Spilling the Beans on the Beanome Project:

A Bio-Cultural Study of the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the New World

Timothy Baumann1, 2, 3, Katharina Höland4, Ingo Ohlsson5, Kandace Hollenbach1, 2, Hector Castro4, 6, Shawn Campagna4, 6

1UTK McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, 2UTK Department of Anthropology, 3UTK Laboratory of Environmental Archaeology (LEA), 4UTK Department of Chemistry, 5UTK Bioinformatics Resource Center, and 6UTK Biological Small Molecule Mass Spectrometry Core

At the University of Tennessee, a diverse research team has come together from archaeology, paleoethnobotany, chemistry, and genetics for the Beanome Project, a bio-cultural study of the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the New World (Figures 1 & 2). The research objectives for this project are to determine when, how, and why the common bean was introduced into Native American diets in the Southeastern United States, and to define the biochemical and genomic structure of the common bean, including ancient DNA (aDNA).

Figure 1. Common bean growing.
Figure 2. Three varieties of the common bean.


In the New World, there are more than 50 bean species but only five were domesticated prehistorically: common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris), lima bean (Phaseolus lunatus), runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus), tepary bean (Phaseolus acutifolius), and year-long bean (Phaseolus dumosus).  Of these, the common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is the most prolific with numerous varieties (e.g., kidney, pinto, navy) and was the lone species adopted into prehistoric Native American foodways east of the Rocky Mountains. Previous research on wild and cultivated common beans has focused on archaeological as well as modern samples from the Southwestern US, Central America, and South America. This work has identified two independent sites of domestication. The first occurred in the Peruvian Andes by 2400 B.C. and the second occurred in central Mexico about 2,000 years later (Kaplan and Lynch 1999; Monaghan et al. 2014). In the United States, the common bean entered through the Southwest by 500 B.C. However, it did not spread over the Rocky Mountains to the Plains and the Eastern Woodlands until after A.D. 1100 (Adams and Fish 2011; Monaghan et al. 2014). In the Eastern Woodlands, the current model of bean introduction has it taking a northern route from the Plains into the Great Lakes and Northeast region. From there, beans moved south and west into the Illinois Valley after A.D. 1200 and through the Ohio Valley after A.D. 1300 (Monaghan et al 2014; Baumann et al. 2019). 

This northern path into the Eastern Woodlands may reflect the impact of different agricultural practices or cultural boundaries between food producers who employed raised gardens (e.g., Oneota, Iroquois) with mixed plantings of the “three sisters” – maize (Zea mays ssp. mays), squash (Cucurbita sp.), and the common bean, and more southern Mississippian agriculturalists who utilized large communal fields of maize (Hart 2008; Scarry and Scarry 2005; Monaghan et al. 2014).   

Archaeological Evidence in Tennessee

In Tennessee, archaeological specimens of the common bean have been recovered from at least 44 Native American sites, including 31 from prehistoric contexts and 13 from historic villages (Figures 3 and 4). There are probably additional sites, but the preservation, recovery and identification of beans has been problematic. Unlike maize that have cobs, beans are eaten completely and only survive if they were accidently burned or carbonized in a cooking hearth or in a house fire.  Even then, carbonized beans are very fragile and can be easily destroyed by normal excavation methods (e.g., shoveling, dry screening). Tennessee beans have been recovered most frequently on burned house floors, in or near hearths, or when they have been quickly buried in a secondary deposit or feature. The latter is common in older postholes that were filled inadvertently with food remains from a house floor during reconstruction and resetting of posts (Baumann et al. 2015). 

Figure 3. Map of Native American sites with common bean in Tennessee.

In order to determine the age and route beans arrived in Tennessee, 13 beans have been directly-dated using radiocarbon from 10 prehistoric sites. Funding for all but one of these dates was provided by the Bush Brothers Company, which is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. The results have a date range from A.D. 1309 to 1562, which supports the current model that the common bean did not arrive in the Upper South until the 14th century. The introduction of beans into Tennessee may be linked to environmental stress during a prolonged drought in the midcontinent from AD 1250 to 1350 (Meeks and Anderson 2013; Baumann and Altizer 2017). This rainfall shortage reduced the maize yield and was a prime factor for Mississippian sociopolitical tension, which was manifested by the appearance of palisades with bastions around large centralized villages. After AD 1350, the major Mississippian sites in the lower Ohio River valley and the Nashville Basin of Tennessee were abandoned, creating the “Vacant Quarter,” with many of their occupants moving south and taking their beans with them (Cobb and Butler 2002).

Figure 4. Carbonized bean from the Kellytown site (40DV10).

Biochemical and Genomic Research

The origin of the common bean and its path to Tennessee can also be traced through biochemical and genetic research. The biochemical analysis is being conducted at UTK’s Biological and Small Molecule Mass Spectrometry Core (BSMMSC) facility, which has six mass spectrometers to conduct metabolomics, lipidomics, and small molecule analyses. This metabolic analysis can be used to identify the biochemical structure, function, and interaction of thousands of molecular cells (metabolities, lipids, and proteins) that make up a bean. This UTK core facility has already completed biochemical analysis on 32 modern common bean varieties to help establish a baseline from which to compare ancient beans. The initial analyses suggests that the metabolic signatures are not only geographically distinct (region versus countrywide), but also dependent upon domestication alterations (wild versus domestic species).

These results are now being used to help with the genome sequencing of 10 bean specimens through UTK’s Genomics Core facility and its Bioinformatics Resource Center.  The 10 common bean samples include nine contemporary varieties and one archaeological specimen. The contemporary beans were selected based on the following ordered criteria:

  1. Direct Native American origins – historical or oral tradition evidence (e.g., Cherokee Trail of Tears bean),
  2. Regional distribution – South, Central, and North America; in the US include Southwest, Northeast, Plains, and Upper South,
  3. Include one wild bean from central Mexico, the source location of bean domestication that spread into the US, and
  4. Selection of beans that are of similar colors.

