Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 19


State Archaeology 101

Sarah Levithol
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

What does an archaeologist working for the state of Tennessee do?

To answer this question, some background is needed first. The Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) and some of the first laws geared toward archaeology in Tennessee were established by the passage of the “Tennessee Antiquities Act” of 1970. The creation and successful passage of this act was largely due to the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966 (discussed previously in Phillip Hodge’s post), and the concern of avocational and professional archaeologists in the state for the preservation of sites; specifically members of the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey and the Tennessee Archaeological Society. Both of these organizations were integral to the development of archaeological standards in the state, and in defining the mission of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, which is headed by the State Archaeologist (currently Mike Moore). The responsibilities of the TDOA are as follows:

A 1990 amendment to state statutes provides additional protections for Native American human remains and burial objects, and also makes the Division and State Archaeologist a central part of the discovery and handling of (primarily prehistoric) Native American graves in the state. This amendment prohibits the public display of Native American human remains, requires reburial of all removed skeletal remains and associated burial objects, and provides a time limit (six months to one year) for analysis prior to reburial. It is illegal in Tennessee to knowingly excavate, remove or tamper with any human burial, whether on public or private property. Burials can be legally removed through a court order from the Chancery Court, but only under very specific conditions. The 1990 amendment occurred about the same time as passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which provides a mechanism for the repatriation of Native American skeletal remains and objects to federally recognized tribes.

So how does all of this affect archaeologists working for the Tennessee Division of Archaeology?

Map of recorded sites in Tennessee

There are over 25,000 archaeological sites in the state of Tennessee and a large part of my job, and that of my colleagues, is keeping tabs on them, specifically those on state owned lands, and also recording new ones. Unfortunately sometimes this means documenting their destruction by natural forces (as was done in collaboration with MTSU following the 2010 Nashville flood), construction projects, and looting. Although excavation of archaeological materials is illegal on federal land under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, collecting and digging of non-burial archaeological resources on private property is legal in Tennessee with landowner permission.

State Archaeologist Mike Moore excavating at what is now the Brentwood Library, where a Mississippian village was found.

Our office also reviews construction projects on state-owned land to assess the impact to known or potential archaeological sites. For smaller projects the TDOA staff may conduct a small-scale evaluation and/or monitor the work. Larger projects generally require a private Cultural Resource Management firm to carry out the more intensive investigations before construction begins. Many projects require the Division to work closely with other state and federal agencies such as the Tennessee Historical Commission, TDOT, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TVA, and federally recognized Native American tribes. We also rely heavily on the reports of concerned citizens who inform us about damage being done to archaeological resources.

Housing development in Tennessee literally stopped in their tracks by the discovery of an unmarked historic cemetery (yellow caution tape marks where first two graves were found).   Photo by Ben Nance.

Another important aspect of work at the TDOA is protecting prehistoric and historic human burials. It is illegal to knowingly tamper with, excavate, or otherwise disinter any human burials or funery objects in Tennessee without legal permission. The TDOA often receives reports of disturbed human remains, and we always respond to them to assess the situation. If a burial is uncovered during development or construction, it is the Division’s responsibility to help inform the builder or landowner of their legal options. These may include rerouting a project to avoid a burial, or if avoidance is not feasible then undertaking the legal process to remove the grave. If we receive a report of grave looting or other disturbance, we also make sure that local law enforcement and the medical examiner are contacted is case there is a forensic concern.

Sarah Levithol works to document a Mississippian fire pit feature.

Another important part of my job is completing reports from previous TDOA projects. Currently, I am analyzing artifacts from a 1988 investigation carried out in Algood, Tennessee for the State Route 42 road project. This project involved the excavation of nine sites within the proposed State Route 42/Highway 111 right of way. Based on the artifacts, the area was most heavily occupied during the early portion of the Archaic period (8,000 BC- 1,000 BC).

Public education is a large, and enjoyable, part of working at the TDOA. We regularly give talks and presentations to avocational archaeology, civic, and school groups. We also give talks to professional archaeologists about ongoing projects at local, regional, and national conferences. In addition, we daily answer phone calls and emails from citizens about artifacts they have found, potential sites on their property, or from students curious about our profession. It is these public interactions that allow us to share our knowledge of Tennessee’s past and foster a sense of excitement and concern for our cultural resources.