30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 29

Archaeological Research at the Perry House Site in Knox County, Tennessee

Paul Avery
Cultural Resource Analysts, Inc.

As a principal investigator with Cultural Resource Analysts, I oversee the excavation of a lot of empty holes in the process of looking for archaeological sites so that they can be avoided. But every now and then, I get to work on a special site, one that is interesting to work on and actually contributes to our understanding of the past.

One such site is 40KN275, the Perry House. In 2013, CRA was contracted by the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to conduct archaeological testing at the site ahead of planned improvements to the intersection of Emory Road and Tazewell Pike in northeastern Knox County. Local historians thought the site might have been the location of a colonial-era station on Emory Road known as Reynold’s Station. TDOT archaeologist Alan Longmire worked on the site in 1994 as a possible thesis project and did find 18th century artifacts. TDOT was unable to avoid the site, so it was necessary for them to determine whether or not the resource was eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP).

Overview of the site during excavations.

Overview of the site during excavations.

Historical research indicated that the first inhabitant of the site was likely George Perry, who purchased the tract of land in 1799 and built a two story log house shortly thereafter. Although little is known of Perry historically, he is believed to have owned as many as 24 slaves, making him one of the larger slave holders in East Tennessee. Perry died in 1836 and his 1,286 acres of land were purchased by William Pledge Harbison in 1842. Harbison was also a slave owner, but records indicate that he owned no more than five at one time. In 1865, Harbison divided his land holdings among his children, deeding 140 acres and the house to his daughter Sarah Harbison Neal. Sarah had married James Frank Neal in 1857, and they would live in her father’s house until her death in 1923. At that time, the property passed out of the family through a series of trustee sales to O.M. and Eva Cardwell, who demolished the home and built the modern house in 1932.

Tyler Parrott mapping a feature.

Tyler Parrott mapping a feature.

CRA tested the site in 2013 and determined that it was eligible for inclusion on the NRHP. Given the historical importance of the Perry House site, it was recommended that TDOT avoid it during construction. However, this option was not feasible, and in March 2014 CRA returned to the site to conduct an archaeological data recovery ahead of the planned construction. The field work this time included the excavation of test units within two dense sheet middens of late 19th and early 20th century materials and the mechanical removal of the topsoil from the majority of the yard. This resulted in the identification of an additional 113 cultural features. Of these, 89 were excavated.

Dan Marcel screening soil.

Dan Marcel screening soil.

The features covered the full range of occupation of the site, from the prehistoric to the 20th century. Of particular interest were eight cellars that likely all dated to the Perry occupation of the site. Six of the cellars appear to have been located beneath slave cabins and one marked the location of a detached kitchen. The other cellar was the largest and deepest of the lot, but contained very few artifacts. It may be one of the earliest features on the site.

The artifact assemblage consisted of 10,371 artifacts, along with a large amount of animal bone and plant material. The historic ceramics consisted primarily of creamware, pearlware, and redware types that were popular during the early 19th century. The variety of decorative techniques was remarkable. Later ceramics, such as cream-colored ware and ironstone, were contained almost exclusively in the later privy features. Very few fragments of container glass were recovered, except from the privies.

Slip-trail decorated redware vessel recovered from a cellar.

Slip-trail decorated redware vessel recovered from a cellar.

The cellars appeared to have been filled at the beginning of the Harbison occupation in 1842. They were also filled in a single episode, as there was almost no stratigraphy within the features. The materials did not accumulate over time while the cellars were in use, but were placed in the cellars as part of the fill. This makes it impossible to determine what materials were used by the slaves and what were used by the Perry household. But the assemblage consists almost exclusively of lower cost materials. This likely means that the slaves were using ceramic types that were very similar or identical to those being used by Perry.

The research at the Perry House has provided extensive data with which to study a variety of important topics in historical archaeology. The historical research, feature excavations, and artifact assemblage combined to provide a much more clear picture of what the site looked like through time and about the behavior of the people that lived there. Of particular interest is the additional information gained about the enslaved inhabitants that can be used to build on previous research conducted on rural slave sites in east Tennessee.

Blue edge-decorated pearlware plate recovered from a possible slave cellar and the kitchen cellar.

Blue edge-decorated pearlware plate recovered from a possible slave cellar and the kitchen cellar.

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