GRAND JUNCTION, Tenn. -- Here once was the home of American Indians with a culture far removed from the tepees, wigs and wigwams of TV Indians.
A village slowly being unearthed on the Ames Plantation was a distant neighbor to Memphis' Chucalissa Indian Village. The residents were among hundreds of Mississippian Culture villages along the waterways of the Mississippi River Valley.
"In many ways their surroundings would be like a church today," says Ames cultural resource manager Jamie Evans.
A multitheistic society, the American Indians worshipped the sun, trees, land and water. In the end, they may have been punished by the same forces and driven away.
Their fate is one of the questions University of Memphis archaeology professor Andrew Mickelson ponders when he brings students to the site beside the north fork of the Wolf River for field work each summer. The students dig, scrape and filter soil through mesh screens in search of any shard or fragment that might hold a clue to how the Indians lived and why they left.
The eight-acre site had been used for cash crops at Ames until Mickelson asked to visit in 2009. He knew of a mound complex with four mounds discovered at the site in the 1960s and suspected there must be more.
Mickelson brought a ground-penetrating radar device called a gradiometer. Available for only about a decade, it is a $20,000 variation of a magnetometer that lets the user peer four feet below the surface of the soil for any unusual features.
Archaeology moves at a glacial pace, but Mickelson's visit turned into his "aha!" moment.
The readings showed not only anomalies beneath the soil but also patterns that Mickelson could identify as houses in an L-shaped pattern around a plaza surrounded by a 1,000-foot-long palisade wall made of logs sunk into the ground side by side.
Within a week, he identified about 24 houses inside the palisade and estimated a population of 200 to 250 people over time. The houses were made of wooden support posts with branches and saplings woven through the posts and covered with mud daub.
Radiocarbon dating helped him estimate that the Indians lived at the site for 125 to 150 years between 1050 and 1200.
"There was no serious occupation again until American settlers moved in in the late 18th and early 19th centuries," he says.
The Ames complex Indians had left by the time Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492. Climate is a suspect in abandonment of the Ames complex.
The Indians lived there during what is known as the Medieval Warming Period, says Mickelson. With it came drought. Warfare also may have played a role.
"You wouldn't have a palisaded village unless it was for a reason. That wall was to keep people out," says Scott Hadley, graduate assistant in the Memphis university's earth sciences department.
The biggest Mississippian Culture site, Cahokia, was just across the Mississippi River from modern St. Louis. Archeologists estimate its population up to 30,000 in 1250 -- roughly the size of London at the time.
Like the far smaller Ames village, the 2,200-acre Cahokia site was abandoned more than a century before the arrival of Europeans in North America. Charles McNutt, university professor emeritus of archaeology, suggests it had simply become "overpopulated" and used up available resources.
There was little danger of using up resources at Ames. Mickelson says Mississippian villages tended to be 20 to 30 miles apart. Travel was slow because the Indians had no horses. In fact, they had no domesticated animals except dogs.
That means a day in the life of a Mississippian Indian was "a lot of work," says Mickelson.
"There was clearing fields for crops, cutting firewood, bringing in water, cooking meals, hunting," he says. "You were pretty busy from dawn to dusk."
Mickelson's wife, paleoethnobotanist Katherine Mickelson, says the farm crops and diet were largely corn, squash and beans with deer and fish. Chores would have become highly specialized, with leaders to coordinate what needed to be done.
"People have a stereotypical image of lack of sophistication," she says. "That's just not true. You're talking about a highly sophisticated group of people."