The archaeological specimens used in this study were desiccated beans that were generously provided by the University of Arkansas Museum from the Craddock site (3CW2), a dry rockshelter in Northwest Arkansas (Fritz 1986). These dry Arkansas beans were necessary for ancient DNA analysis because only carbonized samples have been found in Tennessee, which are not viable options for genetic testing. One ancient bean from this site was also subjected to biochemical analysis and one has also been submitted for a new radiocarbon date, resulting in a 16th to early 17th century age. If successful, the aDNA from the Arkansas beans represents the first time that this has been accomplished in the United States. The preliminary results are very promising.

First Step to a Larger Project

The Beanome Project is just now beginning to see results that will lead to a greater understanding of the common bean and its use by Native Americans in the New World. Future work is still needed to collect archaeological data and additional radiocarbon samples from specimens in Tennessee and throughout the Southeast. To support his work, the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has established a bean repository for all ancient beans (wild and domesticated) recovered from Tennessee’s archaeological sites. The museum has also created a large contemporary bean type collection of the five domesticated bean species in the New World as well as the two wild bean species, trailing bean (Strophostyles helvola) and thicket bean (Phaseolus polystachios), that are native to Tennessee. These wild beans were eaten by prehistoric Native Americans in the Southeast before the common bean arrived in the 14th century.


Adams, Karen R., and Susana K. Fish. 2011. Subsistence through Time in the Greater Southwest. In The Subsistence Economies of Indigenous North American Societies: A Handbook, edited by Bruce D. Smith, pp. 147–184. Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C.

Baumann, Timothy, and Valerie Altizer. 2017. Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris): An Indicator of Stress, Conflict, and Migration in Southeastern Mississippian Communities.  Paper presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, November 8-11, 2017. 

Baumann, Timothy, Gary Crites, and Lynne Sullivan. 2015. The Emergence and Distribution of Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the Upper Tennessee River Valley.  Paper presented at the 80th annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in San Francisco, California, April 15 – 19, 2015.

Baumann, Timothy, Tony Krus, and Gary Crites. 2019. The Age and Arrival for the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) in the Eastern Woodlands of North America.  Paper presented at the 9th Radiocarbon and Archaeology International Symposium in Athens, Georgia, May 20 – 24, 2019.  

Cobb, Charles, and Brian Butler. 2002. The Vacant Quarter Revisited: Late Mississippian Abandonment of the Lower Ohio Valley.  American Antiquity 67(4):625-641.

Fritz, Gayle. 1986. Prehistoric Ozark Agriculture:  The University of Arkansas Rockshelter Collections. PhD dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Hart, John. 2008. Evolving the Three Sisters: The Changing Histories of Maize, Bean, and Squash in New York and the Greater Northeast. In Current Northeast Paleoethnobotany II, edited by John P. Hart, pp.87– 99. New York State Museum Bulletin 512. University of the State of New York, Albany.

Kaplan, Lawrence, and Thomas F. Lynch. 1999. Phaseolus (Fabaceae) in Archaeology: AMS Radiocarbon Dates and Their Significance for Pre-Columbian Agriculture. Economic Botany 53:261–272.

Meeks, Scott, and David Anderson. 2013. Drought, Subsistence Stress, and Population Dynamics Assessing Mississippian Abandonment of the Vacant Quarter.  In, Soils, Climate, & Society: Archaeological Investigations in Ancient America, edited by J. Wingard and S. E. Hayes, pp. 61-84.  University Press of Colorado, Boulder.

Monaghan, G. William, Timothy M. Schilling, and Kathryn E. Parker. 2014. The Age and Distribution of Domesticated Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) in Eastern North America: Implications for Agricultural Practices and Group Interactions. Midwest Archaeological Conference, Occasional Papers 1:33–52.

Scarry, John, and C. Margaret Scarry. 2005. Native American “Garden Agriculture” in Southeastern North America. World Archaeology 37:259–274.

Kids’ Corner: Corn is A-maize-ing!

Leslie Chang-Jantz and Kandi Hollenbach

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

One of the big questions that archaeologists have is when did people become farmers, and when did they start growing some of the major crops that we rely on today, like wheat, rice, and corn.  Corn, or maize, is a fascinating crop! It plays a crucial role in cultures and industries around the world. Maize can produce high yields compared to other crops, and it can be turned into an array of products such as corn flour, cornmeal, hominy, grits, animal feed, ethanol, high-fructose corn syrup, and bio-based plastics. There are many everyday products in your household that most likely have a connection to corn. The list is seemingly endless: crayons, chalk, toothpaste, and even diapers!

Maize has a long and rich history. It was domesticated about 9,000 years ago in southwestern Mexico. Archaeologists find evidence, such as burned corn cobs, indicating humans spread maize throughout the Americas. The dispersal occurred likely through trade networks, with documented evidence showing that maize moved south to Chile by 3000 years ago and north to Canada by at least 1000 years ago.

Corn comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors! Photo by Gary D. Crites.

Maize plants depend on humans for their continued survival. The plant requires attention because the seeds do not disperse by themselves. Archaeological evidence indicates that many native cultures in North America used a companion planting approach to maize production. In this method, maize is planted alongside varieties of beans and squash. The maize stalk provides a physical pole for the bean vines to cling to, the bean plants help increase nitrogen levels of the soil (which foments growth), and squash leaves offer natural shading to hold moisture in the soil. This close relationship is also documented in oral histories such as the story of the Three Sisters, where each sister represents a different crop. 

Scholars at the McClung continue to play an important role in unveiling this crop’s a-maize-ing journey through ongoing research of maize from archaeological sites, collaborations with local tribes, and gallery exhibitions like the “Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee.” Also keep an eye out for more family-friendly activities on the McClung Museum’s website!

