by Robert Connolly
We are putting the final touches on our construction of a replica Mississippian era house here at Chucalissa. As the photo above shows, in the past, Chucalissa had a village of replica houses. These houses fell into disrepair and were removed from the site over 10 years ago. The primary reason for their deterioration was that the replica houses built at Chucalissa in the 1960s were made almost entirely from the same natural materials Native Americans would have used 500 years before. Although this practice provided a greater sense of authenticity to the houses, the organic materials created problems in upkeep.
In 1976, Gerald Smith, then Curator at Chucalissa solicited advice from other archaeological sites in the United States and Europe on this problem. He wrote:
For many years we have had reconstructions of thatched-roof prehistoric houses at Chucalissa. In the past we had been able to obtain sufficient quantities of grass and inexpensive labor to keep them in proper repair, but this is no longer the case . . . which cuts the useful life span of the outer (thatch) layer to about 3 years.
Typical of the responses is one he received from James Sullivan of the National Park Service who wrote:
We regret that we can be of little assistance to you in resolving your roofing problem. We had a disastrous fire recently . . . and based upon our past experience with a thatched roof we opted for a tile-type roof instead.
Obviously, a tile roof on a house meant as a replica of a 1500 AD structure was not going to work at Chucalissa!
Over the past year we grappled with the issue of building replica houses again at Chucalissa. We had several concerns. Our first concern was that we did not want the constructions to disturb the mounds and ridges that make up the Chucalissa site. Second, we wanted to be observant and sensitive to the legacy of the descendents of the Native Americans who first lived at what we now call the Chucalissa site hundreds of years ago. Third, prior to even building the first replica house, we wanted to be certain that they could be maintained into the future.
We are pleased to announce that we were able address these issues in the replica house that we will premier this coming Saturday, October 20th at our National Archaeology Day event.
First, the replica house that we are completing is built over a previously excavated part of the Chucalissa site. Therefore, we will not disturb any intact archaeological deposits. Second, the house is located outside of the mound-plaza complex area assuring the space’s integrity. In fact, the previously excavated area where the modern replica will stand is the place where residential houses were first built over 700 years ago. And third, the walls of the house will be made of concrete and the thatch is a synthetic product that will last for at least 20 years. We are also pleased that this replica house will look as authentic as the 1960s era replicas. In the coming months we will expand the features around this replica house to include a corn crib, drying rack, and other features that one would expect to find at a typical residential house of prehistoric Native Americans.
Please be certain to visit us this Saturday, or at some point in the near future to tell us what you think of our solution to the problem Gerald Smith faced back in the 1970s!
Robert Connolly is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum and an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis.