Watson Brake

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Culture(s) Unknown
Temporal Period(s) Archaic Period

Summary Details


  • Earliest mound-building complex in North America
  • Pre-dates Poverty Point
  • "Watson Brake Objects"
  • Micro-drills and bead making

Site Description

Watson Brake is Archaic mound complex, most likely Middle-Late Archaic. It is often divided up into two sections: the northernmost mounds and southernmost mounds, each completing half of a circular-like mound. There are a total of 11 mounds at Watson Brake, most of which have been dated by auguring (Saunders et al., 2005). The use of these mounds is still undecided, however there is evidence of feasting and domestic use being present, along with bead-making and tool-making (Saunders et al., 2005).

A Site Map of Watson Brake

Research History

The majority of research conducted on this site is by archaeologist Joe W. Saunders. However, the more recent work is being conducted by graduate students (see Current Investigations). While a great deal of work has been conducted at the site, there is still a lack of insight as to what Watson Brake is.

Site Discovery

Watson Brake was first discovered by Reca Jones and Stephen Williams who sketched out the first drawings of the complex in 1981 (Saunders et al., 2005). At this time only 7 of the 11 mounds were found and sketched by the Jones and Williams, as it was the following year that the remaining four mounds were identified and sketched (Saunders et al., 2005). The year following their initial discovery, a number of other archaeologists went to the site, conducting further research on the mound complex (Saunders et al., 2005). However, at first glance, Poverty Point like objects cause archaeologists to believe Watson Brake was of the same era of Poverty Point. However, this mound complex was owned partially by a local farmer, restricting testing of Watson Brake to the northern-most mounds (Saunders et al., 2005). Later, the whole mound complex was bought by the Archaeology Conservatory, then to the State of Louisiana (Saunders et al., 2005).

Major Finds/Insights

The major contribution Watson Brake makes to North American archaeology is its time period. Watson Brake predates Poverty Point, which was originally considered to be the oldest mound building complex within North America (Saunders et al., 2005). In doing so, the discovery of Watson Brake has shifted our understanding of early mound building and its chronology in North America. Archaeologists are left to question particular relationships between Poverty Point groups and Watson Brake, and whether or not Poverty Point is a sub-group of the Watson Brake culture. More testing is needed to better understand this concept.

As discussed more in detail further below, Watson Brake ‘objects’ are also a major find at this site. Similar in nature to Poverty Point objects (PPOs), Watson brake ‘objects’ seem to be used for a different purpose and are shaped differently than PPOs (Saunders et al., 1998). It has been hypothesized that the Watson Brake Objects maybe be present on the site in relation to the bead-making technologies (Saunders et al., 1998).. The authors in the paper by (Saunders et al., 1998). suggest that these objects were used for baking the beads found in massive quantities at Watson Brake.

In addition, there is vast collection of lithics found at Watson Brake. Most importantly, there are three different types of projectile points found, representing three very distinct styles - Evans, Ellis and Ponchartrain points (Saunders et al., 2005). These represent a possible trade network or the exchange of ideas around the landscape by the residents of Watson Brake.

Current Investigations

The majority of new research being conducted at this site is being completed by graduate students, completing their PhD dissertations as well as conducting their master's theses. This includes the work of Daniel A. Bush, Sarah M. Caughron and Cora J. Dunaway. Saunders and his team, since the purchase of Watson Brake by the Archaeological Conservatory, have discovered a variety of new insight of the purpose and use of the mound at Watson Brake.

Daniel A. Bush Bush is a Master's student completing a master's thesis under the careful guidance of James K. Feathers, one of the major contributors to the work being completed at Watson Brake, partner with Joe W. Saunders (Bush, 2008). His work focuses on the application of luminescence dating on the Mississippian River Valley mounds, firmly dating them (Bush, 2008). Previous to his work, Watson brake was dated a number of times, using a variety of methods ( Saunders et al., 1997). However, this is why he believes that Watson Brake is an ideal candidate for this testing and dating method, so that his results can be compared across the board (Bush, 2008). He was able to conclude that Watson Brake predates the mound complex at Poverty Point, which was originally considered the oldest mound complex (Bush, 2008).

Sarah M. Caughron Caughron conducted research at Watson Brake pertaining to the environment of the site, through the presence of Freshwater Mussel found there (Caughron, 2009). Throughout her master's thesis, she explains how comparing the shells of mussels found archaeologically there, she was able to compare them to present day mussels to determine environmental changes, as well as reconstruct climate details during the site's occupation (Caughron, 2009). She explains that this site was in existence during a period of climatic variation, therefore she concluded that this site might have been ritualistic or ceremonial in response to the changing environment (Caughron, 2009).

Cora J. Dunaway The research conducted by Dunaway compares a variety of mound complexes, seeking out the spiritual connections tied to the Mississippian River Valley (Dunaway, 2008). She applied ethnographic records and oral traditions of the area to try and decipher the reasoning for mound building (Dunaway, 2008). She also looks into Watson Brake itself and tries to apply a fresh outlook on how these mounds were used(Dunaway, 2008). However, even after her research, we are still unaware of the use of the Watson Brake mounds (Dunaway, 2008).

Site Reports

  1. (Saunders et al., 2005)
  2. (Saunders et al., 1997)

Formation and Occupational History

Material Culture

  1. Microdrills and beads
  2. Watson Brake Objects
  3. Flaked tools and cores
  4. Bi-facial tools (Evans, Ellis and Ponchartrain points)
  5. Bladelets and Blade cores
  6. Hammerstones
  7. Bone and Antler tools
  8. Manuports

Watson Brake Objects

In 1998, an article by Saunders et al recorded the appearance of an unusual object found at the Watson Brake site (Saunders et al., 1998). They noted that these objects were similar in nature to Poverty Point objects, yet were distinctive enough to be considered their own category of artifact (Saunders et al., 1998). Poverty point artifacts are circular objects that are buried underground for cooking purposes (Saunders et al., 1998). Later, these Watson Brake objects were found at three other Middle Archaic sites: Frenchmen’s Bend Mounds, Lower Jackson, and Plum Creek Archaic (Saunders et al., 1998). Watson Brake artifacts are square in shape who's function is still undecided (Saunders et al., 1998). There are suggestions that these objects may be related to bead making, due to the vast number of beads also found at these sites (Saunders et al., 1998). However, since this work, there has been a lack of in-depth research conducted on these Watson Brake objects. There is a need for more research to be completed before any firm conclusions can be made on the purpose of these objects and their association to Poverty Point objects.

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