For more information:

An Early Archaic Site in Hickman County

Ryan Parish and and Peyton Cullen

University of Memphis

I weaved our University vehicle sporting government plates over the unmarked county roads of Hickman County through undulating grassy hills.  The rolling land, now pasture fields and hardwood forests, was once blanketed with open grasslands and occasional pockets of hickory groves, oak, walnut and other deciduous varieties that gradually took over and spread 10,000 years ago.  The last great Ice Age had given way to a warming climate producing a well watered terrain over the underlying limestone created a mosaic of plant, animal, and stone resources that made the region an attractive place to live. 

In fact, each ridgeline, hilltop, and meadow that passed by my window more often than not contained the remains of past communities that inhabited the land over the past 12,000 years.  My wandering mind snapped back to the present as I turned down a long gravel driveway and over a two track single lane bridge.  I pulled up onto an attractive patch of land along the Piney River where my host and his wife resided.  The gentleman, who was the author of a volume of emails sent to me over the past year, had invited me to check out an archaeological site on his property where he had collected numerous stone artifacts produced by people who thrived in this new land at the beginning of the stable warming Holocene epoch. 

After a firm handshake we were off exploring a pretty unremarkable field of clover situated on top of a broad limestone shelf that gently sloped down to the Piney River below.  The unnaturally level field, upraised berm following the fence line, and clay rich soil were clues that the site had been mechanically levelled, stripping off anything and everything that was in the topmost layers.  The disappointment of the site’s modern disturbance may also prove to be a fortunate calamity as the volume of early artifacts recovered on the freshly exposed surface indicated the assemblage had remained relatively intact from centuries of plowing. 

Figure 1:  Big Sandy projectile point/knives found at the site.

After walking the field and drooling over the many cases of artifacts that my gracious host kept producing, I was amazed at the amount of large side notched points we have come to call “Big Sandy’s” that are in the collection.  Named by Madeline Kneberg, an anthropologist from UT in the 1950’s, the Big Sandy projectile point is an Early Archaic variant within the large side notched cluster used by hunter gatherers 10,000 to 8,000 years ago.  Side notching was a radical departure from the concave lanceolate spear points/knives that are hallmarks of Paleoindian stone technology in the preceding era.  The transition in technological style coupled with the changing climate and resources makes these Early Holocene groups extremely interesting to study.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of these sites, and that’s one thing that makes this small clover field in Hickman County a real treasure for Tennessee archaeology. 

Figure 2: Cobble tools found at the site. 

Perhaps future investigations will shed light on the people that once inhabited the site but for now my interpretive vision is one of a group frequenting the area over multiple generations.  The fires from their camp wind upward through the hardwoods along a small stream that provides clear water filtered by the underlying limestone.  The steady flow of the Piney River within sight is a highway for easy access to the Duck and Tennessee Rivers not to mention a smorgasbord of fish, turtle, and mussels.  Fort Payne chert/flint outcropping along its banks is a source for stone needed to refit and rearm darts and knives resharpened to exhaustion from the previous season’s work.  The piles of river cobble tools, chipping debris, discolored and charcoal flecked soil, and dozens of discarded or lost spear points and knives is evidence that will help us understand and tell their story with clearer detail.  Sincere thanks to my host and his wife and to all those who share a passion for Tennessee’s cultural history. 

Figure 3: Piney River adjacent to the site with Fort Payne limestone ledges bearing chert exposed.

Perfectly Preserved Persimmon

Kelly Santana

University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, is a site referred to as “Kellytown” (40WM10), a late Mississippian period village that was excavated in 1999 and 2002. Located along the north of the Little Harpeth River, Kellytown is situated on a terrace and slope, with hills and knobs to the north and a low floodplain to the south. Mississippian culture in middle Tennessee, also referred to as “Middle Cumberland Culture” within the Central Basin region, thrived from approximately AD 950 to 1450 and is comparable to other southeastern Mississippian sites (Barker et al. 2013).

Figure 1. Whole Persimmon fruit from Structure 1, Feature #2, 40WM10 Kellytown. (Photo by Kelly Santana)

Approximately 1486.4 grams of carbonized archaeobotanical remains were recovered from excavation, floated, and analyzed by Andrea Shea Bishop. Fruits and seeds from seven native species and five cultivated species were found, but most noteworthy were the persimmon fruits (Diospyros virginiana). Within Structure 1, 9 whole persimmon fruits, more than 200 persimmon fruit fragments, and 43 persimmon seed fragments were identified at a total weight of 97.8 grams. What is so unique about these persimmon fruits (displayed in Figure 1) is the near perfect condition of their preservation that is so rarely found in archaeological sites. The average length of the persimmon fruits is 19.8 mm with the average width measuring 25.65 mm (Barker et al. 2013:185). In Figure 2, carbonized seeds (some of which were found within these preserved fruits) are shown from the view of under the microscope. Figure 3 shows the microscopic view of the inside of half of a persimmon seed.

Charles Hudson (1976:285-286) stated that persimmons were the most important fruit in the southeast among Native Americans. Persimmons are even mentioned in the Cherokee myth of “The Terrapin’s Escape from the Wolves” which begins with a possum and a terrapin hunting for persimmon. When they come upon a tree with ripened fruit, the possum climbs the tree and begins to toss the persimmons down to the terrapin, but a wolf comes along and begins to take the persimmons the possum is tossing down. The possum eventually throws a persimmon large enough that causes the wolf to choke and die (Mooney 1995:278).

Persimmons develop a date-like flavor in the late fall and early winter and must be eaten after they have ripened, softened, and fallen to the ground. Persimmons were used for their fruits as food; often dried and made into cakes or a sort of bread and are well documented in the De Soto expeditions (Swanton 1946:265). The Cherokee also used persimmons for pudding, but other parts of the plant were made use of for various purposes as well (Moerman 1998:201). The leaves were dried and steeped in boiling water to create a light tea with a taste similar to that of sassafras (Kavasch 1979:135).

