Robert Clouse, director of the Office of Archaeological Research at the University of Alabama and director of the University of Alabama Museums, said in an e-mail that he would send a copy of his latest report to The Star through the post office. In his e-mail, Clouse said the report would state his case on the matter.
The stone mound behind the Oxford Exchange was at the center of a dispute last year, which ended with the City of Oxford backing away from plans to level the mound and use dirt beneath it for fill at a nearby construction site.
A UA archaeology team excavated part of the mound in early 2009 and concluded in its report that it was most likely constructed by humans. Clouse reportedly supervised the team’s work and signed its report, which stated 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 historical significance of the mound.
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.
Kelly Gregg, a geology professor at Jacksonville State University who has visited the site, has said there is little chance the stone structure was created by natural forces.
When asked in a later e-mail how American Indian artifacts, namely pieces of ancient pottery referred to as sherds, were discovered underneath the mound during the 2009 excavation, Clouse replied that in his opinion, they had simply fallen between the top stones.
Clouse said in the e-mail, “the sherds were extremely small and on the surface of the ground under the stone pile and very near the edge of the agglomeration of stones. The sherds were accompanied in the same strata by tree leaves that had their origin above the surface of the rock pile. My interpretation was that if leaves can find their way between the stones and end up as recognizable entities below the rocks, then small sherds could also filter through the spaces between the rocks an end up on the same surface.”
However, the 2009 report Clouse signed states otherwise.
On page 43 of the report, it states sherds were discovered on the ground surface underneath the stone pile but also 10 centimeters below the surface. The report then states that since sherds were recovered in the ground, it can be assumed they predate the construction of the stone mound structure.
“If these artifacts were recovered beneath the ground the rocks were sitting on, there is no possible way those stones could be the result of erosion,” said Harry Holstein, professor of archaeology and anthropology at Jacksonville State University.
Holstein first documented the stone site in 2003. Holstein has in recent days been outspoken in disputing Clouse’s claims.
To Craig Shelton, professor of archaeology at Auburn University Montgomery, the controversy surrounding the apparent disconnect between Clouse’s recent opinion and the 2009 report has not been good for his profession.
“I really don’t like it because it doesn’t reflect archaeology well to the public,” Shelton said. “I just hate seeing it because it lets people doubt archaeology.”
He said Clouse should release the second report to help clear up the matter.
Ashley Dumas, assistant professor of archaeology and assistant director of the Black Belt Museum at the University of West Alabama, said the controversy has upset her on a professional level.
“It’s frustrating to have conclusions that are controversial,” Dumas said. “We deal with misunderstandings from the general public on a daily basis and this does not help.”
Dumas added that controversies hurt all Alabamians when developers and contractors see them.
“(Contractors and developers) may be reluctant to share information about sites,” Dumas said. “There is a misunderstanding that the state, through archaeologists, wants to take those sites and land away. That is not the case. Our primary job is to collect data from sites before they are destroyed.”
In another e-mail to The Star, Clouse responded to those in the archaeological community who may be upset about his change in opinion and the controversy surrounding it.
Clouse said in the e-mail, “I would hope my colleagues understand that new information can at times force us to reevaluate our previous perceptions. One of the purposes of continued research in archaeology is to test previous assumptions and hypotheses. Scientific knowledge grows through challenging existing assumptions in an effort to arrive at a more accurate view of the past.”
Steven Meredith, president of the Alabama Archaeological Society and archaeologist for a private consulting company, Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research as well as a former employee of Clouse’s at UA, said it is not uncommon for archaeologists to completely change their opinion or interpretation of a site, but it is best to do so in the presence of evidence.
“Really, I think if an archaeologist wants to come to a geological conclusion, it’s best to use a geologist,” Meredith said.
Meredith declined to comment specifically about Clouse.
Gregory Waselkov, professor of anthropology at the University of South Alabama, said archaeologists always have the right to change their minds and agreed with Meredith that such a change must be evidence-based.
“Clearly if it changes the status of a site, it should have some evidence,” Waselkov said. “If I were involved in a matter of changing an interpretation, then I’d have to be mighty cautious and sure I have my facts straight.”
Waselkov noted he was familiar with the Oxford stone mound and said in his opinion, it appeared to be man-made.
“This one does seem to be quite unusual … it’s on the top of a hill, its large size and the artifacts underneath … it sounds quite plausible to be an Indian mound,” Waselkov said.
Shelton said much of what archaeologists do is not black-and-white definitive. However, after studying the 2009 UA report, to him it seemed pretty clear the mound was man-made.
“After I saw a photograph (of the mound), I thought no, that has got to be Indian,” Shelton said. “It’s right on the tip top … it’s got to be artificial. It can’t be an erosion remnant, it’s just too abrupt.”