Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 26


Archaeology in Middle Tennessee in the 1960s and 70s

John T. Dowd
Nashville, Tennessee

I am now 82 years old, and have had an avid interest in archaeology for the last 50 years or so. It all started in the mid 1960’s when my father-in-law, Lloyd McMahan, took me out arrowhead hunting in plowed fields in Coffee County.  Like candy to a baby, I was hooked.

I wanted to learn more about the people who made these arrowheads, and the first book I purchased was Sun Circles and Human Hands, by Emma Lila Fundaburk and Mary Douglass Foreman. The second was Cambron and Hulse’s Handbook of Alabama Archaeology, Part I: Point Types. At this time, around 1970, Jack Cambron was recognized as one of the foremost lithic experts in the Southeast. I became friends with Jack and even helped him on one of his excavations at Savage Cave in Adairville, Kentucky.

John Dowd, TAS President James Powers, and State Archaeologist Mack Pritchard (Left to right) at the Brick Church Pike site, early 1970s.

A friend of mine at work told me of a group of serious amateur archaeologists who had banded together and somehow become associated with Vanderbilt University. He introduced me to Buddy Brehm, who was one of their most active members, and would become my good friend and mentor. The name of their group was the Southeastern Indian Antiquities Survey (SIAS), and was headed up by Bob Ferguson, who was also an executive at RCA. At that time Vanderbilt’s main interest was in archaeological sites in Mexico, but they supported SIAS by providing a meeting place in the Stadium House and a part-time secretary. I joined the SIAS and worked with them until the group disbanded in 1975, then helped revive it in 1976 as the Middle Cumberland Archaeological Society, which survives to this day.

Most of the SIAS members also belonged to the Tennessee Archaeological Society (TAS), which was a statewide organization anchored at the Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The TAS issued a monthly newsletter and published a Miscellaneous Paper each year as an outlet for their members to show unusual or outstanding artifacts they had encountered or share stories of their archaeological experiences.

SIAS members Bob Ferguson (center) and Buddy Brehm (right) discussing the sabertooth cat find with an unidentified worker, summer 1971. Photo courtesy of Les Leverett.

During this time there was not a State Archaeologist or antiquities laws in Tennessee, nor were there any universities interested in the archaeology of the region. State laws did not yet protect prehistoric human remains, and when an ancient graveyard was encountered during development, the graves were open to whoever wanted to dig them. My memories from that time include seeing Boy Scout troops digging graves to earn their “Indian Lore” badges, and housewives digging with their kitchen utensils. SIAS members were also present on these sites, though with the intention of recording as much information as possible before graves were bulldozed away.

While most of the SIAS excavations were salvage projects, some threatened sites were subject to more extensive excavations. By far the most important of the SIAS excavations was in 1971, when we were called on to conduct excavations at the First American Bank building in downtown Nashville after construction encountered the remains of a sabertooth tiger. Our work there made national news.

All meaningful archaeological work conducted in the Nashville area during the 1960s and 1970s was done by SIAS and TAS members, and all of our work was published either by the TAS or through other means. The SIAS and TAS were also instrumental in the creation of the official state Division of Archaeology and the appointment of Mack Pritchard as the first State Archaeologist since the 1930s. Since the creation of the Division of Archaeology  in the early 1970s, the SIAS/MCAS has furnished volunteer workers on many state archaeology projects.

Editor’s note: John Dowd was the recipient of the Society for American Archaeology’s 2012 Crabtree Award, a recognition of excellence in avocational archaeology, as well as of the 1999 TCPA Avocational Lifetime Achievement Award. You can find a discussion of John’s contributions to Tennessee archaeology in the March, 2013 issue of the SAA Archaeological Record in an article by Mike C. Moore and Kevin Smith that begins on page 18 of the linked issue.