Figure 2. Persimmon seeds from Structure 1, Feature #2, 40WM10 Kellytown, under the miscroscope. (Photo by Kelly Santana).
Figure 3. Half of a Persimmon seed from 40WM10 Kellytown, under the microscope. (Photo by Kelly Santana)

Before the fruits ripen, the pulp within the persimmon is very astringent (USDA 2021), and therefore used medicinally. This included use of the persimmon for sore throats and mouths, as well as a syrup for thrush, and in teas to help with liver ailments. Persimmon was one of the ingredients used in a steam bath for gastrointestinal aid and was also used as a wash for hemorrhoids. It could also be boiled down to remedy bloody discharge of bowels. The bark itself had medicinal uses as well, including chewing the bark for heartburn; and creating an infusion along with alder, white walnut, and wild cherry for toothache relief. Cold water poured over the bark was also used to drink for bile. (Hamel and Chiltoskey 1975:49).

The presence of these nearly perfectly preserved persimmons on the floor of Structure 1 tells us not only that the persimmons were unprocessed and had not yet been dried, but also gives us insight to the seasonality of the occupation and destruction of the structure. There were most likely individuals occupying the structure in the fall season, when the structure also burned quickly and carbonized all contents within. As is concluded in the report for Kellytown, it is unknown whether the burning of this structure was intentional, but after excavation it is certain that nothing new was built after its destruction (Barker et al. 2013:209). Regardless of reason, without this quick burning fire, we would not have had these amazing whole persimmon fruits to excavate hundreds of years later!


Barker, Kline, and Bishop. 2013. Archaeological Investigations at Kellytown (40WM10): A Fortified Late Mississippian Village in Middle Tennessee’s Harpeth River Drainage, Davidson and Williamson Counties, Tennessee. Tennessee Department of Transportation, Environmental Division, Archaeology Section, Nashville, Tennessee.

Hamel, Paul B., and Mary U. Chiltoskey. 1975. Cherokee Plant and Their Uses – A 400 Year History. Herald Publishing, Sylva, North Carolina.

Hudson, Charles. 1976. The Southeastern Indian. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Kavasch, Barrie. 1979. Native Harvests- Recipes and Botanicals of the American Indian. Vintage Books, New York.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Mooney, James. 1995. Myths of the Cherokee. Dover Publications, Inc., New York.

Swanton, John R. 1946. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Greenwood Press, Publishers, New York.

US Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service. 2021. PLANTS Database. Electronic document, https://plants.usda.gov/home.

Dive into Archaeology this Fall at the Nashville Parthenon

Katie Petrole

Nashville Parthenon

Nashville Parthenon & the Archaeological Institute of Archaeological Institute of America (AIA)-Nashville Society here, reporting on Greek archaeology in Tennessee! While Tennessee is a landlocked state, the Parthenon and local AIA society are all about underwater archaeology this season.

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Figure 1. The Antikythera Mechanism exhibition title image. Dr. Xenophon Moussas, Professor at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, provided considerable contributions to the research and production of this exhibit.

The Nashville Parthenon’s exhibition about the world’s oldest computer, the Antikythera mechanism was recently extended through November 28, 2021. Discovered by sponge divers off the island of Antikythera, Greece, this unique artifact has fascinated archaeologists, physicists, astronomers, and other scientists since the early 1900s. Along with the story of the Antikythera shipwreck, the gallery shares the history of the extensive research and scholarly interpretations of the artifact, plus features a 3D-printed artifact replica and a reproduction encased in a wooden frame to show its original 2nd century BCE form. Accompanying the gallery, virtual symposia, in-person STEAM Nights, and outreach at Metro Parks Community Centers are sharing the story of the artifact with over 1,400 people—and counting.

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Figure 2. Inscription, Replica, and Reproduction. The exhibition highlights new research, such as newly discovered inscriptions on the back plate of the artifact and presents a touchable replica and a reproduction donated by Dr. Xenophon Moussas and the Hellenic Institute of Cultural Diplomacy. Back plate inscription photo courtesy Dr. Xenophon Moussas.

The summer symposia featured presentations “Underwater Archaeological Discoveries” by Dr. Steven L. Tuck (Miami University), “Conserving Antikythera Bronzes” by conservator Dr. Georgianna Moraitou (National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece), and “Underwater Archaeology” by Dr. Anne Duray (American Journal of Archaeology Editorial Assistant). The final virtual talk with the AIA-Nashville Society on September 23 at 6pm Central will be “Bigger Fish to Fry: Fishing and Fish Consumption in Archaic Greek Sicily” by Dr. Davide Tanasi (University of South Florida). RSVP today!

Four special STEAM Nights held June-September offered free museum admission to all MNPS students to bring their families to the Parthenon and included the chance to meet an archaeologist at the Ask an Expert station, as well as explore Research, Experimental Archaeology, and Mythology Map stations.

Ongoing outreach activities at Metro Parks Community Centers bring the thrill and inspiration of archaeological discovery to local children; activities include Artifact Cataloging, Conservation Crash Course, Gears and Architecture Challenge, Map It Out, and Translation Time.

Figure 3. Antikythera Outreach. Conservation Crash Course brings out the puzzle-solving abilities of kids, Translation Time asks kids to complete a word search puzzle–but in ancient Greek—of the mechanism’s back door inscription, and Gears and Architecture Challenge encourages creativity to build interesting structures.
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Figure 4. Antikythera Outreach. Map It Out simulates an underwater excavation grid where participants must record the location of the discovered object.

Looking ahead, the Nashville Parthenon is participating in the national initiative Welcoming Week by offering two exterior Architecture Tours that highlight the refinements of the Parthenon. Join Parthenon experts on September 14 at 2pm or September 16 at 3pm; both are free and open to the public. Additional Architecture Tours are offered the first Monday of the month at 3pm, and an Exterior Architecture Audio Tour—free and available 24/7—will debut soon!

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Figure 5. Entablature. Architecture Tours cover architectural terminology, such as the entablature (highlighted here), sculpture, optical illusions, and 2,500 years of architectural history!
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Figure 6. Kidsville OIive Oil Painting. Stop by Kidsville’s Olive Oil Painting activity station from 9am-12pm on October 16 to try your hand at creating an artistic masterpiece inspired by the story of how Athena became the patron Greek goddess of Athens.

