An Integrative Archaeological and Geomorphological Approach: Understanding Site Distributions and Prehistoric Settlement Patterns along the Little River, East Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 12

Howard Cyr
Geoarchaeologist and Senior Archaeologist
University of Tennessee Archaeological Research Laboratory

Over 20 years of archaeological research at the University of Tennessee’s East Tennessee Research and Education Center’s (ETREC) Little River Dairy has uncovered a number of archaeological sites that range in age from the Early Archaic through Mississippian periods.  Recent research by the University of Tennessee’s Archaeological Research Laboratory integrates geomorphologic and archaeological approaches to better understand landscape development and its effects on how and why people settled on the property.

Overview of the Little River floodplain with the Smoky Mountains in the background, view to the northwest.

Overview of the Little River floodplain with the Smoky Mountains in the background, view to the northwest.

The Little River Dairy Farm is located within a broad floodplain at the confluence of Ellejoy Creek and the Little River in northeastern Blount County, Tennessee. Ellejoy Creek forms the northern and eastern boundaries of the ETREC property, while the Little River marks the southern and western boundaries of the farm and carries water from the western side of the Smoky Mountains northwest to the Tennessee River.

Giddings hydraulic corer used to collect deep sediment cores.

Giddings hydraulic corer used to collect deep sediment cores.

Fifteen archaeological sites have been recorded within the boundaries of the Little River Dairy Farm, ranging in age from the Early Archaic through the Mississippian and Historic periods.  These include lithic scatters, multicomponent open-air habitations, and a large Mississippian palisade village.  The area is also thought to be in close proximity to the historic Cherokee town of Ellejoy, as noted by Henry Timberlake in 1762 (Stoops and Holland 1992). Although many of the sites are multi-component, there appears to be a distinct difference between their ages across the floodplain.  Those within the northeastern section of the floodplain range in age from the Early Archaic through Historic periods, while those within the southwestern portion of the floodplain range from the Early Woodland through Mississippian.

In order to understand site distributions within the Little River Dairy property, we first examined digital elevation models (DEMs), aerial photographs, digital orthoquadrangles, and topographic maps to identify geomorphic features within the modern floodplain environment.  This analysis was then ground-truthed using deep sediment cores and trench profiles. We then used information from archaeological investigations to provide a temporal context for periods of landscape stability identified in the buried soil horizons.

Paleo-channel, relict sand bar, and meander river terrace locations, trench profile location, and deep sediment core locations (Base image: 2008 NAIP mosaic, Blount County, TN, USDA-FSA-APFO).

Paleo-channel, relict sand bar, and meander river terrace locations, trench profile location, and deep sediment core locations (Base image: 2008 NAIP mosaic, Blount County, TN, USDA-FSA-APFO).

Our analysis reveal that the landscape includes two distinct depositional environments.  The first represents a stabilized relict channel-bar/paleo-channel complex located northeast of the modern floodplain.  The configuration of the channels and bars appears to represent a braided stream pattern originating from high velocity waters moving out of the Smoky Mountains.  The second represents a meandering river plain located in the southwestern portion of the Little River Dairy. This section represents a broad, flat, floodplain that dips slightly towards the southwest marking the migration of the Little River.

Fifteen deep sediment cores were collected from the paleo-channel and relict sand bars. You can see profiles of two typical cores here and here.  The strata from both areas consist of a single thick fining-upward sequence of alluvium and no buried soil horizons, and our analysis suggests that the landforms were deposited as part of an individual depositional events.  This interpretation is supported by a lack of buried soils in the core stratigraphy.

An extensive trench excavated to bedrock during a sinkhole mitigation project revealed the complete meander river floodplain stratigraphy (shown below), which consisted of high energy channel deposits overlain by a series of fining-upwards packages of coarse to fine grain alluvium separated by moderately developed soils.  These buried soils (4Ab and 2Ab) are associated with Woodland and Early Mississippian occupations, and indicate periods of stability along the floodplain punctuated by high energy fluvial deposition.

Trench profile from the meandering river floodplain.

Trench profile from the meandering river floodplain.

As a result of this research we determined that the Little River Dairy floodplain consists of two distinct natural settings which provided prehistoric peoples a stable environment rich in resources.  The earliest of these is represented by a braided stream alluvial plain consisting of a network of sand-rich channel bars separated by narrow channel and deposited by sediment-laden, high-energy flood waters moving northwest out the Smoky Mountains. The absence of deeply buried surface horizons, simple stratigraphy, and the confinement of cultural material to the upper levels suggests that the braided system developed over a very short period of time.  Prehistoric cultural materials are found only in the upper 50 centimeters of the channel bars within the braided system, and are consistently Early Archaic in origin. This suggests that the braided system developed sometime during the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene transition and stabilized by approximately 10,000 years ago.

After the system stabilized, the Little River began to cut a path through the braided flood plain, thus creating the meandering stream and low-lying floodplain. The floodplain terrace represents a time-transgressive landform with the oldest portions located towards the center of the property.  Deeply buried archaeological sites in this area include components from as early as the Middle Archaic, indicating that the floodplain system stabilized much later than the braided stream system was deposited.  The presence of high-energy over bank deposits between buried surfaces dating to the Woodland period suggests that the floodplain stability may have been unpredictable and inconsistent.  Long term stability along the floodplain began during the Mississippian period, as evidenced by the presence of large scale habitation in the northeastern portion of the property.

Trench profile examination.

Trench profile examination.

Integrating geoarchaeological methods with archaeological data allows us to gain a better understating of the temporal and spatial distribution of cultural materials.  These data help to define the cultural landscape as well as to better understand the depositional history of the area.The dual nature of the Little River Dairy Floodplain prehistoric peoples a unique environment.  The relic-sand bars provided predictably stable landscape conditions by the Early Archaic, within reach of rich aquatic resources from both the Little River and the wetlands occupying the paleo-channels.  Later widening and stabilization of the Little River floodplain would have provided a rich environment for growing domesticated crops as well as harvesting native cultigens. This study therefore not only highlights the environments that were accessible to prehistoric peoples, but also explains why specific areas were used for longer periods of time.


References

Stoops, Jr., Richard W. and Jeffrey L. Holland. 1992.  Phase II Archaeological Investigations of Ellejoy Creek (40BT63) Site, Blount County, Tennessee (Draft). Submitted to Tennessee Department of Transportation, Nashville, Tennessee by Garrow & Associates, Inc., Atlanta, GA. Project #92-42-13-890.

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