30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 23

The Pinson Environment and Archaeology Regional Landscape (PEARL) Project Begins with Non-invasive Technology

Alice P. Wright
Department of Anthropology, Appalachian State University
Sarah C. Sherwood
Sewanee Environmental Institute, The University of the South

During the Middle Woodland period (ca. 200 BC – AD 500), American Indian communities across the Eastern Woodlands erected mounds and other earthen monuments that become the focus of complex religious and social activities. Pinson Mounds, located along the South Fork of the Forked Deer River in West Tennessee, is the largest of these Middle Woodland mound sites in the Southeast. In fact, Sauls Mound – one of at least 17 known mounds at Pinson – is the second tallest earth mound ever built in the United States, measuring 72 feet tall at the summit. In the 1970s and 1980s, portions of this site were intensively excavated, revealing a mystifying array of burial practices, mound construction techniques, and artifacts. Based on this research, archaeologists today think that Pinson may have been an ancient pilgrimage center, where far-flung groups would come together to perform rituals, exchange goods and raw materials, and socialize with other communities. In this regard, Pinson may be related to some of the more famous sites of southern Ohio from the same period, which also witnessed elaborate rituals and the accumulation of exotic artifacts traded across North America.

A summer storm rolls toward the Johnston site during PEARL’s first season of field research in June, 2014. Mound 5 is mowed and visible on the right; Mound 4, on the left, is covered with trees.

A summer storm rolls toward the Johnston site during PEARL’s first season of field research in June, 2014. Mound 5 is mowed and visible on the right; Mound 4, on the left, is covered with trees.

As is often the case with archaeological research, however, these previous studies at Pinson generated as many questions as answers. Why was this particular place chosen as the location of such an important mound complex? What lead to Pinson becoming a major mound center? Where did the people who built the mounds live, and what were their daily lives like? How did these communities interact with and transform their natural environment – for example, were they experimenting in the cultivation of indigenous food crops? How did different, non-local groups become involved with ritual and society at Pinson? These questions and many more are the focus of a new archaeological initiative called the Pinson Environment and Archaeology Regional Landscapes Project – or PEARL, for short.

Chris Van de Ven and Lydia Carmody set out grid points using the robotic total station.

Chris Van de Ven and Lydia Carmody set out grid points using the robotic total station.

Initiated in 2013 by Sarah Sherwood from the Sewanee Environmental Institute at The University of the South, PEARL is a multi-institutional project currently made up of Sherwood and Chris Van de Ven (University of the South), Alice Wright (Appalachian State University), Casey Barrier (Bryn Mawr College), Nicholas Herrmann (Mississippi State University), Stephen and Lydia Carmody and Stephen Yerka (University of Tennessee-Knoxville), and Edward Henry (Washington University in St. Louis). Our team includes specialists in archaeological geophysics, geoarchaeology, paleoethnobotany, zooarchaeology and geographic information systems (GIS). Other scientists from disciplines such as forestry and geology are also helping to collect data to understand how the landscape changed over time. By assembling such a diverse team, and working with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and the Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, we aim to take a comprehensive view of Pinson and its surrounding area, including the nearby Johnston site.

Stephen Yerka collecting gradiometer data with the Bartington 601 dual-fluxgate gradiometer.

Stephen Yerka collecting gradiometer data with the Bartington 601 dual-fluxgate gradiometer.

The Johnston site is a state-owned, multi-mound site two miles away from the main Pinson complex, and has been the major focus of PEARL’s investigations to date. Initial research at Johnston suggests that it may slightly pre-date major moundbuilding episodes at Pinson, making it an ideal place to investigate the origins and earliest expressions of such activities. This past June, PEARL researchers conducted an extensive mapping and geophysical survey of the Johnston site using gradiometry and ground penetrating radar. These and related geophysical prospection methods allow us to detect subtle differences below the surface without ever disturbing the ground, and using multiple techniques ensures that we capture a wide range of subsurface features. Already, our preliminary results are helping us to assess the presence and organization of archaeological remains near the mounds.

Edward Henry collecting gradiometer data using the new Forster gradiometer.

Edward Henry collecting gradiometer data using the new Forster gradiometer.

PEARL’s long-term plans at Johnston involve additional excavation of off-mound areas to clarify the sorts of activities that occurred at the site alongside moundbuilding. We will also be conducting site survey around Johnston and Pinson in the South Fork Forked Deer River drainage, where the local communities who built these mounds may have lived. Our research will consider the context of the natural environment so that we may grasp what first attracted people to this place, and how their activities impacted the natural landscape. For example, based on our preliminary observations, we hypothesize that the soils and sediments used for moundbuilding at Johnston were mined from the steep bluffs that define the edges of the site. The prehistoric ground disturbance may have ultimately destabilized the terrace on which Johnston sits, leading to the threat of modern-day erosion to the long-term preservation of some of the mounds.

Our short pilot season in 2014 provided promising results to help us formulate future research. This summer we are planning, with Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, an archaeological field school that will engage students, faculty, and local volunteers and community members to begin to test these ideas. Stay tuned!

Alice Wright completing a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) transect not far from Mound 5 at the Johnston Site while Sewanee student Jane Millar pulls tapes.

Alice Wright completing a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) transect not far from Mound 5 at the Johnston Site while Sewanee student Jane Millar pulls tapes.

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