the chance of a stone mound of that size being created by random natural phenomena is unlikely.

The report was written to give the city an indication of the potential archaeological significance of the stone mound before crews began work at the site.

Attempts Wednesday to reach Clouse by phone and e-mail for further information or a copy of the second report were unsuccessful. The first report was sent to the Alabama Historical Commission. State Archaeologist Stacye Hathorn, who works for the commission, said she has not seen a second report, but has heard "rumors" that it exists. She said no law requires the university archaeologists to send the commission a copy.

During a Tuesday meeting of the Oxford City Council, Clouse said the Oxford Exchange mound was likely created by erosion and other natural forces through the course of approximately 500 million years.

"It has gradually decayed," Clouse said during the meeting. "(The mound) is the original core of that mountain."

Clouse has no degree in geology and presented no opinion from a certified geologist at the meeting.

Oxford Mayor Leon Smith made a similar claim in July 2009.

When Hathorn was told of Clouse's comments at the Tuesday meeting, her first response was laughter.

"How did the pottery get under there?" she asked. "I don't think there's any chance that it's natural. There may be some boulders that were up there naturally that were added to, to make the mound."

Hathorn said Clouse in the past verbally told her his revised opinions about the origins of the mound. She said she laughed at the claim then, too.

Kelly Gregg, a geology professor at Jacksonville State University, has visited the site in question and said there is little chance it was created by natural forces.

"In my opinion, someone piled those stones up there," Gregg said during a phone interview Wednesday.

Gregg said the rocks on the mound were all of similar size that could be easily carried by humans.

"If it had just been erosion, there also would have been rocks the size of cars too," he said.

During the Tuesday meeting, Clouse also refuted a claim made by Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at JSU, that another American Indian mound at the nearby historic Davis Farm site had been recently removed. The mound is adjacent to a site where Oxford is constructing a multi-million dollar sports complex.

"I know the site," Holstein said. "I've worked it 25 years or more."

City officials have repeatedly stated the Davis Farm mound has not been disturbed. The city hired UA archaeologists to oversee the construction and ensure no American Indian sites were disturbed. Clouse is heading the archaeology team.

Earlier this month, the archaeologists uncovered the apparent remains of an ancient American Indian. Clouse said all proper procedures were followed regarding the discovery and the remains were reburied and would not be disturbed again.

"We will spend whatever is necessary to be sure we're not infringing on some remains we're not supposed to," said Fred Denney, the city's project manager.

Denney said so far the city has received an invoice for approximately $25,000 for the services of the UA archaeologists at the sports complex construction site.

"We'll spend that if not more in the future," Denney said.

He added the city paid UA archaeologists approximately $60,000 to conduct the 2009 survey of the site behind the Oxford Exchange, which he referred to as a hill and not an Indian mound.

Ben Thomas, director of programs at the Archaeological Institute of America and a professor of archaeology at the Berklee College of Music, said there are many universities around the country, like the University of Alabama, which do contractual archaeological work for companies and governments. He said such work can be large revenue generators.

"If a university has an archaeological department that can do this kind of work, then yes, it can be a significant revenue source," Thomas said.

He noted how such funding is distributed and used varies from school to school. Information on how much UA charges for archaeological work or how the money is used could not be obtained by deadline Wednesday.

When asked if there is an ethical dilemma between universities that may profit from archaeological contracts and their need to provide objective research data, Thomas said there always is a chance for corruption in the system but has never heard of any rampant abuse.

"I don't know if that has been a huge ethical issue," Thomas said. "But archaeologists are human. I would expect as an archaeologist, for other archaeologists to act under respected codes and practices."

Holstein said JSU archaeologists could have conducted the work at both sites for much less than Oxford paid UA.

He said JSU teams could have performed a full study of the Oxford Exchange mound for less than $15,000 and the observation work at the sports center construction site for around $10,000.

"We're not here to make a profit," Holstein said. "We charge just enough to pay salaries. Plus, we're right here. The city has got to pay (UA) more to come out here."

Contact Patrick McCreless at 256-235-3561.
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UA professor defends claims about Oxford mound by Patrick McCreless
Staff Writer

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