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Evansville
Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Uncommon Ground

Wearing his best Stetson hat and khaki pants, Paul Mann Sr. climbed atop an ancient Native American mound on his farmland, television cameras following him. It was the mid-1970s, and Mann’s Posey County farm — long fabled to harbor rare artifacts — just had been named to the National Register of Historic Places. As a skeptical TV reporter asked about the relics buried deep underground, Mann glanced down, bent over, and plucked an arrowhead from the soil near his feet.

Mann, a farmer known for his down-home, Midwestern friendliness, since has passed away. Corn and beans still spring up every summer, but his farm, tended by descendents, has faded from prominence after attracting archaeological digs and media attention in the ’60s and ’70s. The land and its mysterious history have “sort of been sidelined,” says Staffan Peterson, who researches Southwest Indiana archaeology. “Not many people know anything about it.”

This November, an eclectic group of archaeologists, researchers, Mann’s children, and a retired grocery store employee in his 70s aims to change that. In the highly anticipated exhibition “Cherished Possessions: The Mann Hopewell Legacy of Indiana,” which opens Nov. 6 at Angel Mounds State Historic Site, the Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites and the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology will reveal artifacts never before seen by the public.

The family farm is part of a Southwest Indiana phenomenon known as the Mann Site, a 500-acre area with stunning historical significance that rivals the better-known Hopewell sites in Ohio. The site dates back to around 150 to 450 A.D., and unlike other mound sites in the Hopewell tradition (a Native American culture that flourished in the Midwest), the Mann Site was a place of burial, civic proceedings, ceremony, and habitation. Archaeologists have uncovered a cosmopolitan array of artifacts: jaguar carvings, obsidian from Wyoming, copper from northern Michigan, hundreds of human figurine fragments, and pottery that has a striking connection to a site in Georgia. “It probably is the most important site in Indiana,” says Mike Linderman, site manager at Angel Mounds State Historic Site, “if not the entire Midwest.”[pagebreak]

Back when Charles Lacer Jr. of Evansville first explored the Mann Site, making history was the furthest thing from his mind. As a young boy, he tagged along on fishing trips with his father, Charles Sr. “I wasn’t that interested in fishing,” says Lacer, now 75, “so I’d just go back in the fields and start walking.”

Soon, Lacer’s pockets sagged with arrowheads and other finds. In 1950, he was searching the shores of Hovey Lake, near Mount Vernon, Ind., when a game warden asked the boy if he knew about the Mann Site. On his first visit to the farm, Lacer walked along a gravel road and found a small crystal quartz knife. He kept returning, and one day, he spotted Paul Mann Sr. riding a combine through the fields. Lacer had no permission to be on the property, but Mann didn’t shout or shoot. Instead, he pulled up next to Lacer, held out a jug of cold water, and asked, “You wouldn’t be thirsty, would you?”

Lacer became a frequent visitor to the family farm, combing the land for artifacts that rose to the surface when Mann plowed the fields. He befriended the farmer’s five children, and daughters Carolyn West and Susan Boyer, now 62 and 63, remember how Lacer brought them bottles of Coca-Cola and gave the family baskets of fruit for Christmas. They remember the arrowheads, knives, and pottery shards he collected, which Lacer stored on shelves in his grandmother’s basement, in cigar boxes, and in sturdy tomato boxes he brought home from his job in a grocery store produce department.

Both sisters say the significance of their farm and Lacer’s finds eluded them as children. They would ride deep into the forest on their father’s tractor, explore the woods, and pick pecans, “but as far as being interested in the artifacts and what they meant?” Boyer says. “We didn’t understand it.”

In other words, when a bemused Lacer says, “We had no idea it was going to make a big splash” in his deep voice, you believe him.

Lacer is the kind of man who catalogues his world in lists and files that exist on paper and inside his quick mind. He rattles off milestones in his life (first archaeological site explored, 1949; first visit to the Mann Site, 1950; first archaeologist met, IU’s James Kellar, 1964). He still has the first arrowhead he ever found (1949, age 14, in the river bottoms near the old Dogtown Tavern). It’s his dogged determination to create order and chronicle history, say several Indiana archaeologists, that has made him one of the most important figures in the Mann Site’s exploration. Lacer is what professionals call an avocational archaeologist — a non-professional who makes valuable contributions to the field. (“You can go to almost any book (on Hopewell culture) by any academic archaeologist,” says Michele Greenan, director of archaeology at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, “and see Charlie Lacer referenced.”)[pagebreak]

“From 1956 on up,” Lacer says, “I could tell you every day we went out, where we went, what day it was, who was there, and what each person found.” His meticulous record keeping made him a darling of the Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, a research center that opened on Indiana University’s Bloomington campus in the 1960s. The laboratory largely was funded through a gift from Eli Lilly, founder of Indianapolis-based pharmaceuticals company Eli Lilly & Co., who was fascinated with Indiana’s prehistory and is said to have visited the Mann Site in the late 1800s.

In 1964, Kellar, the laboratory’s first director, arrived on the Mann farm with a team of Indiana University students to conduct a dig. Lacer was there, too. Their painstaking work was a striking contrast to that of the looters who preyed on the site, combing for artifacts and selling what they found. One Posey County man told Linderman he’d spotted cars parked deep in the woods, presumably belonging to looters trying to stay undercover, and had counted license plates from all 50 states. “It’s a black-market world,” says Linderman, “and those kinds of people talk to each other.”

Some of the neighbors became infamous for threatening trespassers with firearms. It’s not that they ever shot, say Boyer and West, but their warnings sent a clear message: This land belongs to us. Today, state and federal laws protect archaeological sites and promise stiff prosecution — possibly steep fines and prison terms — for looters. Still, says Lacer, “the stuff they found is lost to history.”

