Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 27


The 1993 Rutherford-Kizer Mound Site Excavations

Michael C. Moore, State Archaeologist and Director
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

During this time of the year my mind usually wanders back to 1993 when Kevin Smith and I began our exploration of the Rutherford-Kizer site, a Mississippian mound center in southwest Sumner County. At that time, the general site area was in a rural part of the county with minimal residential development. That changed in early 1993 when Tom and Jack Tyree (father and son) proposed to build a large subdivision in an agricultural field/pasture north of Stop 30 Road and west of Drakes Creek. Unfortunately, this location included the southern half of the Rutherford-Kizer mound center recorded as 40SU15 in the Division of Archaeology site files.

Controlled surface collection by MCAS members and students, late September 1993.

To make a really long story short, Kevin and I (along with Nick Fielder who was State Archaeologist at the time) held a number of meetings with the Tyree’s and eventually obtained their permission to conduct a limited testing program of the site area proposed for development. Despite our status as the State Archaeologist’s office, we still needed the Tyree’s permission as Tennessee state law did not (and still does not) require private landowners to conduct any type of archaeological investigation prior to ground disturbance, even if previously known sites will be disturbed by the earthmoving activity. However, Kevin and I knew that human burials were likely present in the area to be disturbed, and drove home that point numerous times during our discussions. Tom Tyree, on the other hand, did not believe burials were present on his property as he had been told the burials were on the other (north) side of the property fence. All of us agreed our evaluation would help answer that question.

Strip Block A mapped by a much younger Kevin Smith and Mike Moore.

The investigation began with a controlled surface collection of plow strips. The vast majority of our work force was comprised of volunteer labor from the Middle Cumberland Archaeological Society (MCAS) as well as graduate and undergraduate students from Vanderbilt University and Middle Tennessee State University. We also had stay-at-home mothers and kids that lived nearby come over to see what the excitement was about, and we put them to work too!

Three strip blocks were excavated based upon the controlled surface collection results. Our first strip block (Strip Block A) exposed the outlines of several stone-box graves, quickly answering the question of whether or not human remains existed within the proposed development zone. The second strip block (Strip Block B) was expanded to expose a structure in addition to large pit features and several burials (stone-boxes as well as a bundle burial). No human remains were removed from either Strip Blocks A or B during the course of our initial investigation (these strip blocks were later included in a greenspace set aside from any grave removal, more on that later). Our third strip block (Strip Block C) uncovered intact non-mortuary features.

Strip Block B excavation with structure and other features. Property fenceline essentially cutting the site in half is visible in the background.

We concluded our initial work in late November 1993, and soon afterward presented the Tyree’s with a map of the proposed development marked with the most sensitive areas. The results of our exploration convinced the Tyree’s that intact archaeological features (including human burials) were present in their proposed development, but they were not deterred from building within the site area and indicated their intent to define all graves and legally remove them. The archaeological work necessary to define these graves was beyond the ability of the Division of Archaeology, so the Tyree’s agreed to hire a private consultant to conduct this work with oversight from the Division.

Final plan map of western site area.

It needs to be stated that during the winter of 1993 through the summer of 1994, grading and other construction activity was continuing across the site area. This was certainly not ideal but completely legal. A consultant was eventually hired during the summer of 1994, and quickly identified an extensive number of graves and other non-mortuary features within the area of highest sensitivity. After a few days, all activity was stopped across the site area as the Tyree’s decided to revise their subdivision plan to avoid areas with the highest concentration of graves. This revision was based on a number of factors, including the cost of grave removal, less than flattering media attention, and some unfortunate acts of grave looting. The end result of this redesign was that the Tyree’s set aside four-acres of core site area as greenspace as well as a one-acre greenspace in an adjacent stone-box cemetery. To accomplish this redesign, the Tyree’s reduced their number of building lots from 111 to 102.

Grave removal by the consultant and Division of Archaeology continued throughout 1994 and into the summer of 1995. The Division also conducted spot checks of the construction project throughout the late summer until the subdivision was essentially completed by September 1995. The Division of Archaeology was able to map a substantial portion of the site area destroyed as a result of the development. The end result was admittedly not perfect as portions of the site area were destroyed by construction actions before we had a chance to investigate. This includes a main road graded through the middle of the site area under the original design but later removed from the final plan. However, we are very thankful for the information we did obtain, as the Tyree’s could have asked us to leave the property at any time. Our investigations did result in the discovery of two separate palisade lines (one trench and one post construction), eleven structures (trench as well as post construction), and 61 pit features. Also, a total of 86 individuals from 81 graves were legally removed by the private consultant and the Division of Archaeology. All removed individuals and associated burial objects were reburied on-site in two separate ceremonies held June 1995 and September 1995.