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WHY THE PUBLIC MAY NEVER SEE 'WATSON BRAKE'

(Art by Glenn Kennedy)

By Robert "Rob" Redding Jr.

Publisher

WATSON BRAKE, La., May 3, 2009, 6 p.m. - There is little chance that the centerpiece of Northeast Louisiana's ancient mounds, which are older than the pyramids in Egypt, will ever be opened as a national park.

Reca Bamburg Jones, who 30 years ago discovered Watson Brake, which is located on privately–owned land down the street from her home near the paper mill-dominated town of West Monroe, La., says she is doubtful the nearly dozen mounds will ever be made public.

"The owners would not sell it for a million dollars," she told Redding News Review during an exclusive tour of the 22 acre site.

Stewart Gentry, 48, one of eight key family members who owns the land, is refusing to sell his share of the family-owned portion. The Gentry family, which has owned the land since the 1950s, has allowed Jones and other researches on his section of the property that the state has been unable to purchase.

"It is in private hands right now and we are very pleased with it," Gentry told Redding News Review. "And we would like for it to stay in family hands."

Jones, now 79 years old, says time is running out for her to see Watson Brake made into a park.

The park would include 22 acres near the Holocene floodplain of the Ouachita River. The floodplain is home to 11 mounds from three to 25 feet tall – the size of a two story house – connected by 3 foot tall ridges to form an oval 853 feet across.

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Joe W. Saunders, a regional archeologist in the Department of Geosciences at University of Louisiana in Monroe, who chronicled Jones's discovery in 12 years ago in the Sept. 19, 1997 issue of the journal Science magazine, has dated the site to be 5,400 years old. His carbon dating makes the site 1,900 years older than Poverty Point, a ceremonial and trading center in Louisiana which has been dated to 3,500 years old.

Still, Gentry says he doubts the accuracy of Saunder's scientific research dating the site.

"Do you believe the Bible or do you believe in some scientific carbon dating," he asked? "I side with the Bible."

But Gentry is not the only member of the family's many owners who is reluctant to sell. His father, Hershel Gentry, said that the state initially wanted too much of the family's 375 acre plot and offered to pay way to little.

However, Hershel, did stress that he may be open to voting for a sale of the land, since the state does not need as much acreage.

"If the right amount was offered the family would sell ... including him [my son]," Hershel Gentry said.

Key mounds are disappearing or closed to the public

The Gentry's are not the first land owners in the area to have reservations about giving up their land to archaeologists, who know the state is a hotbed for mounds.

Near Poverty Point, The Neil family demolished their share of the mound structure when they learned the state might take it for what eventually became a National Historic Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1962. Another part of Poverty Point's Mound A was also taken for a Highway 577 road project in 1913.

Meanwhile, just a few blocks away, 30 percent of the Lower Jackson Mound, which has been linked by Saunders to the builders of Watson Brake in 2001, has been destroyed by George Skipper, who rented the property in the late 1980s.

The Troyville Mounds, the second largest mound complexes in America behind Illinois' Cohokia Mounds, were also almost completely demolished by the Louisiana Highway Commission to construct a bridge across Black River in 1931.

Entire mound complexes at Fitzhugh, near Richmond, La., and Mt. Nebo, near Tendal, La., have almost completely disappeared for I-20 road construction purposes.
 
A precedent-setting study was done of Mt. Nebo before it was demolished but no study was done of Fitzhugh or the Troyville mounds. Saunders said Fitzhugh and Troyville were casualties of overzealous developers and lax laws.
 
Saunders said other sites, like the Jordan Mounds in Morehouse Parish La., are closed to the public and archaeologists.

“That is the right to private ownership and there is not anything we can do about it," he said.

The mounds builders

Jones and Saunders are concerned about the future of mounds like Watson Brake because next to nothing is known about the builders.

Saunders said that it is not clear what Watson Brake was used for in his article published in Science magazine. The mounds emerged during a time when archaeologists had believed that seasonal hunters-gathers did not have the time "leadership or organizational skills" to build such carefully crafted superstructures of dirt, he wrote.

Watson Brake, he says, was abandoned about 4,800 years ago. It is not clear why.

Whoever built the mounds did not leave behind skeletons or any ceremonial or religious relics, he wrote.

However, he told Redding News Review the builders did leave about 30 unidentified fired "earthen objects" that are undecorated "cuboidal, rectangular, spherical, and cylindrical" blocks forms. He said about 100 complete blocks have only been found in the area of six Northeast Louisiana mound sites - in Ouachita, West Carroll, Morehouse, Lincoln, Richland and Jackson parishes.

“I think that the mounds of Northeast, La. can become what the Pueblos are to New Mexico,” Saunders said.

The future

Still, local archaeologists, like Saunders and Jones, realize that they must work with the Gentry family to be able to figure out who Watson Brake's builders were and avoid past problems - with mounds disappearing from construction projects and owners acting out of concern of the government's use of imminent domain.

“My fear would be that they would no longer provide access to the site to archaeological research," Saunders said. "They are not making them anymore and because data collecting is improving with every generation and with new techniques we can study more effectively if we continue to have access."

Stewart Gentry, Watson Brake's owner, seemed to agree.

"We will always be good stewards of the land and we will always take care of it," the younger said.

Watson Brake extra's

Exclusive Pictures of Watson Brake
Index of rare pictures

Why the public may never see Watson Brake

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