International Archaeology Day at the Parthenon will be celebrated on October 16 from 9am-12pm. At this Tennessee STEAM Festival event, AIA-Nashville Society will host the Ask an Expert table and Kidsville will teach Olive Oil Painting, plus there will be hands-on activities to learn about underwater archaeology and the complex Antikythera mechanism. Mention TCPA for discounted admission!

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Figure 7. New Lighting. All-new exterior lighting illuminates the Parthenon just a few minutes after civil twilight every evening. Photo courtesy of Lyana Chalk, Parthenon Docent.

If socially distanced and virtual options suit you best, we have a few suggestions:

  • Stop by the Parthenon at night! Brand-new exterior lighting recently debuted, and the museum has never looked better. Tag us @NashvilleParthenon #NashvilleParthenon in your photos!
  • Join over 2,600 Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) sixth graders who participated in a Virtual STEAM Expedition to the Parthenon! This special playlist of 16 Greek Mythology Tour and Architecture Challenge videos was recently released to the public on the Nashville Parthenon YouTube channel.
  • Take yourself on a Virtual Museum Tour thanks to a 3D scan of our entire museum! Tools on the lower left corner will help you navigate from Level 1 to Level 2.

The focus on underwater archaeology in The Antikythera Mechanism exhibition and its programming is sponsored by Humanities Tennessee, an independent affiliate for the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Katie Petrole

Director of Education, Nashville Parthenon

Outreach Coordinator, AIA-Nashville Society

Sometimes, a Saltpan Just Isn’t a Saltpan: An Example from Bledsoe’s Lick in Sumner County, Tennessee

Paul Eubanks, Kaitlynn Millichamp, and Tiffany Saul

Middle Tennessee State University

At first glance, the title of this post may appear to be a little inconsistent. After all, aren’t all ceramic bowls, ceramic bowls? And, aren’t all stone tools, stone tools? So, must not all saltpans also be saltpans? To answer this question, the term “saltpan” must first be defined. When dealing with ceramics, something like the following would probably suffice for most archaeologists: “a saltpan is a basin-shaped ceramic container used to evaporate brine into salt.” So, in order to be a saltpan, a ceramic vessel must have the shape of the pan and have been used to make salt. Otherwise, it’s just a pan.

Photo 1: Recreation of Eastern Amerindian Production of Salt (Edward G. Cassidy 1937).

Saltpans were some of the largest prehistoric ceramic vessels made in the Southeast, often being over 1 cm thick and up to (or in excess of) 1 m in diameter. These vessels needed to be thick because they had to be able to survive sitting on top of a fire for many hours while their wide openings would have served to facilitate the evaporation of brine. But, their large sizes meant that making them would have been challenging, as they were too large to be made the traditional way, which involved rolling and stacking clay coils on top of each other. Thus, pans had to be formed in subterranean pits in order to prevent them from falling apart before they were fired. Prior to the pans being formed, the pit was lined with fabric to prevent the vessel from sticking to the walls. As a result, many saltpans have fabric-impressions on their exteriors, which sometimes results in all fabric-impressed vessels or vessel fragments being called “saltpans” or “saltpan sherds.”

Photo 2: Fabric-impressed Pan Sherds from Bledsoe’s Lick (Castalian Springs).

However, just because a pan has a fabric-impressed exterior does not necessarily mean that it was used to make salt. Consider, for example, Bledsoe’s Lick at Castalian Springs—the site of MTSU’s summer archaeological field school from 2017 to 2019. This lick contains several, now-buried mineral springs that were used by the Indigenous peoples living at or near the Castalian Springs Mound Site (ca. AD 1200-1350).

Photo 3: Topographic Map of Bledsoe’s Lick at Castalian Springs.

In 2017, Luana Caswell, then an undergraduate at MTSU, tested the salinity of the water from a well located adjacent to the mineral springs and discovered that in order to get 1 gram of salt, about 9 liters of mineral water would have to be evaporated. A similar discovery was made in the late 1700s, when a number of licks in Middle Tennessee, including Bledsoe’s, were set aside for public use but were later declared “vacant” because they were “entirely unfit for the purpose of manufacturing salt” (Clark 1906:31-33). Given that Bledsoe’s Lick doesn’t seem to have been exceedingly saline and that “saltpan” sherds only account for about 5% of the site’s total pottery assemblage, why would the Mississippians at Bledsoe’s Lick need “saltpans” if they weren’t making salt? At least two possibilities jump to mind.

First, it is possible that the pans were used to concentrate water from the springs to be consumed during a cleansing or purification ritual, as this magnesium- and sulfur-rich tonic would have had a purgative or diarrheic effect on those who drank it. If this idea is correct, then mineral waters at Bledsoe’s Lick may have been analogous to the famous “Black Drink,” a type of tea brewed from the leaves of the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). This beverage was often consumed during the Green Corn Ceremony or as part of purification rituals, as it caused those who drank it to purge themselves through vomiting. However, the main ingredient of the Black Drink, Ilex vomitoria, is not native to Tennessee, thus making the Bledsoe’s Lick mineral water a potential alternative.

A second possibility is that the pans were used in the “nixtamalization” process, which involves soaking and/or boiling corn (maize) in an alkaline solution. Part of the reason that this was done was to enhance the corn’s digestibility and nutritional value. For groups heavily reliant on maize, nixtamalization was essential, as it prevented people from succumbing to “pellagra,” an extremely uncomfortable—and ultimately deadly—disease. Some Indigenous peoples soaked their corn first before boiling it, but others simply opted to boil it for an extended period of time (sometimes as long as 12 to 18 hours). This protracted cooking technique bears a striking resemblance to the methods used to evaporate brine. Thus, perhaps it was the case that these two nearly identical cooking processes both required the use of large, fabric-impressed pans.

