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Looking south toward Petit Jean
Looking south toward Petit Jean Mountain

The Carden Bottom area along the Arkansas River in northeastern Yell County is internationally renowned for the pottery looted from there in the 1920s and 1930s, but until recently almost no scientific research had been carried out in the area. Since 1990 the ATU Station and the Arkansas River Valley Chapter of the Arkansas Archeological Society have been conducting fieldwork in Carden Bottom to answer basic questions about the nature of the Native American occupation. In spite of the damage in the past, the Survey and the Society have discovered a rich archeological heritage ranging from Dalton period sites through intensive Woodland and Mississippian occupations all the way up to the Contact period.

The area now known as Carden Bottom, or Carden Bottoms, or Cardens Bottom, or the Upper Bottom as the locals term it, lies between Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge on the west and Petit Jean River and Petit Jean Mountain on the east. Carden Bottom is over 8000 acres, and as recently as the 1930s was home to hundreds of farm families. It is still an important farming area, but the population is now down to less than 25.

The fame of Carden Bottom comes from the thousands of pots looted from Native American burials there in the 1920s and 1930s. Let me quote M.R. Harrington who visited there in the winter of 1924.

Somehow the poor "renters"—the tenant farmers—of the neighborhood had discovered the art of probing with a steel rod in the plowed fields for these unmarked graves, had learned that they frequently contained pottery, and had found that this pottery could be sold. A miniature gold-rush resulted, and before long nearly everyone in Carden Bottoms, from small boys of eight upward, had become a "pot-digger". As we approached the ridges, the little groups of diggers made a weird picture as they toiled in the mud, unmindful of drizzling rain and flurries of snow. Crops had been poor last year, money was scarce, and so they were (using) every moment of daylight. But it was sickening to an archeologist to see the skeletons chopped to pieces with hoes and dragged ruthlessly forth to be crushed under foot by the vandals—who were interested only in finding something to sell, caring nothing for the history of a vanished people (Harrington 1924:84-85).

Daniels collection...Click to enlarge
H.T. Daniels to enlarge

Important collections of Carden Bottom artifacts can now be found at the University of Arkansas Museum at Fayetteville, the Gilcrease Institute in Tulsa, in Denver, New York, and abroad.

Carden Bottom lies in the Arkansas River Corridor. Though in places this corridor is confined to narrow gaps between mountains, west of Petit Jean the river has created a rich bottom land with numerous cutoffs, oxbows, backswamps, and natural terraces that make such a richly productive environment. This is a rich environment both for the gatherers and hunters of most of the last 10,000 years, and for the gardeners and farmers of the last 2000 years.

Our basic research questions are the simple ones of who and when and where and how. We began by trying to establish what is known by working with local avocational archeologists, photographing collections, and recording sites. We also made contact with landowners, began doing oral history interviews, and photographed the surviving old buildings in the area. Controlled surface collections have been conducted at numerous sites. This confirmed that occupation in various parts of the Bottom dates back 8000 years to Dalton. We identified a purely Woodland component that may have connections downstream to the Plum Bayou culture at Toltec. In fact, collections by amateur archeologists suggest that most of the sites in Carden Bottom are Woodland.

Crew members at 3YE347
Crew members at 3YE347

Test excavations from 1992-1994 were carried out in the winter when farm fields were fallow. We concentrated on Mississippian sites, in part to understand the context of the spectacular Mississippian, particularly within the context of other more-well known Mississippian sites such as Cahokia, Moundville, and Parkin. A second reason was the interest in the DeSoto Entrada. Because of the pottery, it has been assumed that the Carden Bottom area could be associated with Tanico as I indicated in my opening remarks. The expedition apparently spent a week at Tanico, called the capital of the province of Cayas. They made salt there, and eventually headed out for a big battle at Tula with the Caddo. Wherever Tula might be, Tanico is at least somewhere near the frontier. Why not Carden Bottom?

