Revisiting the Noel Cemetery Site through Basement Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 8

Hannah Guidry
TRC Environmental Corporation

An extensive late prehistoric mortuary site known as the Noel Cemetery once existed in what is now a bustling historic neighborhood in metro Nashville. Like many of the large Mississippian period stone box cemeteries that were in and around the Nashville area, this site has long since been heavily developed and most evidence of prehistoric activity destroyed. A small piece of this site was unexpectedly discovered last year.

Edwin Curtiss’ sketch from the 1878 explorations within the Noel Cemetery site (Image from Archaeological Expeditions of the Peabody Museum in Middle Tennessee, 1877-1884 by Moore and Smith 2009: Figure 69).

Edwin Curtiss’ sketch from the 1878 explorations within the Noel Cemetery site (Image from Archaeological Expeditions of the Peabody Museum in Middle Tennessee, 1877-1884 by Moore and Smith 2009: Figure 69).

The Noel Cemetery site once again came to the attention of archaeologists in 2014 after workers doing radon mitigation beneath a 1930’s home discovered bone fragments lying on the dirt floor of a confined crawl space. Metro Police were notified, and the Nashville Office of the Medical Examiner and MTSU’s Forensic Anthropology Search and Recovery Team determined that  the remains were indeed human, but that they were prehistoric in origin. Archaeologists from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology subsequently determined that the remains originated from a disturbed stone box burial. Following legal proceedings that allowed for removal of the burial, archaeologists with the Nashville office of TRC were called in, and so began a unique excavation experience.

To provide some background, the Noel Cemetery site was dug extensively by both antiquarian scholars and the interested public throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, and reportedly contained thousands of stone-lined graves. Edwin Curtiss conducted one early investigation at the site on behalf of the Peabody Museum in 1878. Curtiss’ sketch map of his study area depicts at least three mounds and notes graves across the entire surrounding area.

The stone box mode of burial was commonly used by the late prehistoric Native American inhabitants of Nashville and surrounding regions. A typical stone box burial container consists of a square to rectangular shallow grave shaft lined and capped with flat stone slabs. These burial boxes vary widely in size, shape, and number of stones used to create them, even within the same site. The graves might contain single or multiple individuals, were sometimes articulated in an extended position and sometimes in a jumbled state suggesting a secondary burial. Some graves suggest reuse, where the remains of the initial occupant were moved to the sides of the box and another individual placed inside. Others indicate simultaneous interments of more than one individual.

Countless stone box graves at Noel Cemetery were likely destroyed, disturbed, or looted as ground was readied for construction during residential development throughout the 20th century. A small portion of the site was uncovered and carefully documented by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in 1973 prior to construction of I-440. Those excavations found evidence of a prehistoric palisaded community and several stone box graves, most of which had already been disturbed or destroyed by looters.

The burial location prior to excavation. An upright stone slab protrudes from the soil in lower right.

The burial location prior to excavation. An upright stone slab protrudes from the soil in lower right.

Now we fast-forward to the Spring of 2015 when three archaeologists from TRC, suited up in protective coveralls and face masks, began work within the dark, cramped crawl space. This excavation was not for the claustrophobic. The dirt floor was about a foot below the floor joists of the house across most of the roughly 15 to 20 foot square space, with a narrow access ramp providing one to two more feet of height near the entrance. The burial was located about six feet into the crawlspace and encased in highly compacted and dry soil. One end of an upright limestone slab protruded from the slumping soil wall.

After three days of rotating shifts in this confined space, our excavation uncovered a partial stone box containing the disarticulated remains of at least one adult and one child. The fragmented remains were first encountered above the top of the stone box and jumbled in the matrix, suggesting this burial had been previously disturbed and the contents redeposited within the box. Breaks in some of the limestone slabs aligned with the access ramp cut, suggesting a portion of this grave was removed while preparing the house footprint during construction.

Breaks in the limestone slabs conform to the sloping ramp surface.

Breaks in the limestone slabs conform to the sloping ramp surface.

Following the removal, all excavated material, a copy of excavation records, and two charcoal samples for possible future radiocarbon dating were turned over to the TDOA. An unfortunate side effect of urbanization in Tennessee and throughout the modern world is that burial relocations are occasionally necessary. Hopefully the data collected during these types of excavations can shed a bit of light on the fascinating prehistoric past of the Nashville area.

* Editor’s Note: The 2009 report on the Peabody Museum Excavations is available as a free PDF from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology as Research Series No. 16.

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