Photo 4: Cooking Corn and Other Foods in a Pot (Theodore de Bry 1590).

In order to examine the potential function of pans at Bledsoe’s Lick, ceramic samples will be analyzed in the coming months for the presence of carbonized food residue. These residues will be analyzed to measure stable carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes, measure trace elements, and detect plant microfossils associated with maize. If evidence of maize is discovered, then this would mean that we may need to rethink how “saltpans” were used at Bledsoe’s Lick and at other low-salinity mineral spring sites in Tennessee and throughout the broader Southeast. With any luck, we hope to have a better understanding of how these pans were used before next year’s Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month blogfest.


Clark, Walter

1906 The State Records of North Carolina. Volume XXV, Laws 1789–1790. Nash Brothers, Goldsboro, North Carolina.

The Kelly’s Battery Site and Salvage Archaeology in Middle Tennessee

J. Scott Jones, Ph.D.

Midsouth Cultural Resource Consultants

As Nashville Davidson County and the surrounding counties and towns have grown and expanded over the last several decades, the archaeological record has suffered numerous losses. A number of archaeological sites, particularly those of the late pre-contact Mississippian period, have been destroyed or extensively damaged with little or no investigation. Conversely, due to the state burial law, several archaeological sites did receive some degree of investigation albeit hastily prior to be being destroyed. Often regarded as “salvage” archaeology, these investigations have provided a significant degree of insight into understanding the late pre-contact Mississippian period (AD 900-1450) in Middle Tennessee often referred to as the Middle Cumberland Culture. Like Mississippian cultures throughout the Southeast and Midwest, the Middle Cumberland peoples used shell-tempered pottery, lived in square house, and practiced corn-bean-squash horticulture. The Middle Cumberland Culture is well-known for its unique burial practices: stone-box burials. As the name implies, this burial practice involves constructing a coffin-shaped box from limestone slabs, sometimes lining the base with pottery sherds or shell. While this type of burial is found outside the Middle Cumberland region, the sheer number of stone-box burials and cemeteries far exceeds that of any other region. Here, I provide a brief overview of salvage investigations at a number of sites in the Davidson and surrounding counties of the Middle Cumberland region. A particular emphasis on the Kelley’s Battery site in western Davidson County is also provided.

The Sites
Numerous sites ranging from single house farmsteads up to palisaded villages with dozens of houses have been investigated through salvage archaeology. Notable sites that have been investigated and published include Brentwood Library (Moore 2005), Brandywine Pointe (Moore and Smith 1993), Rutherford-Kiser (Moore and Smith 2001), and Gordontown (Moore and Breitburg 1998) among others. These investigations have been published by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and are available to the public. Many other sites have only been reported in the “grey” literature, not professionally published, and are only available to researchers from the state site files. Along with investigations conducted in the late 19th century (Moore and Smith 2009), these investigations have provided significant information concerning chronology, patterns and changes in demography, and changes in artifact assemblages and composition.

Kelley’s Battery (40DV392)
One site that I have been extensively involved with is the Kelley’s Battery site (Jones 2017). The Kelley’s Battery site is a large village site situated on the bank of the Cumberland River in western Davidson County. The site was subject to salvage investigations as the site location was slated to be commercially developed. The site was originally recorded as a small stone-box cemetery during the Tennessee Division of Archaeology’s Civil War survey as the cemetery was located near Battle of Nashville rifle pits and earthworks. However, upon initial investigation it was discovered that two stone-box cemeteries were present along with an extensive habitation or village area. These characteristics allowed for additional insights into the Middle Cumberland Mississippian peoples.

Chronological Position
A single radiocarbon date of 670+60 B.P. or calibrated to AD 1282-1390 (Beta 156263) was obtained from the site. This timeframe falls within the late Regional Period III and into the Regional Period IV (see Moore and Smith 2009). The Regional Period III is marked by increasing use of stone-box internments including “tiered” burial platforms, which may have been present at Kelley’s Battery. By the Regional Period IV, large village cemeteries with hundreds of individuals are present such as those at Kelley’s Battery. Additionally, a large number of notched rim applique’ ceramic vessels indicate a substantial post-AD 1300 occupation (Moore and Smith 2009:211). Other decorated ceramic types such as Beckwith incised are present (Figure 1). As such, the radiocarbon determination, mortuary patterns, and ceramic assemblage all support a 14th century period of occupation for the site.

Figure 1. Beckwith Incised ceramics.

Mortuary Patterning
Because salvage investigations were conducted in compliance with the Tennessee burial law, particular importance was given to the exhumation and analysis of the human remains. Unlike many other Middle Cumberland Mississippian sites and stone-box cemeteries that had been investigated, the presence of two discrete, large cemeteries allowed for comparison of burial patterns. Cemetery Area 1 located on the western periphery of the site exhibited a regular, more systematic system of internment with the majority of burials oriented northwest to southeast. Conversely, Cemetery Area 2 located on the northern periphery of the site was much less systematic in burial orientations. Furthermore, burial good distribution varied significantly between the two cemeteries. Burial goods in Cemetery Area 1 consisted of plain ceramic vessels, duck and mussel effigy vessels, hafted knife, single examples of an ear plug and pottery trowel, and one burial with shell beads. Cemetery Area 2 produced two shell gorgets, a composite gig and fishhook, notched applique’ rim and decorated ceramic vessels, and six of seven ear plugs.
The two cemetery mortuary assemblages are qualitatively different. The differences in internment patterns as well as mortuary goods indicates that these represent distinct groups, possibly ethnic or kin-based groups such as clans or “moieties” with different rules for burial. While much smaller, family-based groups of stone-box cemeteries have been recognized at other Middle Cumberland sites, recognition of different descent groups is unique to the Kelley’s Battery site.
It is inevitable that urban growth and development will occur at the expense of archaeological and historical resources. While we can lament the loss of these resource and information, much has been obtained from the investigations that have occurred. The Middle Cumberland region is a prime example of this. Without the efforts involved in the salvage operations in the region, our knowledge and understanding of the late indigenous populations would be significantly less than our current state.

