Archeologist and anthropologist Carl Drexler talks about ancient salt-making site

He says ancient salt deposits contain lithium

Archeologist and anthropologist Carl Drexler speaks to the Magnolia Rotary Club about ancient salt-making operations in Arkansas. (Joshua Turner / Banner-News)
Archeologist and anthropologist Carl Drexler speaks to the Magnolia Rotary Club about ancient salt-making operations in Arkansas. (Joshua Turner / Banner-News)

Carl Drexler, the Arkansas Archeological Survey's research station archaeologist stationed at Southern Arkansas University (SAU), spoke to the Magnolia Rotary Club about a study into ancient salt deposits on Nov. 30.

Drexler is a Pennsylvania native who earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the College of William and Mary in 2013.

He specializes in the Caddo people, 19th-century sites and conflict research.

Drexler has been studying the Nakuukuwidish/Holman Springs site where salts were harvested in Sevier County until the mid-1800s.

The current SAU research station is operated in Bruce Center where they have 3,100 boxes of artifacts and materials from 11 counties in Arkansas said Drexler.

"This part of Arkansas is one place where you get some very deeply embedded salts. If you go back 25 million years, this was seafloor and the salt evaporates out of the seawater. We're making good use of those deposits. It's not the first time that humans have accessed them. Native Americans used salt here in the US southeast for centuries," said Drexler.

Drexler said the same salt deposits used hundreds of years ago contain the lithium that has been found in the Smackover Formation. Due to the depth of the salt deposits in Columbia County the lithium salts must be drilled and pumped out of the brine.

He said that until the 1800's the Appalachian and the ArkLaTex regions were used by native tribes to harvest and trade salt.

Drexler explained how salt was vital for mammals to survive, for preservation, to enhance flavor and to help the Caddo people when they switched to a corn-based diet.

He said Arkansas residents have used two major salt deposits throughout history, one in Arkadelphia and one near DeQueen.

"Why? Well, you know, there are embedded salts under all this area, but those salt beds are hundreds of feet below the surface. You can't really access them without drilling. We think in these two areas, we have geological formation called a diapir. These are areas where the overlying strata essentially push the salt up and they form these sort of domes or that are closer to the surface. For the Native Americans' purposes, the salts get close enough to the surface that the groundwater can wash through and it creates salty ponds," said Drexler.

Drexler said that the Caddo people would boil the water from the ponds to get salt but doing so would cause their pots to break due to the alt expanding in the clay.

The broken pottery was left at the site allowing archaeologists to find it in a 60-foot-wide mound in 1968.

In addition to the pottery remains of houses and burials were found said Drexler.

In recent years geomagnetic surveys discovered the remnants of a 19th-century salt furnace used by non-native settlers of which only two have been found in North America he said.

"You'd have set a 100 to 150-gallon iron kettle and usually a couple of them on the furnace. People would draw water out of the joining salt pond and then cook it down," said Drexler.

He said that the furnace was likely used to avoid buying salt from the Choctaw Nation who made most of the salt for states surrounding Oklahoma at the time.

Drexler said anyone interested in joining the Arkansas Archeological Training program and joining him onsite can contact him.

Only property owners can give a resident permission to collect artifacts.

If a resident finds artifacts on their property they can contact Drexler at [email protected] or 870-235-4230.

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