Archaeology and Tennessee History
Carroll Van West, PhD
Director, MTSU Center for Historic Preservation
Tennessee State Historian
When I had the privilege of editing the Tennessee Historical Quarterly from 1994 to 2010, I was always on the look-out for articles that spoke to Tennessee history through material evidence. What is found underneath the ground, or in ruins above the ground, is important evidence of the past, just as much so as the cache of documents found squirreled away in someone’s attic.
In the late 1990s, after numerous collaborations in the field, my MTSU colleague Kevin Smith decided to take my challenge and served as a guest editor for a special issue on Tennessee history as viewed through the prism of historical archaeology. The articles ran the gamut, from new insights on plantation slavery and antebellum social structure from field projects in both Knox and Davidson counties to the literal underside of urban life, found in excavations and studies carried out in downtown Memphis. I still feel that this single issue was one of the best produced during my years as THQ Senior Editor, and encourage both archaeologists and historians to remember that collaboration can yield significant results in our joint explorations into the past.
Certainly in the years since we have done our best to push such reciprocal partnerships in our many field projects at the Center for Historic Preservation. Three projects in this decade are worth highlighting. The first came when we received the glorious opportunity to consider carefully the entire landscape of Glen Leven Farm in Nashville while undertaking a heritage development plan for the Land Trust for Tennessee (this plan is available on the website of the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area). Zada Law of MTSU led our efforts, with the assistance of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology. The result emphasized that there was more than grand architecture to Glen Leven–a rich landscape of agricultural buildings, fields, and sites also were there.
Another collaboration came at Cragfont, a state historic site in Sumner County. Here Dan Allen led the archaeology assessment for our efforts, giving the state both a much better documentary record of the property’s history but also meaningful clues that can guide future archaeology at the site so that the landscape’s full story can be appreciated.
Then there is our effort, working with Rutherford County archivist John Lodl, to survey Rutherford County cemeteries. Our efforts are led by Michael Fletcher and Catherine Hawkins, who had earlier undertaken a study of Nashville City Cemetery for our Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area program. Here our survey and GIS mapping will be a godsend for both archaeologists and historians looking at these resources in the future.
We have learned long ago that collaborations between historians and archaeologists work: I haven’t even mentioned the Tennessee Century Farms program, the Slave Housing Survey of Tennessee or our on-going survey of historic properties along the entire Trail of Tears. We salute our archaeology colleagues and look forward to working together to build our understand of Tennessee’s past.