30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 25

The French Lick Site at Sulphur Dell: An Example of Urban Archaeology in Nashville

Hannah Guidry
TRC Environmental Corporation, Nashville

Urban archaeology in Nashville recently turned up evidence of a prehistoric salt manufacturing locale deep below the modern city surface. This remnant of a Mississippian period salt production workshop was once part of a flourishing Native American town, known archaeologically as the French Lick and East Nashville Mounds sites, located on both banks of the Cumberland River very near where downtown Nashville stands today.

View of excavations at the French Lick site, showing prehistoric features (visible as orange and black patches) surrounding the foundations of the Howe Ice Company factory.

View of excavations at the French Lick site, showing prehistoric features (visible as orange and black patches) surrounding the foundations of the Howe Ice Company factory.

The buried surface where the site was identified is situated at the extreme southern edge of the current boundary for the French Lick site, along a mineral spring-fed creek that once meandered from west to east across the area. This mineral supply, known historically as French Lick, provided an important natural salt resource for Native American inhabitants of the area, and later eighteenth century French traders and early residents of Nashville.

When TRC Environmental Corp. contracted to monitor the earth moving activities for the new Nashville Sounds baseball stadium at Sulphur Dell, we were excited to take part in the creation of a new municipal landmark. The construction site and surrounding area have a rich and complex history. Mineral deposits and springs in the Lick Creek valley contributed to an abundance of human activity in the area through time.

Portion of the French Lick site investigated during the Sulphur Dell Ballpark project.

Portion of the French Lick site investigated during the Sulphur Dell Ballpark project.

Though we knew the prehistoric French Lick site had produced some impressive archaeological finds only blocks away in the 1990s, it was quite possible that in this particular location the maximum project depth would not extend below the many feet of historic fill and rubble capping the area. The Sulphur Dell Ballpark site lies on the edge of what had been a depression or bowl in the natural landscape just a few blocks north of the capitol building in downtown Nashville and two blocks from the west bank of the Cumberland River. Commercial development and artificial filling through time have raised the ground level significantly. TRC monitors collected a selective sample of the more complete and interesting examples of historic items from the artificial fill layer, including bottles that held products produced both locally in Nashville and as far away as London.

Profile of large fired pit at the site.

Profile of large fired pit at the site.

Deep beneath what will soon be third base, an intact prehistoric surface was encountered in the form of a dark midden bearing cultural debris such as charcoal, ash, bone, riverine shell, burned earth, and numerous large, thick ceramic sherds. The initial discovery was made under an open lot, formerly home to the Howe Ice Company. The prehistoric deposits had been partially intruded upon by the foundations of the ice factory building during the late nineteenth century, yet were essentially capped and preserved by the building – and subsequently its demolition debris – through the twentieth century. As the surrounding area was mechanically stripped to the level of the prehistoric surface, several heavily fired pits became visible, the bright red soil in stark contrast to the surrounding grey matrix. Earthmoving activities continued around us as we investigated this unique example of a Mississippian period industry that had survived historic development in the area. Additional pockets of midden and pit features were encountered that extended the site boundary to the west beneath what was, until its recent removal, Fourth Avenue North.

Examples of salt pan fragments from the site displaying various textile impressions.

Examples of salt pan fragments from the site displaying various textile impressions.

In total, this new portion of the French Lick site measures 50 by 42 meters and contains 42 individual features, four large feature clusters consisting of broad burned areas with overlapping features, 28 possible posthole features, and an intermittent midden deposit. The majority of the pit features displayed evidence of in situ firing. Though often oval or circular, one of these fired pits was distinctly T-shaped, and another was linear. Some measured over two meters in diameter. A single large pit was bisected during the project, and contained intact ash and charcoal lenses to a depth of 60 cm below the surface.

The artifacts associated with these large heavily burned features consistently included limestone, mussel shell, and thick ceramic salt pan fragments. The salt pan fragments primarily had fabric-impressed patterns on their exteriors, demonstrating a wide variety of fabric weaves, though plain and leaf-impressed examples were also recovered. The ceramic assemblage also included fragments of other vessel forms and a discoidal made from a salt pan fragment. A hooded bottle fragment, a spout-shaped appendage likely from an effigy vessel, and two disc shaped beads, one made of bone and one of shell, were also recovered from the midden.

Shell (left) and bone (right) beads discovered at the site.

Shell (left) and bone (right) beads discovered at the site.

Evidence suggests this salt production locale was active during the Early and Middle Mississippian period, and used for an extended period of time. Some of the largest fired pits appeared to originate below the midden, indicating intensive activity early on in the sequence. Charcoal samples were taken from various contexts during the investigation, so perhaps the chronology of this site can be refined in the future through radiocarbon dating. We hope that future researchers will use the data we collected to better understand this site, the details of prehistoric salt production, and its role in Mississippian period life and society.

Since the site was below the maximum depth needed to construct the ball field, the archaeological investigation focused on documentation rather than excavation. A majority of the features were left unexcavated, and the site has since been covered with a layer of protective fill. Finally, I want to acknowledge the Tennessee Division of Archaeology staff and Dr. Kevin Smith for providing much appreciated help with the excavations and excellent support during this project.

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