Arkansas archaeologist Dr. Leslie "Skip" Stewart-Abernathy “refuses to forget what time has buried.” So says The National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Commendation, awarded to him in 2012 for his many professional achievements, including that “he has trained countless volunteers, from young students to enthusiastic retirees, spreading his infectious love of history across the 75 counties of the state.”
Certainly, he has earned the retirement he’s about to take from Winthrop Rockefeller Institute Research Station.
I caught up with Skip just before he had to go deliver supplies for the 2015 Arkansas Archaeological Society Dig and attend the dedication of two memorials at an African-American cemetery he helped to map and record.
Q: Congratulations on your upcoming retirement!
A: Thank you.
Q: How long has your career spanned?
A: I joined the Arkansas Archaeological Survey in August 1977—almost 38 years.
Q: Fantastic. Most of your career has been right here in our own backyard—in Arkansas.
A: It was too good an opportunity to pass up. When I was doing my doctoral dissertation fieldwork in Massachusetts, there was an archaeologist about every 40 feet, it seemed like. And when I came to Arkansas, I had 75 counties to play in. I didn't need to go anywhere else.
Q: Most people associate archaeology with sites of grandeur. What's so fascinating about excavating ordinary places?
A: I don't think there are any ordinary places. There are fancy places where governors, kings and pharaohs live and die, but those are complicated sites, and we tend to learn more about governors and kings from them than about ordinary folks. I'm more interested in ordinary folks.
Q: Can you tell me about one dig that was particularly meaningful?
A: Well, there have been many. One was Sanders House, in Washington, Arkansas. Washington is one of those places that survived with the landscape somewhat intact from before the Civil War—the town plan is still there.
On the Sanders site, the house was still standing but it had originally been surrounded by lots of buildings, fences and gardens. Supposedly there was a separate kitchen, which we eventually found. These kitchens were not just cooking areas—they were slave quarters. So we were able to explore a whole variety of issues. Among other things, we discovered that these kitchens weren’t separate at all. They were connected to the house by a walkway. The explanations given for why there were separate kitchens—fire dangers, mosquitoes, heat and all those kinds of things turned out to be rather silly. The Sanders house had four or five fireplaces in the house itself. There was just one fireplace in the kitchen. There were no screens then, so there were as many bugs in the house as in the kitchen. It was social separation rather than a physical separation.
By looking ostensibly for a building we were actually looking for a whole way of life.
Our archaeology was part of the process that led to the reconstruction of the kitchen and all its associated outbuildings.
Q: I'm fascinated by the work you've done with documenting African-American cemeteries.
A: I got involved in cemetery work because the Arkansas Archaeological Society got involved in cemetery work. We got started with a grant program so that black cemetery associations could apply for help in cleaning up cemeteries.
We work with communities to find these cemeteries, to map them, on occasion use fancy toys to find graves. But mainly to record them as cemeteries. Again, ordinary folks.
Q: Speaking of fancy toys, what's the next frontier in your field?
A: Probably remote sensing. Techniques to look into the ground before you dig. Metal detecting is one example, but ground communicating radar, electrical resistivity and magnetometry will find foundations, or evidence of foundations. So we're much more efficient—we can get a sense of what's potentially below the surface. You still get to dig. You just don't have to dig boring holes with nothing in them anymore.
Q: Just for fun—if you were given a blank check to put toward any archaeological project in the United States right now what would it be?
A: I'd like to find out more about the first Arkansas post, which we have now found—the 1689-1749 post, complete with a cemetery with Christian Indians buried in it. We found it during a society dig in southern Arkansas County.
We kept finding these caches of brass tinkling cones that were common on Indian and French pioneer outfits that turned out not to be caches at all, but what was left of burials. While we were exploring that, a site survey nearby came up with broken French dishes. It’s since been shown to be the first Arkansas post, one of the first pioneer settlements in the entire Mississippi Valley. It was buried by clay from the Arkansas River for many years.
I'd like to find out more about that site. The French would not have made it without the Quapaw, so here's an opportunity to examine Colonial relations between them.
Q: Any suggestions for ordinary citizens wanting to get involved with archaeology in Arkansas?
A: Get involved with the Arkansas Archaeological Society. Anybody who wants to volunteer and agrees to the set of ethics can come do real archaeology with us. Right now, there is a dig going on near the Parkin site in eastern Arkansas, with probably 150 people participating, anywhere from age 13 to 95—of which about 20 are professional archaeologists. It’s a great hobby and it's in your backyard. We have chapters all across Arkansas.
Q: One more thing: do you own a bullwhip and a fedora?
A: I haven't been issued them yet! Someone did give me a tricorn hat once, but I've never worn a fedora. And oddly enough, I've never found a use for a whip!