Welcome to Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month!

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 1

Tanya M. Peres, PhD, RPA
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

Welcome to Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month 2015! While we have celebrated TAAM (and before that Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Week) for years, this is the first year the month of September has been officially designated as TAAM by the State Legislature. As the leading professional archaeology organization in the state, TCPA is celebrating TAAM in 2015 in several ways: hosting the second-annual 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology blogfest; sponsoring the official TAAM Poster (keep an eye out for that later this month); and maintaining a Calendar of Public Archaeology Events in Tennessee. Be sure to check back every day to read about exciting archaeology happenings across Tennessee – or better yet, follow our blog and Facebook page to be automatically notified when new content is posted!

To kick-off the month I wanted to take the time to briefly introduce a fascinating site I have been involved with over the past two years in collaboration with colleagues at MTSU (Dr. Shannon Hodge and Joey Keasler, as well as numerous student volunteers), the City of Murfreesboro Parks and Recreation (especially Angela Jackson), and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (Aaron Deter-Wolf and Sarah Levithol). This site, commonly referred to as Black Cat Cave (40RD299), is important to our understanding of how people made used natural features on the landscape during the Archaic period of regional prehistory.  A full reporting of our work at this site will be presented at the upcoming Southeastern Archaeological Conference being held in Nashville in November.

Black Cat Cave, which is located less than seven miles from the MTSU campus, is a place people tell stories about. If you have lived in Rutherford County for any length of time, chances are you have heard about the old dance cave/speakeasy up by the VA Hospital. It is rumored that local farmers hid their livestock in the cave from Union troops during the Civil War (when it also supposedly held a perpetual motion machine!), and that fraternities from MTSU held mixers and initiations at the site in the 1970s and 1980s. This was all that was known about the cave until 2004, when ancient Native American occupations were discovered buried just inches under the concrete slab that had been used as a dance and restaurant floor.

Intact stratigraphic levels identified below the concrete floor along the edge of a looter pit.

Intact stratigraphy identified below the historic concrete floor at the edge of a looter pit.

The Tennessee State Site File includes approximately 275 prehistoric sites in Rutherford County. This number is markedly low compared to neighboring Davidson and Williamson counties, which boast a combined total of over 1,300 prehistoric sites. Some believe the low number of prehistoric sites in Rutherford is because Native Americans did not physically live in the area before the arrival of European settlers. For example, the Tennessee Encyclopedia of History & Culture simply notes that prior to 1794, “…the land that is Rutherford County was the seasonal hunting and fishing ground of the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Shawnees, Creeks, and Choctaws.” The discovery of a significant ancient Native American site such as Black Cat Cave within the city limits therefore opens up new possibilities for understanding the area’s prehistory.

Our work at Black Cat Cave began in earnest in February 2014 after anonymous reports of vandalism and looting at the site. Our team spent days assessing the extent of the damage, which included graffiti and massive looter pits. We removed the modern garbage from the site, and conducted an assessment of the natural cave walls and the cultural features within. We then set-about recording information on intact exposed archaeological deposits, including documenting the site stratigraphy revealed by the looting and collecting carbon samples for AMS dating. After these tasks were complete, we back-filled the holes with the looted dirt, screening for artifacts as we went.

MTSU staff, students, and and Division of Archaeology staff worked to clean modern garbage from the cave. From left to right, backrow: Joey Keasler, Heba Omar, Nathan Allison, Dr. Tanya Peres, Sarah Levithol, Aaron Deter-Wolf, Dan Lively, Courtney Croft, Mark Crawford, Sara Northcutt, Dr. Shannon Hodge; kneeling: Mimi Glass, Kate McKinney, John Hodge, and Laura Bartel.

MTSU staff, students, and and Division of Archaeology personnel worked to clean modern garbage from the cave. From left to right, standing: Joey Keasler, Heba Omar, Nathan Allison, Dr. Tanya Peres, Sarah Levithol, Aaron Deter-Wolf, Dan Lively, Courtney Croft, Mark Crawford, Sara Northcutt, Dr. Shannon Hodge; Kneeling: Mimi Glass, Kate McKinney, John Hodge, and Laura Bartel.

The ultimate goal of our project and our ongoing collaboration with the City of Murfreesboro is to protect the site from future episodes of vandalism and looting. Towards this end, a customized steel gate was installed across the opening to the cave, which will allow wildlife passage but prevent further human disturbance. During the gate installation our team conducted testing in areas that would be disturbed by buried footings, and as a result identified additional intact archaeological deposits. Temporally diagnostic artifacts recovered from the site indicate Black Cat Cave was occupied beginning in the early portion of the Archaic period, and extending well into the Middle Archaic. A series of radiocarbon AMS dates, funded through a grant to me and Jesse Tune (Fort Lewis College) by the Tennessee Historical Commission, will be presented in a forthcoming publication. While artifact analysis is on-going we have already learned some important things about this site, and in turn about the prehistory of Rutherford County, while working with the city to protect and preserve this unique resource. Our next step is to prepare a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places to have Black Cat Cave listed as an important and noteworthy cultural resource in this county.

MTSU News made a nice video on our work at the cave site, which is embedded below. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch it. Happy Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month!