Lacer’s aging knees and a past heart surgery now keep him from the fieldwork he once loved, but he collected tens of thousands of artifacts over his 60-year history exploring and researching the Mann Site. Despite offers that encouraged him to sell, he kept the collection tucked away on display tables he built in his Southeast Side basement. “There were times I could have used the money,” admits Lacer, who’s retired from his job at Wesselman’s grocery store. But his purpose was preservation, not profit.

“Most folks would have sold it,” says Greenan. “Every time it gets sold and moved, it loses its value for archaeology. It loses everything. But Charlie, intrinsically, never wanted to separate anything. Not only did he keep it all intact, he kept it all intact for 50 years. The value of that cannot be overstated.”

Several years ago, the Indiana State Museum approached him about acquiring his collection — not to re-sell, not to separate the artifacts, but to preserve them in a safe place for educational and research purposes. Lacer accepted. Says his younger brother Bill, a retired truck driver living in Hatfield, Ind.: “It was like a big weight came off our shoulders. Now we know his life’s work is going to be kept together.”[pagebreak]

Less certain, but no less significant, is the fate of the Mann Site itself — owned partly by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (which oversees the Indiana State Museums and Historic Sites) and partly by private landowners. The area most recently was investigated in 2006 by Staffan Peterson, then a doctoral candidate at Indiana University. Peterson’s research interests focused on archaeology in Southwest Indiana, specifically Angel Mounds, occupied from 1100 to 1450 A.D. by people of the Middle Mississippian culture. Through research for his dissertation, Peterson met the Mann family and gained approval to conduct a magnetometry study that would map patterns of ancient activity in the soil.

Peterson spent a month walking through the fields, collecting data with a portable magnetometer. Every few hours, his team imported the data into a laptop and analyzed it. Archaeological features would appear as yellow images, and when the data appeared on screen, “our jaws went down to the ground,” he says. The field was so awash in yellow that it resembled an aerial night view of a brightly lit city.

Peterson detected two circular “woodhenges,” circular monuments similar to Stonehenge but made from wooden posts. With diameters of 60 and 175 feet, he believes they may have been used for astronomical observation — unusual in Hopewell cultures — or to enclose a ritual. The study also detected the charred remains of 6,000 cooking pits and signs of large-scale geometric earth formations.

Based on his findings and the multitude of unusual artifacts found at the site, Peterson concludes the people who lived at the Mann Site were “very proficient and cosmopolitan,” he says. Shark teeth from the Gulf Coast, rocks and minerals from the Appalachian Mountains, and flint from the Dakotas are proof that residents of the Mann Site forged continental-scale relationships, and archaeologists speculate that the Mann Site was a port, a hub, or the ancient equivalent of a capital city.

An intimate connection between the Mann Site and the Leake Site, a mound site in northwest Georgia, also has become apparent. Ceramic vessels found in Southwest Indiana mimic the pattern of pottery made in Georgia, and analysis of a clay pot found at the Leake Site revealed it was made from Indiana clay. The relationship, says Peterson, shows these ancient people were worldly and sophisticated beyond previous imagining: “It was an amazing era of artistic expression and technical proficiency.”

“They weren’t savages by any means,” Lacer adds. “This was a civilized group of people.”

Revealing the area’s surprising past to Southwest Indiana is the goal of Mann descendents Susan Boyer and Carolyn West, who several years ago sold 48 acres of the family farm to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. The Mann descendents, some of whom are farmers, weren’t unanimous in the decision. “When you farm the land, you have a different connection to it,” Boyer says. “It maybe is a little harder to let go.”[pagebreak]

Boyer and West acknowledge they felt mixed emotions about letting go of land passed down through four generations, but “I feel it only can do good for our part of the state,” Boyer says — building pride, showing Mount Vernon residents how the Mann Site shaped the area’s identity, and sharing local history previously unknown to most residents. The sisters believe their decision will help preserve not only the land but the family name, and they point to Angel Mounds as an example of what they hope the Mann Site may become: an interpretive center, museum, or nature preserve. “It’s not a housing addition or shopping center or bowling alley,” West says. “I was impressed at how Angel Mounds had developed the land and what they had saved and preserved.”

Eventually, researchers such as Peterson will test and date archaeological features such as the woodhenges and the roasting pits. As for the artifacts, many from Lacer’s collection, Greenan estimates it will take more than two years just to count and catalogue the items before testing can determine sources and dates. She offers this perspective: Among the pieces Lacer collected were small blades weighing less than 0.2 grams each. The museum now has 60 pounds of those blades alone.

The artifacts will make their debut at Angel Mounds at an invitation-only grand opening, which archaeologists from across the nation and former Indiana first lady Judy O’Bannon plan to attend. The artifacts will travel from Indianapolis with their own detail of conservation officers, who will remain on duty at Angel Mounds until the rare pieces return with a police escort to the high-security confines of the Indiana State Museum.

Boyer and West haven’t yet seen the collection that archaeologists unearthed from their family’s land when they were children. Their only wish is that their father, wearing his trademark Stetson hat, could accompany them to the opening. They believe the small-town farmer — the unlikely steward of an ancient, mysterious legacy — would share their sense of pride. “It becomes more than the family farm,” says West. “It becomes something historical, our legacy, that needs to be shared. It’s just not our secret to keep, I feel, anymore.”

Artifacts from the Mann Site will remain on display at Angel Mounds from Nov. 6-Jan. 14, 2011. For more information on the exhibition, visit www.angelmounds.org or see our Guide, p. 104.

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