Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City by Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee (2015, Louisiana State University Press) contains a set of photographs and essays on the 3500 year old prehistoric earthwork complex in northeast Louisiana, U.S., a recently designated World Heritage Site of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The book is a model for how to engage multiple audiences with information about an archaeological site.
Here is what you get in the 132 page volume:
- About 100 photographs of the earthworks and artifacts taken over the last three years by northeast Louisiana native Jenny Ellerbe. As a fine art photographer, her images are creative, technically superb, and convey a strong sense of place. The total corpus of photographs provides a striking and comprehensive presentation of the physical site. Ms. Ellerbe is an accomplished artist.
- Nearly 20 maps and figures that both contextualize the Ellerbe photographs and provide LIDAR, topographic, and other locational information for the site complex. These images include site location, intra-site organization, mound form, and prehistoric raw material resources.
- In addition to images, each of the nearly 20 chapters contains essays by Ellerbe and Greenlee. Ms. Ellerbe writes from the perspective of a local resident fascinated with the prehistory of the region. As a lifelong resident of the region, she provides a critically important narrative about the place of Poverty Point that cannot be told and is simply not known by the archaeological community. Her perspective reflects a cultural heritage value that if adopted by Louisiana’s elected officials will lead to investing the necessary resources to preserve and present the Poverty Point earthworks in a manner appropriate to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The essays by Diana Greenlee complete the presentation in a rather unique way. Dr. Greenlee is the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point who has accomplished considerable scholarly research at the site over the past decade, including the World Heritage Site designation. For this book, her writing style is not that of a peer-reviewed journal, but is precisely the tone and content appropriate for a broader audience. Dr. Greenlee provides an ideal model for engaging the public in the science of her discipline. For example, she gives a complete and understandable account of the remote sensing investigations of the large circular features in the plaza of the earthwork. She details the physical difference between a posthole and a postmold and explains the interpretive significance of the distinction. A two-page glossary includes entries for artifact, LIDAR, radiocarbon dating, pump drill and more. Perhaps most refreshing is that Dr. Greenlee speaks with the authority of her position, but also leaves room for speculation and further questions. For example, she notes that many refer to the large Mound A as the Bird Mound, though she sees a mushroom (which I agree) but concludes “There is no way to know, though, if that’s what the builders of Mound A intended. We can only speculate” (p. 59). Or consider her reporting on recent research that suggests Mound A was built in 90 days. She fairly presents the researchers’ claims, but notes she remains skeptical. She writes “I think that additional research, looking at more or different samples, could shed light on the issue. This is how science works and knowledge advances. You have a question, you collect the data necessary to answer the question . . . Often, answering one question raises other questions” (p. 60). How incredibly refreshing and such an instructive and inviting representation of archaeological research!
I thoroughly enjoyed Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City. The photos are beautiful and instructive. The text illustrates the value of the earthwork from multiple perspectives in a manner that will be enjoyed and appreciated by the general public and the archaeological community. Jenny Ellerbe and Diana Greenlee do not talk to separate audiences but to all audiences – an impressive accomplishment and a true model for how archaeological research can be presented to maximize its value.
The $39.95 LSU Press price ($28.45 at amazon.com) is the only drawback from a wide distribution of the volume. Hopefully, a less expensive paperback will be forthcoming.
Also, as full disclosure, I served as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point from 1996 – 2003, but I don’t get anything from the sale of the books. 🙂