Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 2


Tennessee’s Stone Resources and Prehistoric Behavior

Ryan M. Parish, PhD
Department of Earth Sciences,
University of Memphis

Dr. Ryan Parish

Mineral resources are extremely important in today’s society. What we consider to be mineral resources, how we obtain them, and how we use them is constantly changing with advances in technology, politics, cultural practices, economy and other aspects of society. In this regard, little has changed since prehistoric times. Have you ever considered how and where prehistoric inhabitants of Tennessee procured materials on the landscape? The answer to the question allows us all to marvel at the intimate knowledge they had of the resources that were available to the earliest residents of our state and gives us greater insight into their lives.

What I enjoy doing is to seek out deposits of flint (chert as we generally refer to it in the Americas) that prehistoric people potentially utilized to manufacture a number of their stone tools. Chert has unique physical properties that allow you to predictably break it into a tool with razor sharp edges. Chert was one of the preferred mineral resources of prehistoric Tennesseans for manufacturing a broad range of tools including projectile points, knives, wood working implements, borers, adzes, hoes and scrapers.

Adze preform from the Dover quarry sites.

Growing up beside the glacial moraine of western Pennsylvania, I had little access to large deposits of chert. My early days of archaeological survey work uncovered artifacts manufactured from small glacial chert gravels and from far flung deposits in Ohio and West Virginia. Trips to famous chert deposits such as Flint Ridge, OH and Vera Cruz, PA cultivated an obsession for chert resources and what we can learn about prehistoric behavior from them. Upon moving to Kentucky and then to Tennessee, my eyes were ‘opened’ to the vast deposits of high quality chert materials in portions of both states. I immediately began surveying and sampling every deposit I encountered, creating rock gardens in the various rental units my wife and I lived in along the way. My “rock collecting adventures” probably contributed to the premature death of our family vehicle but as I pointed out, my research/hobby doesn’t cost anything other than gas and does not leave behind numerous hulks of disassembled vehicles clogging yards and driveways.

Fort Payne chert, Hickman County, TN

As an archaeologist my mind is geared toward prehistoric behavioral questions such as procurement strategies and decisions, techniques, availability, chert source as a proxy for visualizing migration and trade, organization of technology, spatial and temporal shifts in stone use, inter-group relationships, cosmological associations, political organization, and numerous other aspects of behavior which can be partially addressed by an understanding of chert use. The geologist and chemist parts of my mind think about variation between chert from different geologic formations and different deposits within the same formation. Not just color/texture variation but chemical, molecular and atomic structure variability as it is related to how the material formed and continues to be altered through time. Then an interest in geography, specifically human geography, directs the research and an understanding of the spatial relationships between chert deposits, material variation, geology, the land and prehistoric use influences this research/hobby.

Fort Payne (Horse Creek va.) chert, Hardin County, TN

Currently, the chert database consists of 3,000 samples from 100 deposits. However, this is just a giant rock collection if the variation cannot be characterized at different spatial scales. Reflectance spectroscopy techniques and high order statistical methods are assisting in differentiating material by geologic formation, geographic region, and individual deposit. The database allows for the comparison of unknown artifacts made of chert to determine source. Continuing research is unveiling more and more about the strengths and limitations of these methodologies but what is becoming clear is that large sample sizes are necessary when quantifying variation in chert.

Fort Payne chert, Humphreys County, TN

Major chert types in the sample database include Ste. Genevieve/Monteagle from deposits located in central Kentucky, east central Tennessee and northern Alabama. Deposits from the Upper St. Louis from south central Kentucky and central Tennessee are also represented. Lower St. Louis (Dover) and Warsaw chert from western Kentucky and west central Tennessee are included. Finally, Fort Payne chert from southern Illinois, central Kentucky, central Tennessee, northeastern Mississippi, northern Alabama, and northwestern Georgia make up the majority of samples.

Lower St. Louis (Dover var.) chert quarry debitage, Stewart County, TN

Many of the deposits sampled show signs of prehistoric use such as at the Dover Quarry sites but prehistoric procurement was certainly not limited to digging large pits into the soil matrix as gravel bars were almost certainly a major source of tool stone. Formal journeys to far distant chert sources may not have been the primary means with which prehistoric Tennesseans acquired stone. Therefore, it is truly interesting to note the presence of chert materials from deposits far from the archaeological site. By looking at geologic and geographic source we can begin to ask and answer questions related to people/people, people/place, and people/resource interactions. Researchers are limited to what can be pieced together about life in the past but there are a number of creative ways in which we ‘visualize’ people on the landscape and how they utilized resources and utilized relationships with others. Chert sourcing is just one such way that we as archaeologists do so and chert source data is best used with other datasets when deciphering human behavior. Tennessee’s rich archaeological resources help us understand past human experiences and may inform us about our own use of mineral resources.

I must finally thank all those property owners, avocational archaeologists, flintknappers, and collectors who have led me to or shared information regarding chert deposits. It is a real pleasure to work with those that share a passion for the past and an interest in collaborative research.

(left) Fort Payne chert along a cutbank in Henry County, TN. (right) Fort Payne chert