Archaeology of the Mississippian Pile Mound Site, Upper Cumberland Plateau
East Tennessee State University
The Mississippian Period is very poorly understood in the Upper Cumberland Plateau region of Tennessee. Outside of a few rock and cave art sites and some scattered shell tempered ceramics from perhaps two dozen rock shelters, we can say very little about late prehistoric cultures in the region. That is why our new work at the Pile Mound Site is so exciting.
The Pile Mound Site (40Fn180) has been known for more than 100 years. William Myer of the Smithsonian Institution, wrote about the site in the early 1900s and described the mound as being about five feet high and 100 feet in diameter. Near the mound were apparently found discoidals, pipe fragments, flint, and plain pottery. The property owners also have a chunkey stone that was recovered by a family member some decades ago. The mound largely remained unknown (but protected) until the mid-1990s when it was recorded as the Frogge Mound and village site. Given that the land has been in the Pile family since the late 18th century, we formally refer to it as the Pile Mound Site (in agreement with Suzanne Hoyal, TDOA Site File Manager).
With landowner permission, we developed a research plan last year to begin archaeological investigations of the site. We began with non-invasive magnetometer survey in March 2014. This survey revealed the presence of what appeared to be a 10-11 meter per side structure atop the mound (but see below). In May 2014, we conducted a ground penetrating radar (GPR) survey of the mound, which revealed the presence of at least two large rock concentrations on the east side of the mound, as well as a possible third concentration on the north side. Finally, we also did an electromagnetic induction (EMI) survey of the mound in July of this year in conjunction with our summer archaeological field school. Interestingly, the EMI did not reveal the presence of a structure atop the mound. However, the EMI only records to a maximum depth of 50 cm, while the magnetometer measures to a depth of 1.5 meters (to the base of the mound, in effect). Therefore, we hypothesize that the possible structure initially identified by the GPR survey preceded mound construction.
We also did magnetometer survey over much of the site area covering almost fifteen hectares. This survey revealed the possible presence of residential structures about 150 meters east of the mound, as well as several possible pit features. Some of these were “ground-truthed” with archaeological test excavations. One small pit feature with fire-cracked rock, burnt limestone, and shell tempered ceramics was AMS dated to the mid-13th century.
We also conducted some test excavations in what appears to be village midden deposited before construction of the mound. It contained the usual midden debris: animal bone, charcoal, lithics, and pottery. A piece of burnt walnut shell dates the midden to the late 13th century. Rim and body sherds to several jars were recovered from this context. The pottery is mostly shell and chalcedony grit tempered. Surface treatments are largely (zoned) check stamped and cord-marked with the typical Mississippi Plain, too. As such, the pottery is very unlike ceramic assemblages in the Middle Cumberland drainage, with the exception of except the Beasley Mounds in Smith County. The Pile Mound assemblage also bears some similarities to Mississippian sites in Southeastern Kentucky in the Upper Cumberland drainage. However, at sites likes Croley-Evans (15Kx24), the ceramic assemblage includes types indicative of the East Tennessee valley such as red-filmed, painted, and slipped vessels. We have none of this type of pottery, and therefore the Pile Mound assemblage does not seem to bear great resemblance to East Tennessee.
It appears that the Pile Mound site inhabitants likely maintained localized traditions, or communities of practice, by retaining chalcedony as a tempering agent (we have numerous well-dated Late Woodland ceramic assemblages in the immediate area of the Pile Mound that are largely chalcedony tempered). However, they shared Mississippian affinities and practices with neighboring communities in the eastern extremity of the Middle Cumberland and also perhaps with sites in the Upper Cumberland area of Kentucky. In sum, as with previous periods of prehistory in the Upper Cumberland Plateau regions, Mississippian peoples there defied traditional stereotypes of highland folks. They were not isolated, marginal communities. They were very much connected to the greater Mississippian world but also managed to maintain elements of their own traditions. We look forward to continuing our work at the Pile Mound site in 2016 with particular focus on residential and domestic areas of the site.