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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, October 2018

2017 Bains Gap of Alabama Excavations

by: Jim Windisch

Dr. Holstein standing in the middle with arms folded

The Find

I was no longer “pointless”, I thought to myself, as I first saw the implement in the bottom of the sifter screen I was utilizing. “Pointless” was a term one of the volunteers used if you had not found any arrow points, keeping humor running through the grueling work this actually can be. With adrenaline rushing, I reached down and drew the point out, and as any person does nowadays, had a picture taken of myself holding this ancient relic, to send off to my wife and friends.

I was deep in a valley amongst the Choccolocco Mountains of central Alabama as a volunteer on my first archaeological excavation at what is known as the Bains Gap site. I was with 12 other volunteers and students, plus our leader Dr. Harry Holstein of Jacksonville State University. I gave the arrow point to Dr. Holstein to catalogue, and went back to working my screen, still relishing the moment of my find.

Origins of the Trip

In February of 2017, I had been invited on a trip with Dr Greg Little (The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Native American Mounds & Earthworks) to accompany him and his wife Dr. Lora Little on a research mission through Alabama. Dr. Little was preparing a new book on Native American mounds in Alabama, and we were to visit many sites in the state, finalizing in Anniston, where we met Dr. Harry Holstein.

Dr. Holstein took us on an incredible tour of sites in the mountains north of Anniston. What I witnessed was totally unexpected; incredible walls constructed who knows when, with enclaves that were used to watch the rising solstices. The walls surrounded the mountain tops, continuing into the valleys. As my mind raced viewing these ancient constructions, I heard Dr. Holstein mention to the Littles that he was preparing for his annual excavation in May. Having never been on a research project, I asked him if he could use any assistance, and his answer came back quickly; yes, he always needed help. I knew what I would be doing in May!


I pulled off the main road, onto a literal dirt trail. It seemed like eternity having to drive so slow to reach the excavation site. A field and so many trees passed by, until I reached an opening where I saw a couple of tents pitched, volunteers that stayed onsite and watched over the area. We introduced and they took me on a tour as Dr. Holstein had not yet arrived. The sun was just coming up and the humidity was already staking its claim on the day, as I walked and listened intently to my guides. Pine trees, with some oak surrounded the area, as well as poison ivy. As I am highly susceptible to catching this, I spent 2 days avoiding this irritating plant.

Dr Holstein arrived, and finished out the initial tour, filling in with more detail and history of the site. Dr Holstein has spent over 40 years in the profession of teaching archaeology and performing excavations. At this site alone, he has worked off and on since 1999. He explained this site was from the Transitional Paleo – early Mississippian period, approximately AD 1000. In the plates that had been previously been excavated, you could see the color differential in the soil indicating where a fortification wall had once stood.

Having read and studied many books on archaeology and its processes, as Dr. Holstein took me through the process of digging and sifting, everything became familiar to me. He asked if I wanted to dig first, or sift. I chose to dig, so I could get used to the beginning part of the process. Literally needing to work the dirt centimeters at a time, I used a pick to break the Alabama clay up. It was arduous to do, but I enjoyed every minute of it! Three of the volunteers stood around the square area, taking the dirt and running it through the sifter. Many pieces of pottery were found, and occasionally, an arrow point was uncovered.

After a couple of hours, I was asked if I was ready to sift, and of course, the answer was yes. Dr. Holstein has great patience, and exhibited it as he took me through the process of sifting. Great detail is needed with this task, and also a keen eye. Something the size of a grain of sand could be an important detail needed to document the history of the site, and I did not want to miss one item.

Throughout both days I was there, Dr. Holstein would occasionally yell out to the group, “ if anyone finds a Spanish belt buckle, you will have hit the jackpot!” It is well documented that DeSoto had been in this area on his devastating rampage through the South. Finding a belt buckle, or any other Spanish item, would have potentially connected DeSoto to once having visited this site.

Thoughts Driving Back to Memphis

As we finished up on Friday about noon (no one wanted to stay out in the heat too long!), we took group photos of the team, and I headed back home. My enthusiasm was still running high, as I pulled out of the site, knowing I needed to do more of this type of work. Work? Nothing is work, if you enjoy it, so I decided I would need more of this enjoyment! Working with Dr. Harry Holstein had been the best first experience I could have hoped for. His 39 years at Jacksonville State University had honed his skills of excavating and working with so many volunteers. His passion for the history of the area is unmatched.

Finally, I thought of the inhabitants of this village. They obviously did not have the technology we have today, but lived and survived to the fullest capacity, building villages, crafting tools, and creating pottery for cooking and storage, living in total regard for nature.

All in all, this was a great initial foray into the field of archaeology, one which will always be remembered. And one in which will be a springboard for more to come!

Sunday, March 03, 2024