If Mobile swoons for anything, it would have to be “the past.” It’s a love affair 300 years in the making and written all across its civic face.
Yet there comes a point where historical records can only take you so far back, where other disciplines must lend a hand. A glance into those methods and what they reveal is open to all at a West Mobile showplace hidden in plain sight.
The University of South Alabama Archaeology Museum is nestled in an unassuming building in the midst of its namesake campus. As the crown of an archaeology complex of labs and offices fashioned from former art studios, it sits appropriately near both the Humanities and Chemistry buildings.
Since opening in October 2012, the museum has aimed to introduce locals to more than 12,000 years of history and prehistory as a nexus for the disciplines of science and history. That range of vision is immediately obvious.
The building itself is ringed with a meandering footpath leading visitors through a succession of natural Gulf Coast habitats. A plaque at the entrance reels off the zones: upland savanna, river bottom, palmetto thicket, blueberry thicket, pitcher plant bog, Indian garden, hillside forest and the like.
The exhibits start as far back as we know, with a scene of a native woman and child on a coastal beach contributing to the ancient shell middens — piles of discarded shells from eaten mollusks — in the area. Across the room and centuries into the present, an archaeologist unearths artifacts left for her discovery.
“All these exhibits were done in-house,” museum Assistant Director Barbara Filion said. “We even got local peoples to model for the figures. They flew off and did body casts to make the mannequins.” The indigenous figures were based on members of nearby tribes.
Clues to these early inhabitants are everywhere for the observant. From textile patterns in pottery to mysterious tools found in castoff shells to geosourcing, deduction is utmost when delving into prehistory.
A flint napping video sits above a display of various knives, scrapers and weapons. Though one of our species’ oldest skills, it’s deceptive.
“It looks easy but I’ve tried it,” Filion said. “I ended up with cuts all over my fingers and hands. You have to know just how to strike it according to the material you’re working with and what you’re trying to make.”
Get a little too eager or misshape a flake, and it’s back to the beginning with a whole new stone.
Resourcefulness reigned. There are examples of how natives used every bit of the white-tailed deer they hunted.
A cabinet of drawers shows a cataloging system employed by the discipline. It also makes clear how quickly space becomes a premium.
“Archaeologists are the worst pack rats,” Filion laughed.
There’s a recreated view from atop one of the pre-Columbian mounds at Bottle Creek Mound Site in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. The chieftain climbing a ladder toward the viewer wears a resplendent robe of turkey feathers, meticulously fashioned by Mary Spanos with due diligence to historical methods.
Discoveries are everywhere. Artifacts from Old Mobile at 27 Mile Bluff rest in a recreated Creole home that doubled as an inn. There’s an explanation of how the Gulf Coast weather shaped the architectural style.
The museum even went so far as to turn the correspondence and journals of French-Canadian colonial Marguerite Messier into a graphic novel. Its tale of frontier, life among the native tribes and pirate attacks is tailor-made for young imaginations.
The tour moves on to divulge the life of former slave Lucrecia Perryman, a working mother who made her way through widowhood working as a midwife. Archaeological discoveries at her old homestead uncovered the intricacies of her family’s daily life.
Archaeology’s role in a place as steeped in history as Mobile is most apparent at a wall filled with a depiction of the greater Mobile area. Across the map, hundreds of color-coded circles mark spots of discovery.
The museum isn’t content to wait for the curious to come looking. They’re staging a monthly series of Science Cafes in an off-site venue and inviting the public to join in relaxed dialogue of scientific topics aimed to inform and invigorate.
“We’re going to use the OK Bicycle Shop’s courtyard,” Filion said. “It’s not a lecture, though, like the series at the museum. This is more casual and more about discussion than just listening.”
The Sept. 22 version is entitled “The Polio Express — Real Talk about Vaccines and the Origins of the Anti-Vax Movement.” On Oct. 20, they’ll tackle “It Ain’t Easy Seeing Green: Preventing Plant Blindness.” The Nov. 10 topic is “Kids These Days: The Rise (and Fall?) of Narcissism in America’s Youth.” All events start at 6 p.m.
Will the intellectual spark catch? It might be a bit trickier than striking flint, and more than fingers can get dinged, but you can’t warm your soul without giving it a shot.