Tuesday, May 10, 2011

National Museum of Funeral History

Amanda has been eyeing this museum since Glory first moved to Texas and informed us that there is actually a museum of funeral history, and it is 10 minutes from her apartment.

We found a rather expansive museum containing various exhibits.

There were dozens of hearses from various time periods.

Funeral bus, designed as an attempt to cut down on long funeral processions

Japanese hearse
We also saw various styles of coffins.  This is a 3 person coffin.  It was built at request of a couple whose child had died.  They decided that the husband would kill his wife then commit suicide, and they would all be buried together.  However, they got cold feet and went on living for many years.  When the husband died (of natural causes), the wife went back to the coffin maker and said they no longer needed the coffin and asked for her money back.  She was denied.

3 person coffin

There was also a novelty money coffin, used for display.

Funeral bling

Novelty coffins

There was an exhibit on the history of embalming, from ancient Egypt, to the Civil War, to present day.

Civil War battlefield embalming station
We also saw examples of how people mourned and buried the dead throughout the ages.

There was an exhibit on papal funerals.

Recreation of Pope John Paul II's funeral

Traditionally, the dead pope was hit on the forehead with the silver hammer to make sure he was dead.
This tradition evolved over time into breaking his ceremonial ring with the hammer,
and covering his face with a white cloth.



Monday, May 9, 2011

Poverty Point

Day 4 - A Q&A session with our resident archeologist

Q (Mary): What is Poverty Point?
A (Amanda): It's an archaic mound site.  More specifically, it's a 3000 year old city built on ridges with a big giant bird shaped hill.

As it was 3000 years ago
(from 1000 ft in the air)

As it is today

Q.  Why is it called Poverty Point?
A.  Per our tour guide, a plantation owner bought this land and ran a plantation.  Unlike the land across the way, this land is windswept and acidic.  He got less than half his normal yield.  He's said to have exclaimed "This will be my poverty point!"

Q: What's with all the ridges?
A: 3000 years ago, people wanted to build a city and they didn't want it to get wet, so they mounded up dirt and built their huts on top of them to keep them dry on the flood plain.  The 6 ridges could have been lived on by up to 1000 people.  They also built the bird mound for ritual stuff, and a central mound where the leader lived.  If the mounds were stretched out and laid end to end, they would stretch 7.5 miles. It took approx 10 million hand carried baskets of dirt to make the mounds..

Look for alternating dark and light lines of grass - The dark lines are the ridges.
A few feet tall today, but originally would have been 8-10 feet tall

Q.  Why don't the ridges and mounds look like much anymore?
A.  3000 years of erosion will do that.  Plus, people have been farming the site for hundreds of years until 1972.  Considering how old they are, it's lucky they can still be seen at all.

The bird mound (looks like a flying bird from above)
7 stories tall today, probably 10 when first constructed

Q.  What kinds of artifacts were found there?
A. Remains of stone vessels, clay cooking balls, lots of bifaces (spear points), chipped stone tools made from materials imported from areas as far as the Appalacians and Michigan. No pottery - they didn't make any.  Lots of bird effigies and Venus figurines, and beads.

Venus figurines
Cooking stones and tools

Q. Why is this site so important archeologically?
A.  It's the second largest mound site in the USA, and the oldest.  It shows that people were living in complex societies even before the advent of agriculture and animal domestication, which were assumed to be precursors of civilization.  This site was lived in when Homer wrote the Oddessy, when the Egyptians moved from the Old Kingdom into the New Kingdom, and when Hinduism developed.

Q. Any final thoughts on Poverty Point?
A.  It was cool. I liked it.  They have a nice set up.  Also, bulldozers and mound sites don't mix.  And, if they must, you shouldn't invent findings when you don't find stuff.  And the carriage road over the one mound was pretty interesting.

The "dent" in this smaller mound was caused by excavation with a bulldozer in the 1950s.
Originally this mound was conical, with the top of the cone formed by stacking woven baskets full of dirt.

Vicksburg Nat'l Military Park - Soo Many Monuments

Day 4 - We arrived in Vicksburg and had our first look at the mighty Mississippi.

We proceeded to the Vicksburg battlefield park, which is a large drive-thru tour of the entire battleline that surrounded the town of Vicksburg during the Civil War.

We equipped the car for battle and headed off.

The conflict at Vicksburg lasted for months, was fought from the river and earth embankments, and ultimately culminated in a siege.Many many people were killed, and there seems to be a monument to almost every one of them peppered throughout the park.  Here's a short sampling...

Pickwell, head of the Confederate Forces
Grant (Union) - statue twice as big as Pickwell's
To the victor go the big statues
Illinois monument

One of many other state monuments

Many of the earth embankments which were constructed to shelter men and cannons still exist.

