Reading Jenny Ellerbe and Diana M. Greenlee’s new book about Poverty Point is like sitting down and having a conversation with them.
Having an actual conversation with them about Poverty Point, the UNESCO World Heritage site in northeast Louisiana about which both women are passionate, is much more gratifying.
“It’s this crazy great site,” says Greenlee, station archaeologist at Povery Point and an adjunct professor of archaeology in the School of Sciences at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. “They did these amazing things and people need to know.”
Hence the book, “Poverty Point: Revealing the Forgotten City,” published in April by LSU Press.
Some of those amazing things people do know. There are the mounds, the spear points and other artifiacts. But mostly — and this might be a problem — Poverty Point is an open field with mounds and ridges of dirt.
“It’s one of the oldest built places in North America and people just drive right by it,” Ellerbe says. She is a fine art photographer who grew up in the area, but only learned about the site a decade or so ago. People she talked to about her project knew Poverty Point was there, but were unable to grasp it’s significance.
“They said, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve been out there. I drove around. It’s a big field,’” she says.
To appreciate the site, mostly built 1700-100 B.C., takes some imagination.
“You have to work at it to understand it,” Greenlee says. “You look at something like Stonehenge and, aesthetically, that’s really cool.”
But Poverty Point is just open field with rolling ridges and hills. No temples, no buildings survive the ages. Just artifacts like the Poverty Point Objects, grooved ball-like cooking stones; stoneware and tools; and other ephemera of their paleo life.
“It’s fascinating to me to hold these things in my hand to identify with the people who made them,” Ellerbe says. “What were they thinking?”
Greenlee, who has been at Poverty Point for nine years, says that while we know a lot about these Native Americans who built the site, there are some things we may never know. Like what they were, in fact, thinking.
“Anything about their intention or thought, we’ll probably never know,” she says.
Questions remain about why they built their houses up on the ridges and how they got tons and tons of rock to the banks of Bayou Maçon, a site with no native rock. And why did they build those giant mounds? And where did all the inhabitants go?
In 2014, the United Nations tapped Poverty Point as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Other World Heritage sites include Angkor in Cambodia, the Great Wall of China, the Acropolis at Athens, the Taj Mahal in India and Petra in Jordan.
Poverty Point is older than all of those.
“It’s a totally original design,” Greenlee says. “There’s nothing like it in the world.”
The designation doesn’t mean the U.N. controls Poverty Point; the state of Louisiana still holds that honor. But it can mean more tourism. Greenlee says many vacationers treat the Heritage Site list like their bucket list.
“For me, it’s recognition of the significance of the site,” she says. “Now, basically, the world recognizes this is an outstanding site that is valuable in understanding the history of humanity.”