USM Researchers Date Timbers from North Mississippi Structure to 1734

From: The University of Southern Mississippi - Van Arnold

What began with a random phone call became an intense research project that led to remarkable discoveries by a group of professors and students at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

Assistant Professor of geography Dr. Tommy Patterson, Associate Professor of geography Dr. David Holt, and Associate Professor of geography Dr. Grant Harley joined forces to assist archaeologists in determining the age of timbers used in construction of the historic Colbert-Walker home site near Tupelo, Miss.

After nearly two years of painstaking analysis, the group formed a startling conclusion: pine wood from the Colbert-Walker structure could be traced back to 1734. What that means is that the former home represents one of the oldest, if not the oldest, dendro-dated (a scientific method of dating tree rings to the exact year they were formed) structures in the Gulf South region.

When asked to describe his emotions upon learning the timbers’ pre-Revolutionary War date, Patterson said: “Jubilation. This particular result came after months of trial and error, leaving us wondering if the material was un-datable.”

In fact, the project had almost run its course until Patterson came up with a last-ditch idea.

“At the 11th hour I suggested to my colleagues that we try a slightly different approach to cross-dating and everything finally fell into place,” said Patterson. “I think Grant Harley worked late into the night once the dating finally showed promise, and I woke up to emails the following morning with lots of exclamation points. Needless to say, it was a fantastic finding for our group.”

Still unsure, Holt acknowledges that he did not trust the results initially and continued working in confirmation mode for a few weeks thereafter.

“I rebuilt the reference chronologies, remeasured all of the samples, and reconstructed the process probably four times,” he noted. “Then, once I confirmed the dates by exhausting all possible interpretations of the reference chronologies, I simply called my colleagues and said, ‘The numbers are good! It is ready for reviewers.’ ”

Countless hours were spent on the project that also included valuable contributions from USM undergraduate and graduate students. Two exhaustive sampling trips were made to Tupelo in March and October of 2019.

“We are extremely grateful for our student volunteers who crawled around an old house for the sake of research,” said Patterson.

The unlikely adventure began in 2018 when Patterson was contacted by archaeologist Raymond Doherty, who sought the professor’s help dating timbers from three structures in the Tupelo area. Doherty was working with the Chickasaw nation to determine if the structures were of Chickasaw origin.

“Our goal was to date them to the early 1800s. At that time, I was in the second year of my visiting position at USM with no lab or funding for research, so I called my colleagues – Drs. Holt and Harley – and asked for their help,” said Patterson. “We formed a research team and started the project in early 2019.”


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