Feature to enlarge
on image to enlarge

In 1993 we came close to DeSoto at site 3YE347. A test trench designed to explore an area of high density of artifacts encountered a pit feature (Fea 10) that was 8m (25 feet) long by about 5m (15 feet) wide by almost 1.3m (5 feet) deep. It is likely that the very reason we found so much in the surface collection in this area is that plowing has been cutting down into this pit for years, spreading around the trash in the upper centimeters of the pit. The pit was full of Native American trash, including discarded animal bone (bison, turtle, deer, fish), stone tools and waste flakes (nodena and maud points, "thumbnail" scrapers, gravel chert debitage), and plain and decorated shell tempered ceramics.

The trench also contained the only pot I am absolutely sure came from Carden Bottom, because we excavated it on the 20th of March, 1993. It is undecorated, but the jar form matches nearly all the other sherds we found. A study is now underway by Ms. Leslie Walker from the University of Central Arkansas, comparing the sherds we found to hundreds of photos of pots supposedly from Carden Bottom to see if similarities can be found.

Brass to enlarge

Brass beads found at Carden Bottom on image to enlarge

We also found items in the Feature 10 pit deposit that point assuredly to European contact, including glass beads, copper alloy (brass) beads, an iron knife blade, and even a large flat piece of forged sheet iron. A charred wooden stick was radiocarbon dated to A.D. 1585-1625 (with 68% probability, A.D. 1400-1650 with 95% probability but a date of pre-1541 seems most unlikely).

Thus the Feature 10 pit deposit documents not only an active Native American culture probably a generation or two after the DeSoto Entrada, but also points to encounters by those Native Americans with Europeans, either Spaniards associated with DeSoto or others unidentified. But who were these Native Americans? Quapaw, who controlled the lower Arkansas River in the 1600s and 1700s? Caddo, whose presence is well documented in west central and southwest Arkansas for a thousand years? Or Tunicans, who may have dominated river trade for 500 years but who had moved as far south as Louisiana by the early 1700s? The Quapaw, the Caddo, and even the Tunica are still around, and they are interested in our work at Carden Bottom.

Unfortunately, I don't think we will be able to identify the people at 3YE25 and 3YE347 as to ethnic group. It may well be that the complete story at 3YE25 and 3YE347 includes all the complexities and dynamics of the 1400s, 1500s, and 1600s, all working itself out on that natural levee. Pot sherds won't give us answers complicated enough to deal with the dynamics of contact between Europeans and Native Americans and the complexities of responses on either side. Not to mention the complexities of responses today. But we will keep looking.


Clancy, Phillis Marie
1985 "The Carden's Bottom Puzzle Elucidated". M.S. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, AR.

Dickinson, S.D., and S.C. Dellinger
1940 "A Survey of the Historic Earthenware of the Lower Arkansas Valley. Bulletin of the Texas Archeological and Paleontological Society 12:76-96. reprinted 1963 in Arkansas Archeological Society Bulletin 4(4):9-18.

Harrington, M.R.
1924 "A Pot-Hunter's Paradise". Museum of the American Indian, Indian Notes 1:3-7. New York.

Hilliard, Jerry E.
1981 "History of Archeology in Carden Bottom". Fieldnotes No.183:3-6.

Hoffman, Michael P.
1977 "The Kinkead-Mainard Site, 3PU2: A Prehistoric Quapaw Phase Site" Arkansas Archeologist 16-18:1-41.

1983 "Protohistory of the Lower and Central Arkansas River Valley". paper presented at MidSouth Archeological Conference, Memphis, TN.

1990 "The Terminal Mississippian Period in the Arkansas River Valley and Quapaw Ethnogenesis". in Towns and Temples Along the Mississippi. edited by David H. Dye and Cheryl Anne Cox, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL. pp. 202-226.

Moorehead, Warren King
1931 "Archaeology of the Arkansas River Valley". in Archaeology of the Arkansas River Valley, edited by Warren King Moorehead, pp. 1-39. Yale University Press, New York.

Smith, Rhonda L.
1995 "Vertebrate Faunal Indentifications from Carden Bottom (3YE347), Arkansas". Report submitted to the Arkansas Archeological Survey, copy on file, Arkansas Tech University Station, Russellville, AR.

Stewart-Abernathy, Leslie C.
1994 "The Carden Bottom Project, Yell County, Arkansas: From Dalton to Trade Beads, So Far". Fieldnotes No. 261(November/December):3-7.


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