Confederates built this embankment.  Union soldiers attempted
to fight their way up the hill into a wall of enemy fire and were
repelled with heavy casualties.
The USS Cairo was an ironclad steamship which was the first vessel ever destroyed by an electrical mine.  The ship, salvaged from the Mississippi, is in the park and can be walked on.

Where the Cairo was hit by the mine

A small museum displays artifacts of everyday life on a steamship left when the crew escaped (all survived).

The Confederates surrendered on July 4. Vicksburg did not celebrate Independence Day for 80 years after the war ended.  After the war, the town was patrolled by African American Union soldiers.  This statue is a tribute to them.

We would have liked to have several days to fully explore this site, which could easily be hiked through for weeks.  There are hundreds of plaques of information that could be read.  In fact, your park admission fee is good for 7 days of entrance to the park.  Sadly, our 3 hour tour was at an end, and we headed for Poverty Point.

West of the Mississsippi, here we come!


Amanda is still on a quest to find herself.  Check in on this post again later to see if she's done so yet.

Moundville Archeological Park

Or, Having your own personal archeologist: Priceless

Day 3 - As we drove into Alabama and grew tired of keeping track of the ever-increasing armadillo body count, I asked Amanda (let's call her Indiana Amanda - picture the hat, and running from a large boulder - when visiting archeological sites) to give me an introduction to Moundville.  Indiana Amanda described the "cosmology" of United States archeology - the time periods and what distinguishes them, the confusion caused by different useges of some of the terms, and the general landscape of what is known and not known about paleo, archaic, woodland, and historic Native Americans.

Moundville as people think it once looked

Apparently, mound building was the thing to do in the posh circles of Native America.  Whether to live on top of them as the chieftan, as in the case of Moundville, or perhaps to just celebrate rituals, or something entirely else, it is often hard to tell the exact purpose of the mounds.  Moundville is a circle of dirt mounds built by Mississipians, slogging basket after basket of dirt on into piles, creating ponds and an inflated sense of ego for the chieftan (warning - account may not be accurate - I am not an archeologist).  Here we see the immediate ego impact of standing on top of piles of dirt.

There are over 30 mounds dotting this area in an approximate rectangle, which were surrounded by a big fence to keep out other people who were perhaps keen to throw their own dirt into a pile, but not deemed worthy.

We visited the very nice museum on the grounds.

It featured some of the fantastic artistic pottery and copper objects found at the site, which was the subject of intense excavation by the Civilian Conservation Corp during the depression, and continued to be a focal point of archeological interest through to the present.

Ooo, artifacts.

Next up was a recreated Native American village, in which we learned that the natives apparently suffered from melting body parts while in their huts.  After all, it is the blazing hot south.

Check out melted neck man on the left

The site is located along the Black Warrior River, which was lovely.

Later, while driving to Mississippi, we drove over it on a bridge and saw the massive flooding caused by the recent onslaught of storms.  An entire swatch of woodland was half submerged, with tiny tree tops poking out in the middle of the expansive river.

So, what did I learn from Indiana Amanda today?  First, that I am definitely not cut out to be a cavewoman or Mississippian or anything more rugged than a well-equipped roadtripper.  Second, that archeology is a messy, ill-defined field of study, in which almost anything can sound plausible but usually requires back breaking work and almost impossible luck to be supported by actual evidence.  Better Indiana Amanda than Indiana Mary, that's for sure.


Amanda is still on a quest to find her true self.  Check in on this post later to find out how that's going.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

"In Lynchburg, there's nothing but whiskey and time."

Day 3: The Jack Daniel's tour

"I'm from LA - lower Alabama" twanged Scarlett, our tour guide, at the top of the tour.

She took us on a bus (driver's name - Porky) to see where they make their own sugar cane charcoal.  This is used to purify the whiskey, making it a Tennessee whiskey.  This, Scarlett told us, is what makes it different than those SOBs - Some Other Brand.

Porky takes our picture

We then walked to the crystal clear waters of the cave spring, used to make the whiskey, and toured the original office of Jack himself.

We walked through the various buildings where the grain is fermented, filtered, barreled, tasted, and bottled, and were offered the chance to buy our very own barrel (53 gallons) of whiskey, and thereby get our name on a plaque.  We declined, sadly.

This black moss grows on all the trees around the distillery due to the whiskey fumes in the air.  It isn't harmful.  They used to search for bootleggers in the woods during Prohibition by looking for this moss on the trees.

We rounded out the tour with a free glass of JD yellow label, for it is located in a dry county.