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VOL. 10 | NO. 10 | Saturday, March 4, 2017

Editorial: Memphis’ Future Needs Chucalissa’s Past

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It won’t be long before we mark 200 years as the city of Memphis. Plans are already underway for the city’s bicentennial. At times like this, you might wonder about who and what came before.

Those who study this call it prehistory. Not the kind with dinosaurs necessarily, but rather a prehistory of languages we don’t fully understand and sagas whose chronology we attempt to outline based on carbon dating, shards of pottery and symbols. We draw conclusions by comparing our knowledge about various cultures to the artifacts we see in front of us.

Sometimes it is a set of mounds. At other times, it is a tiny bead or bone fragment.

There is a place for this story and our educated guesses about it as we mark the 200th anniversary of Memphis’ incorporation in 2019.

The physical place to continue telling that story is Chucalissa, the archaeological site and Native American museum in southwest Memphis.

Operated by the University of Memphis and located next to T.O. Fuller State Park, this modest yet remarkable institution should be incorporated into the city’s bicentennial plans to put the rise of our metropolis in a broader context.

Memphis’ founders were not the first people to walk the bluff, survey the area and recognize the importance of its location. Planted in rich soil by the river, the city sprouted and grew on land that already had sustained life.

Chucalissa was one of a string of villages and large settlements on both sides of the current Tennessee-Mississippi state line.

In this week’s cover story, University of Memphis archaeologist David Dye tells us that 50,000 to 70,000 people probably lived in this area. The mounds in Chickasaw Heritage Park, south of Crump Boulevard and west of Interstate 55, were possibly the largest of the connected settlements.

The time is right at Chucalissa for a museum that explores our prehistory and the culture surrounding it in a technologically updated way – similar to the approach the National Civil Rights Museum took with its recent renovation – while retaining the unique ability to see the work of an active archaeological site.

Many of us grew up with a field trip to Chucalissa as a rite of Memphis passage, and plenty of school groups still make that pilgrimage today.

But with the connection of Chucalissa’s trails to T.O. Fuller State Park’s new trail system, wildlife habitat and interpretive center, the 1,200-acre expanse of hills and valleys shaded by towering trees and blankets of kudzu isn’t just a place of wonder for our children. Its story and terrain are more than enough to remind us all where we came from, what we’ve been through and where we should be going.

Memphis’ path stretches back much farther than 200 years, and with the inevitable passage of time, the origins of that path become harder to see. It is up to all of us to ensure the events and controversies of the present don’t completely block the view of where we came from and why it’s still relevant today.

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