top of page

What Our Intercollegiate Wild Clay Project is all About

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

The Intercollegiate Wild Clay Symposium was created out of a vision to connect students to the ceramic makers that have come before them by introducing them to the science and archeology of clay. Many of these students have the thought that archeology happens in some far-off place, not here on the Arkansas/Tennessee Delta. The intention of the weekend was to provide them with an interactive and immersive curriculum that would challenge students to form their own questions about the impacts of those who came before them. Students engaged in the Ceramics curriculum in context. They learned about how to process clay straight out of the ground. They collected muscle shells from the river and learned how to calcine the shells over a fire and then ground them for the calcium carbonate to use as a temper. Parkin Archeological State Park is unique in that it has a clear archeological history dating 1000 years, featuring a diverse land use which started with the large Mississippian population that occupied the land long before Hernando DeSoto visited in the 16th century.

An integral part of the weekend is engaging with the heritage and preservation professionals. Museums use preservation to promote both the educational and cultural value within their collection. The staff has a remarkable way of speaking to a variety of modalities, be it public or academic. Students interact with the archeologists from the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Arkansas State Park interpreters, and the cultural committee of the Quapaw Nation. Every aspect of the weekend is heavily researched and presented in a manner that will encourage them to think critically at many junctures.

Parkin Archeological State Park is a multi-purpose destination. It serves to promote and preserve the 1000-year archeological and anthropological history of the area. The park also provides the public with an open and accessible place to experience the outdoors; picnicking, a playground, hiking, a boat launch, and fishing are all possibilities within the park’s boundaries. The mile-long “Village Trail” is an interactive footpath with a few key features pointed out that speak to the history and preservation efforts. It winds itself through what was the “Casqui Village” as well as the contemporary settlement that was once a patch town for the Northern Ohio Lumber Company. The park is an active archeological research station. Currently, they are working on using advanced imaging to understand more about the cemetery that is on site. The museum hosts a well-interpreted collection from Casqui (Parkin) site as well as the neighboring Pacaha village (Wilson).

The layout of the exhibition hall is interesting. While a majority of the artifacts found are excavated, some are acquired through historical archeological means. There have been journal entries from Hernando DeSoto’s expedition that describe the village, its inhabitants, and some of the items that have been excavated. One of the first panels within the exhibition is a display that explains this and links a “clarksdale bell” that would match a European bell from DeSoto’s time frame that was found around the neck of an interred child.1 This panel uses language that validates the interpretations that have been made about the excavated materials. As one moves through the exhibit, eyewitness accounts of the erroneous digging by people prior to the park’s opening creates a sense of the more recent cultural aspects of the land.

The interpretation of the fragments of the cypress post that was found at the top of the principal mound on site is presented in the historical archeological method. There is a reference in the expedition journals that DeSoto had erected a large cross on the top of that mound. This display asks visitors to ponder wood post fragments that were cut between 1515 and 1653 as possible cross fragments.2 Encouraging critical thinking about an artifact promotes preservation. The possibility alone grants a sense of importance.

The l-shaped exhibition space is laid out with the artifacts indigenous to the specific site first and then progresses to the evidence of other peoples in and around the area. Finally, the space discusses the foodstuffs, agriculture, and tools of survival. There is a hint at the various ideo-technic and/or socio-technic functions of certain objects, such as the celt and stovepipe artifacts, that seemingly have a dual purpose, one of which included social status, possibly even ceremonial.3 The descriptive labels explain the objects in terms of the interpretation of possible use, the materials the object is made of, the timeframe that it fits within, as well as when it was found.4 In some cases, there is an explanation of specific materials as well. For example, there are descriptions of the pottery found on the site, the type of clay, what it was tempered with, and how it was fired. 5

Deetz speaks to the importance of pottery in excavated finds. It tells us a great deal about the people who made and used it, as well as a window into a historical frame of reference.6 In the case of Parkin’s head effigy pots, a specific type of pot that the park is known for, it has been surmised that the Cosqui most likely practiced body adornment. The faces on the pots all have evidence of scarification, tattoos, and piercings. According to John Cherry, who has researched this type of pot, it is also found to almost always belong to a specific region along Crowley’s Ridge and Southeastern Missouri.7 His study has pinpointed certain wares to the same maker living along the St. Francis River, even though the work was found hundreds of miles apart.8

The museum itself tells three specific stories: one of the popularity of the site for searching for artifacts by adventure seekers, one of the history of the study of archeology at the site, and one of the people who are the subject of that study. The manner in which the placards are placed as one progresses through the museum makes for seamless sequencing. All three stories become part of the same story.

Other than the exhibition space, there is another area of particular interest within the center. This is that of the field study workrooms, enclosed in glass so that the public can see the active restoration and study of artifacts. The museum has set up a display of objects being worked on within this space. The objects are placed on glass shelving that spans the window. The glass shelves make these artifacts more accessible visibly. In some cases, pieced-together pottery is packed in boxes of a support material (styrofoam peanuts), indicating its fragility. Students participating in the weekend interacted with the collection within this storeroom under the direction and supervision of the archeologist. They were also given basic field study tasks that included sorting trays of artifacts recently unearthed in a rootball of a tree that was taken out by a recent tornado.9 They also participate in a clay sample survey, in which they gather samples from their local region, document the coordinates, process them, make a small vessel, mark them to correspond with a spreadsheet, and fire them in the pit firing. They then photograph them and return them to the archeologist.