Jones, J. Scott
2017 The Kelley’s Battery Site (40DV392): Archaeological Investigations at a Middle Cumberland Mississippian Village. Tennessee Archaeology 9(1):16-57.

Moore, Michael C.
2005 The Brentwood Library Site: A Mississippian Town on the Little Harpeth River, Williamson County, Tennessee. Tennessee Division of Archaeology Publication Series 15. Nashville.

Moore, Michael C., and Emanuel Breitburg
1998 Gordontown: Salvage Archaeology at a Mississippian Town in Davidson County, Tennessee. Tennessee Division of Archaeology Publication Series 11. Nashville.

Moore, Michael C. and Kevin E. Smith
1993 A Report on the 1992 Archaeological Investigations at the Brandywine Pointe Site (40DV247), Davidson County, Tennessee. Tennessee Division of Archaeology Reports of Investigation 9. Nashville

2001 Archaeological Excavations at the Rutherford-Kizer Site: A Mississippian Mound Center in Sumner County, Tennessee. Tennessee Division of Archaeology Publication Series 13. Nashville.

2009 Archaeological Expeditions of the Peabody Museum in Middle Tennessee, 1877-1884. Tennessee Division of Archaeology Publication Series 16. Nashville.

UTC Anthropology Program Update

Morgan Smith

University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

The archaeology program at UTC has had another active year. In this post, we will specifically highlight two ongoing research projects: the 2021 UTC field school, and the continued digitization of reports housed at the Jeffrey L. Brown Institute of Archaeology to increase access to these materials.  

This year, the archaeological field school for UTC is being taught at Woodcock Cove on Fredonia Mountain near Dunlap, TN. Woodcock Cove was recently acquired by the Southeast Climbers Coalition (SCC) (Figure 1).

Figure 1. An overview of the Woodcock Cove property recently acquired by UTC. Image from UTC IGTL Lab.

The Southeast Climbers Coalition is a non-profit group based in Chattanooga that acquires land in the Southeast for the purpose of preserving access to the region’s rock climbing. This recently acquired parcel protects a unique geological, ecological, and archaeological area above Sequatchie Valley. The Southeast Climbers Coalition and UTC’s archaeology program collaborated to develop a plan to conduct a pedestrian walkover survey and shovel tests of the area to ensure that planned trails, parking lots, kiosks, and climbers themselves do not adversely impact archaeological resources in the parcel.

The field school has been working to perform a walkover survey of the parcel, a survey of the cliff line to identify any overhangs which may have served as shelters for the areas precontact inhabitants, and shovel tests in areas where the parking lot and kiosks are planned (Figure 2). Thus far, students have found no evidence of precontact peoples occupying the area. However, the area does have a rich mining history associated with the historic coke oven properties in the city of Dunlap.

Figure 2. Students conducting a shovel test in an area where climbing-related infrastructure may impact cultural resources.

The coke ovens in Dunlap are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are maintained locally by the Sequatchie Valley Historical Society as a park. Coke is a fuel source produced by firing coal until it was carbonized and was used largely in the production of pig iron. Local blast furnaces in Chattanooga and nearby Alabama, such as the Bluff and Tannehill Furnaces, received much of this coke and were prolific in the region for the production of pig iron which drove the engines of industry in the region. The area of interest for mining was predominately Fredonia Mountain, where the SCC recently obtained the property. The first railroads in the area catalyzed the mining industry in the 1880s, with the first mines on Fredonia Mountain opening in 1899. Mining operations came to a close in 1922, but much of the area is preserved at the foot of Fredonia Mountain in the Dunlap Coke Ovens Park. Although the area on Fredonia Mountain is well known to contain historic mining structures, the state of Tennessee site file has no recorded sites on this particular parcel.

Coal seams are evident in the ground around the property as well as by open and collapsed coal mines, foundations from what are likely miners’ bathhouses and equipment depots, mechanical lift structures used to raise and lower mined materials, and structures such as stone walls and walkways built as infrastructure to ease the burdens of mining the hilly terrain (Figure 3). The work at Woodcock Cove has been very productive thus far and UTC is happy to be assisting the SCC in this project. It is a great example of a positive working relationship between groups who ultimately have like-minded goals.

Figure 3. UTC students examining an open coal mine on the property.

While getting fresh air has been a welcome change to our quarantined students, we have a dedicated students who are assisting the UTC Archaeology program in the digitization of records and reports from decades of archaeological research in Tennessee. These documents include reports, records, and photographs from Kings Bay (GA), Bluff Furnace, and Moccasin Bend, among others. The goal of this work is to create a bibliography of these scanned reports and documents that can be requested by researchers or interested parties. However, this experience has also been a hands-on, active exercise is curation and archival methods. To date, over 2,000 report pages, slides, documents, or letters have been digitized, which are being organized into searchable PDF files to enhance research utility of these reports and broaden their potential impact.

To stay in touch with the UTC Archaeology program and remain up-to-date on what’s happening, please follow or visit our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/UTCSocialCulturalJusticeStudies) or visit our website (https://www.utc.edu/social-cultural-justice-studies/anthropology/index.php).

Mud Glyph Cave 2021

Aubrey Roemer

Ph.D. Student, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Mud Glyph Cave was the first cave art site ever discovered in the Southeast of North America. Located in modern-day Tennessee, the cave contains hundreds of Mississippian-era mud glyphs that comprise sprawling murals scattered throughout its dark zone passages. Mud glyphs are essentially drawings into plastic clay surfaces. However, the marks that are made at Mud Glyph Cave go beyond simply drawing—there is evidence of kicking, cutting, hitting, raking, incising, drawing, smoothing, modeling, and possibly preparing the surface. When this site was first discovered in 1980, it was photographed, mapped, and surveyed by Dr. Charles Faulkner and the Cave Art Research Team at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The cave has been primarily documented using still analog photography by Bill Deane to record individual images in the cave. Deane took 323 photographs in black and white, using over 500 light bulbs, taking a photo at every meter mark in the passageway on both the left and right sides. The cave was mapped, both in its entirety and focusing solely on the glyph passages. The floor was searched for discarded artifacts. The team found several hearths and evidence of rivercane torches. Radiocarbon dates on the torches yielded a range of dates that indicate a predominately Mississippian occupation. A piece of rivercane that was lodged into a mud glyph dated the site explicitly to 1200-1350 A.D.

