Louisiana's Disappearing Coast Takes Ancient History With It

Feb 29, 2016

The loss of Louisiana’s coast due to saltwater intrusion, sea level rise and industry is a big problem for the environment and the economy. But it could also change our understanding of the state’s history. In some places, the water is taking with it ancient Native American sites, posing challenges for archaeologists.

Richie Blink is a community organizer for the National Wildlife Federation in Plaquemines Parish, where he grew up. When he was a kid his dad showed him a special place. With little Richie at the helm, they would head out to fish in Bay Adams, near Empire, about an hour south of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi River.

After leaving the docks they would wind through the waterways and to the floodgates, which opened to the wide open bay.

“We would come out of the floodgates and my dad would say ‘head for the ‘Lemon Trees!’” says Blink.

What’s locally known as the "Lemon Trees” is a stand of weathered old trees on a grassy tuft of land. It’s a well-known landmark for fishermen, but they would rarely stop there to hunt or fish because it’s a sacred Native American site.

“The older folks always discouraged us from going, out of respect,” says Blink. “The legend goes that you were always to bring some kind of sacrifice, so somebody left some lemons for the ancestors.”

Those lemons grew into big trees with grapefruit-sized lemons. But then, they stopped producing fruit and started dying off. As land was lost to the Gulf of Mexico, saltwater made its way into the freshwater marsh, killing off the trees and other plants. Blink watched from afar as they became dead trunks.

Respecting the place used to mean not going there. “But now that it’s washing away, I think it’s important that it needs to be seen before it gets lost,” says Blink.

To document the place, track its damage, and save something from it before it all dissolved, Blink started to "head for the Lemon Trees" — and go directly ashore.

Now the island that used to hold a citrus grove has only a few live trees at all. The edges of this scrappy wind-beaten patch of land are crumbling. Waves beat against the dirt, washing it away, exposing shards of ancient pottery.

Richie Blink holds pottery shards he picked out of the waves at an ancient Native American mound near Buras.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

Blink hops down off his boat, pulls it up on the eroding bank, and reaches down to pick up an unassuming brown shard out of the waves.

“You can see, it’s just everywhere... there’s just shards of it all over the place,” he says. “This is earthen pottery made by natives. This site is in the process of being destroyed. It only has a few more years left.”

It is an ancient Native American site and an important archaeological find. It’s one of many historic sites being lost to the Gulf as rising seas and saltwater intrusion eat away at Louisiana’s fragile marshes.

When Blink saw how fast it was eroding he decided to find an archaeologist and ask for help. He saw an op-ed about another endangered historic site and called the writer, Brian Ostahowski. Ostahowski works as an investigator with a private archaeology company, SEARCH Inc.

Ostahowski gets a lot of calls like this, at least once a month. People who say, “'I have a great archaeological site in my backyard.’ And chances are they usually do,” he says.

So he hopped in a boat with Richie Blink and went out there, “Richie wasn’t lying,” says Ostahowski. “This is actually a very, very important archaeological site.”

Richie Blink's boat sits on the edge of the site locals call the "Lemon Trees."
Credit Richie Blink

Based on the pottery and the soils, Ostahowski says native people lived at the site 300-500 years ago. The pieces of broken pottery are probably from an ancient trash pile, called a midden. There could even be human remains there.

“You’re talking about a whole ceremonial center that could tell you about lifeways or the change of lifeways that’s going to be completely gone within ten years," Ostahowski says. "It maybe took 300 years of occupation there.”

Ostahowski took samples of the soil for radiocarbon dating. He wants to learn more, like for how long people lived there and how many different occupations there might have been. These details could help fill gaps in our understanding of the prehistoric Plaquemine culture of what’s called the Bayou Petre phase.

But the truth is, there just isn’t much time.

Richie Blink holds pottery shards that could be 300-500 years old, from the prehistoric Plaquemine culture of what’s called the Bayou Petre phase.
Credit Tegan Wendland / WWNO

“We’re talking about different ways that we can come up with kind of an emergency action, or emergency excavations,” he says.

Unlike the usual slow-paced archaeology dig, Ostahowski wants to excavate the mound as soon as possible and haul all of those bits of pottery and other artifacts back to shore to study them. He’s applying for some federal and private grant money to pay for it.

For Blink, it’s more than ancient history at stake. It’s personal history, where he grew up.

He honors that in his own way. The last time he visited the site he brought some lemons and left them as an offering. Now they sit, under a windswept tree on top of the small mound, drying up in the shade.