Lower Mississippi Survey

The Lower Mississippi Survey (LMS) was established in 1939 as a collaborative long-term research program to systematically survey and study the archaeological record of a large section of the Lower Mississippi River Alluvial Valley. The program was conceived and jointly founded by three individuals: James A. Ford (1911–68) of Louisiana State University, James B. Griffin (1905–97) of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, and Philip Phillips (1900–1994) of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. Their combined efforts and involvement in LMS investigations laid the foundation for archaeological research in the Lower Mississippi Valley, and the program they created engaged in regional research since its conception. For more than half a century, the LMS played a major role in illuminating the cultural history of one of the most archaeologically significant regions in the United States and stood as one of the most pivotal research endeavors in the history of Eastern North American archaeology.

Although the geographic range of LMS projects later expanded, the initial research focused on an area of the Mississippi River Alluvial Valley from northeastern Arkansas to the southern part of Mississippi’s Yazoo Basin. At the time, the prehistory of this portion of the Mississippi River landscape was poorly understood. Archaeologists were beginning to reconstruct prehistoric chronologies and define cultural sequences for adjacent regions of the floodplain to the north and south. However, little was known about the pre-Mississippian cultural history within the vast floodplain bottomlands extending from the mouth of the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois, south to Vicksburg.

To address the void in archaeological knowledge of this region, a large-scale systematic survey project was devised. Fieldwork commenced in 1940 and was implemented over five field seasons (each lasting no longer than two months) between 1940 and 1947. During the fieldwork, more than twelve thousand square miles were surveyed and 382 archaeological sites were documented (only 60 of which had previously been known to archaeologists). In addition, twenty stratigraphic test pits were excavated at eleven different sites, and more than 346,000 potsherds were examined during subsequent laboratory analysis.

The research findings and the vast quantity of data amassed from this initial ambitious project were compiled in a 457-page monograph, Archaeological Survey of the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1940–1947 (1951). The landmark publication defined the standard for archaeological research and reporting in the region and remains a paramount reference for scholars working in the Southeast. The researchers established the basic chronology and ceramic typology for the entire Yazoo Basin of Mississippi as well as for much of eastern Arkansas. In the process, they refined existing analytical methods of ceramic seriation and pottery classification techniques. Previously undocumented earlier pre-Mississippian cultural manifestations were identified in the study area, and a cultural sequence that spanned a greater period of antiquity was constructed to accommodate this new information. In addition to greatly enhancing our understanding of the breadth and time depth of the region’s prehistoric record, the project addressed the geological context of the study area. Phillips, Ford, and Griffin realized the importance of geomorphology to understanding the archaeology of the region, forming the foundation for a long tradition of collaboration between geologists and archaeologists working in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

The initial LMS publication provided the base for and source of much of the subsequent work in the Lower Valley. Data and insight provided by the text gave birth to a series of new, more specific regional research issues that engendered the next phase of LMS-affiliated investigations. In 1949 Phillips, who served as the first LMS director, began a six-year focused survey project of the Lower Yazoo Basin. The resulting two-volume monograph, Archaeological Survey in the Lower Yazoo Basin, Mississippi, 1949–1955 (1970), included notable sections on method and theory and advanced the discourse on regional cultural chronologies. The work also made significant contributions to southeastern ceramic typologies, and the publication’s detailed descriptions and illustrations are still used to aid pottery classification. Two additional large-scale LMS research projects were undertaken in the Yazoo Basin of Mississippi during the 1950s. The 1951 excavations at the Jaketown site in Humphreys County helped define the position of Poverty Point culture in relation to the existing southeastern prehistoric sequence and generated an acute research interest in the Late Archaic culture. Stephen Williams of Harvard University was appointed LMS director in 1958 and began intensive investigation of the Lake George Site in Yazoo County that year. The Lake George research helped to outline the developmental history of the large multicomponent settlement, tracing the cultural changes among its inhabitants as well as the evolution of the site’s natural and constructed landscape through time.

Williams remained the LMS director until 1993, and during his tenure the number of participants and areal scope of LMS projects expanded considerably. Field research was conducted from southeastern Missouri and southwestern Kentucky to the mouth of the Mississippi River. The Boeuf Basin in northeastern Louisiana and coastal areas were also investigated. In additional to advancing our understanding of the regional prehistoric record, the numerous LMS projects trained a diverse group of archaeologists. Until 2003 the LMS program remained involved in regional archaeological research under director Tristram R. Kidder of Washington University in St. Louis. An archive of past LMS work is housed at the University of North Carolina Research Laboratories of Archaeology.

Further Reading

  • Jay K. Johnson, in Histories of Southeastern Archaeology, ed. Shannon Tushingham, Jane Hill, and Charles H. McNutt (2002)
  • LMS Archives Online, Research Laboratories of Archaeology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, http://rla.unc.edu/Archives/LMS1/index.html
  • Philip Phillips, Archaeological Survey in the Lower Yazoo Basin, Mississippi, 1949–1955 (1970)
  • Philip Phillips, James A. Ford, and James B. Griffin, Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940–1947 (1951)
  • Vincus P. Steponaitis, Stephen Williams, Steve Davis Jr., Ian W. Brown, Tristram R. Kidder, and Melissa Salvanish, University of North Carolina, LMS Archives Online website, www.rla.unc.edu/Archives/LMS1/index.html
  • Stephen Williams, in Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Valley, 1940–1947, ed. Stephen Williams (2003)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Lower Mississippi Survey
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018