Photograph of artwork in Mud Glyph Cave by Bill Deane.

Click here to see Roemer’s animation of Deane’s photograph.

The analysis provided in Faulkner’s The Prehistoric Native American Art of Mud Glyph Cave is useful and informative but not complete. Due to constraints, Faulkner and his team did not map the panels in their totality, nor were mosaic photographs produced that allow the large mural-like panels of mud glyphs to be analyzed in their entirety. As a result, the spatial structure of the site’s artwork has never been examined in detail. Additionally, given the fact that the cave was documented well over thirty years ago, the technology and methodology did not exist to truly articulate the hundreds of glyphs that comprise vast parietal art covering the dark zone walls of the cave. Today, rock art is archived with photogrammetry, 3D modeling, videography, digitized drawings, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR). These new visual technological developments enable scholars and scientists to view prehistoric artwork with a level of visibility that rivals seeing it in person. When Dr. Faulkner and his team recorded Mud Glyph Cave, these methods were not available; furthermore, Faulkner himself declared his book a “preliminary outline” of the analysis that has yet to be done. He furthered that this cave is a “sealed deposit” that presents us a time capsule of prehistoric activity in art and in ritual.

My dissertation research at the University of Tennessee will complete the archive of Mud Glyph Cave using panoramic photography that will be collected through new fieldwork with renowned cave photographer Alan Cressler. High-resolution panoramic photographs of the panels will produce comprehensive, detailed, and accurate reproductions of the array of images throughout the cave and illuminate their spatial interrelationships. These renderings will allow for a detailed structural analysis, producing results impossible to achieve with traditional methods of reproduction that utilize single photographs and rendered drawings. Combining digital drawings methods with panoramic photography will offer another means of seeing the glyphs graphically isolated, extracted from the homogenous clay surface. These models will offer more comprehensive visual models for analysis.

Photo of Mud Glyph Cave by Alan Cressler.

Click here to see Roemer’s animation of Cressler’s glyph photograph.

Since 1980, nearly a hundred cave and rock art sites that have been documented throughout the Southeast of North America, ranging from the Archaic Period to the Mississippian Period. Additionally, archaeological research has continued to present evidence of the ritual use of caves as part of the lifeways of the prehistoric Southeast. These sites are connected to art, ceremony, burial, economy, habitation, and retreat. Mud Glyph Cave offers a window into the ritual activities of pre-contact groups in the Southeast. In articulating the complete set of iconography present in Mud Glyph Cave, the methodology through which it was likely created, and analyzing the spatial relationships within the artwork, it can be truly compared to the other contemporaneous cave art sites present in the Southeast.

Kids’ Corner: Meet an Archaeologist!

Kandi Hollenbach and Leslie Chang-Jantz

McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Tennessee – Knoxville

Have you ever thought about becoming an archaeologist when you grow up?  We asked some of the archaeologists working in Tennessee about why they chose archaeology as a career, and they gave us a wide range of answers!  You can find their answers on our Meet an Archaeologist page on the McClung Museum’s website, and we have listed the names of some of those archaeologists below. 

Archaeology is a field where history meets science: archaeologists study how people lived in the past by digging up and analyzing the things that people left behind – like stone tools, ceramic pots, and the animal bones and cooking pits left over from their meals.  Sometimes we have written documents that we can read too, but not everyone could write, and people did not write about everything they did!  We can learn a lot more from the trash they left behind.  

UTK Archaeologist Anneke Janzen excavating animal remains at a site in Kenya.

It would take far too long to dig a site all by yourself, so archaeology is definitely a team sport! There is also a lot we can learn from each type of artifact or structure remnants, so different members of the research team often specialize in analyzing different data sets – like pottery (Stephen Collins-Elliott), bronze artifacts (Tristan Barnes), animal remains (Anneke Janzen), or even the dirt that holds the artifacts (Sarah Sherwood).  Each archaeologist learns as much as they can by analyzing their data set, and then they share their results and put all of the data together to best figure out how people lived in the past in a particular area.  And because there is so much to learn about the deep history of an area, archaeologists tend to pick one – like the Southeastern US (Paige Silcox), ancient Greece (Theodora Kopestonsky), or eastern Africa (Anneke Janzen).

Archaeologists also work in a wide range of jobs.  Some archaeologists are professors who teach and do research at colleges and universities (Aleydis Van de Moortel), but most work for companies that dig sites that will be damaged by construction projects, or for the agencies that oversee those projects, like the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (Daniel Brock) or TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority; Erin Pritchard Dunsmore). 

You can practice some of the same things that archaeologists do!  This printable activity sheet shows you some of the tools archaeologists use – like rulers and notebooks – to make their measurements and record their observations.  You can also pick an object from your kitchen and make some observations yourself!

Another activity is to think about is what an archaeologist might learn about YOU from the things you use every day. What could they figure out about you from the items you have in your room? Which items would survive for 500 years, and which would decompose or fall completely apart? Ask your parents if you can make a list of the contents of your trashcan: assign each item a category and count them. For example, a granola bar wrapper could be assigned to the category “food”, and a button to the “clothing” category. Which items would survive for 500 years, and from those items, how much do you think an archaeologist could figure out about you? 

For those of you who are archaeologists, we would love to add your responses to our webpage! Please send your responses to the following questions, along with a photo, to kdh@utk.edu or lcjantz@utk.edu: (1) What made you want to be an archaeologist? (2) What is the coolest thing you have ever found? (3) What is your favorite part about being an archaeologist? Thanks!