30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 15

Magnolia Valley Field School

Jesse Tune
Center for the Study of the First Americans
Texas A&M University

Earlier this year MTSU students excavated the Magnolia Valley site, located in Rutherford County, as part of an archaeological field school. The field school was designed to teach students the methods and techniques of doing archaeology. This foundational course is something that all archaeologists do early on in their education. Beyond learning the basics of archaeology, it is a certain right of passage for undergraduate students and leaves them with a summer of memories and many new friends. The excavation and field school at Magnolia Valley was part of the Rutherford County Archaeological Research Program (RCARP), led by Dr. Tanya Peres.

Prior to the field school, only a small amount of basic information was known about the Magnolia Valley site. The site is located near the headwaters of the Harpeth River. Since the early nineteenth century, the land around the Magnolia Valley site has primarily been used to raise horses. The property was originally part of a land grant to Hardy Murphy for service in the American Revolution. However, the first person of European ancestry to live on the property permanently was William McDowell. Written accounts show that McDowell was particularly fond of the property because it reminded him of his childhood home in Scotland. Today a lone grave marks McDowell’s final resting spot on a hilltop overlooking the property.

The grave of William McDowell

The grave of William McDowell

Artifacts representing a prehistoric component were identified when a new road was being constructed on the property. During the early phases of construction, numerous flakes and stone tools were found on or near the ground surface. Following the completion of the road minimal testing done at the site suggested that there was a possibility of intact prehistoric components.

Shovel testing

Shovel testing

The summer 2014 field school was designed to maximize the experience for the students, and also record as much new information about the site as possible. The students learned multiple survey methods and were able to identify several previously unknown prehistoric sites on the property. The students surveyed approximately 300 acres by doing shovel testing. This consisted of teams of two students digging a small hole about 50 cm in diameter, and about 75-100 cm deep. A geophysical survey was also conducted in and around the area where prehistoric artifacts were originally found. Each of the students spent time with the geophysical specialist, Tim de Smet, and were able to become familiar with the more technologically advanced survey techniques used by archaeologists today. Tim will be writing a post detailing the geophysical survey in the coming weeks, so check back for more info on that!

Students learning geophysical survey methods

Students learning geophysical survey methods

After two full weeks of survey, the students spent the next five weeks excavating in the area where prehistoric artifacts were first identified. Thanks to the results of the geophysical survey, we had a much better idea of exactly where we should spend time excavating. During that time, the students practiced everything from using trigonometry to lay out excavation units, to shovel skimming, to screening, to excavating with trowels, to mapping and recording extensive written records. Archaeology is not always just about using trowels and brushes. The students quickly learned these new skills and were able to excavate many exciting features.

Much of the excavation focused on prehistoric pit features, created when the ancient site inhabitants dug holes to store or dispose of food or other supplies. These types of features are quite common at Archaic period sites throughout the region. Based on the types of projectile points recovered from the site, Magnolia Valley was occupied predominantly during the Late Archaic period, about 3,000-6,000 years ago. One particularly notable feature identified and excavated this summer was an earth oven. This type of cooking technique has been common in various times throughout most of the world. Essentially an earth oven is similar to a modern convection oven, and uses ambient heat to cook food. A small pit is dug and the inside is lined with hot rocks that have been heated in a fire. Packs of food, typically wrapped in some type of leaves, are placed onto the hot rocks in the pit. More hot rocks are placed on top of the food packs and then the pit is sealed with dirt. This cooking method can maintain a temperature near boiling for several days.

View of the earth oven

View of the earth oven

The Magnolia Valley field school was a great experience for everyone involved. The students learned the basic skills required to be a professional archaeologist. In fact, several students are already working as professional archaeologists! We all learned important information about the early historic and prehistoric periods in Rutherford County. The data gathered during the field school is currently being processed and will be presented at the upcoming CRITA meeting in Nashville. Also, check back in the coming weeks to find out more about the geophysical survey at Magnolia Valley!

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