The educational value of the preservation work and how it is accessed in this park was one of the reasons I approached the park in 2022 about developing this experience. The well-informed staff is eager to answer the unique but specific questions of the public. They also patiently answer some of the most mundane questions with great urgency. I knew corn was important, but to hear them answer the “what’s the big deal about corn” to a skeptical soul, you would have wanted to go out and plant some yourself. To that end, the interpreters discussed scholarly resources that have been written about the finds of the excavations at Parkin.10 This is a working archeological site, first and foremost. The manner in which they share it with the public is paramount to preservation as it creates an interesting buy-in, therefore marketing its importance.

Students who engage in the symposium are in residence for three days. They camp at Village Creek State Park located fifteen miles to the east. Village Creek State Park contains an intact portion of the Trail of Tears, which was one of the used to satisfy the Jacksonian Indian Removal Act of 1830. Prior to 1830, many of the indigenous populations were forced to leave their lands voluntarily. The Indian Removal Act was a piece of US Government Legislation that made it law, making removal forcible and mandatory. The five southeastern nations, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole traveled through Arkansas on their way to Oklahoma between 1830 and 1850. The Choctaw were the first to relocate. Their journey began in 1830. At first, they took a southern water route through Arkansas Post. However, in 1832, they crossed the Mississippi at Memphis and traveled along the Memphis Little Rock Military Road. There is a historical marker commemorating this in Marion that is dated 1831. 11 In 1836, the Creek were forced to move after negotiations that started in 1832 failed. In 1837, the Chickasaw were relocated. Finally, the Seminole, whose removal triggered a 7-year war, were forced from their tribal lands in 1843.12 The Village Creek interpreter staff offer interpretive hikes along this two-mile section of Old Military Road. The tours walk the trail in the reverse direction and with reverence for the hollowed ground beneath the feet of those hiking it.

The curriculum for the weekend is planned around being immersed in layers of local history while students interact with each other and the ceramics collection at Parkin. Foodways for the weekend oscillate between the effort to have a pre-contact heritage diet that consists of native foods found prior to the European interaction. We also consume removal foods, such as frybread, to bring attention to a painful cross-state journey that was endured by thousands of people and to prepare students to think about the hallowed ground they would soon be exploring. We prepare post-contact foods that have evolved into traditional foods after removal. And finally, we mix it up with pop-culture foods such as pop-tart s'mores and pitfire grilled cheese.

After the fire is smothered and the pots are cleaned and photographed. We return the samples to the archeologist and reflect upon the work as well as the experience. It is wonderful to understand the impact of the project as a whole and yet understand where there is room for improvement. Review and research are ongoing, allowing the anticipation for next year to build steadily.


1. Ar kansas State Parks,“Evidence of the Expedition”, museum label, Parkin Archeological Park, Parkin, Arkansas, September 12, 2019. Also see the explanation of historical archeology in James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten, (New York: Anchor Books, 1995), ix-284, 9.

2. Arkansas State Parks, “Evidence of the Expedition” , museum label, Parkin Archeological Park, Parkin, Arkansas, October 13, 2023.

3. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten, 79-81.

4. IBID, Clarksdale Bell label. This label is an example of how many of the labels read. It is offset to the main description of the DeSoto Expedition, it describes several artifacts, a chevron bead, found in 1966 and a bell and some lead shot for a matchlockgun found in the 1990’s. They are labeled as Spanish artifacts.

5. This is what students came to learn first hand about the materials they are using as ceramic artists. This is the cross curricular connection between science, preservation and art.

6. James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten, 68-69.

7. James F. Cherry, The Headpots of Northeast Arkansas and Southern Pemiscot County, Missouri, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009), ix-227, 1-3.

8. Ibid, 34, 81. This might also be interpreted as an socio-technic factor as it clearly shows the potential as industry.

9. The tornado was the f4 storm that hit the city of Wynne, AR on March 31, 2023. The impact to nearby Parkin was not as severe.

10. Dan F. Morse, Phyllis A. Morse, ed., The Lower Mississippi Valley Expeditions of Clarence Bloomfield Moore, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998), 1-438. This resource has selected field note descriptions of potsfound in the Lower Mississippi Valley, there is a small section that deals with the “Antiquties of the St. Francis River Valley”. A more poignant resource is James F. Cherry, The Headpots of Northeast Arkansas and Southern Pemiscot County, Missouri, (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2009), ix-227, 1-3. This resource goes in depth historiographically. Cherry draws from all research to pose critical questions about interpretations.

11. The National Park Service, "The Trail of Tears and the Forced Relocation of the Cherokee Nation (Teaching with Historic Places)," National Park Service, accessed October 12, 2o23,%2C%20Creek%2C%20and%20Seminole%20tribes.. Also, Sasha Bowles, "The Trail of Tears Across Arkansas State Parks," Arkansas State Parks, Accessed October 12, 2023 . And Arkansas Tourism, " Native American Heritage in Arkansas: Trail of Tears," Arkansas Tourism, accessed October 12, 2023 .

12. IBID.


Amber Williams Dunn
Amber Williams Dunn
Oct 23, 2023

This was a great project to be a part of. Thank you for putting this all together and thank you to all the park workers!! It was a pleasure to meet so many interesting folks from the other schools and studios as well.

Lisa Floryshak
Lisa Floryshak
Oct 23, 2023
Replying to

I am so glad you got so much out of it.

bottom of page