The Front End of the Brentwood Library Site Excavation

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 18

Mike C. Moore
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

People interested in archaeology generally focus on the end result of an excavation: What was found and what does it all mean? However, if you are a developer or landowner planning a construction project, and run into an archaeological issue, the first questions are more likely to be how much is this going to cost and how long will it take? Most folks have no idea what it’s like for an archaeologist to tell someone they have a real legal issue that is going to cost major bucks (as well as project time) to resolve. This post takes a peek at the beginning of the Brentwood Library project that first breathed life on the afternoon of July 29, 1997.

Little did I know when I answered that afternoon phone call that three things were about to happen. First, the next four months of my life would be tied up with a major archaeological excavation; second, our understanding of Middle Cumberland Mississippian settlement along the Little Harpeth River was going to change big time; and third, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology was going to ruin a number of people’s day.

Initial assessment by Division personnel of Brentwood Library construction site (John Broster and Manny Breitburg to left working on structure; Mike Moore and Suzanne Hoyal to right working on palisade bastion).

Initial assessment by Division personnel of Brentwood Library construction site (John Broster and Manny Breitburg to left working on structure; Mike Moore and Suzanne Hoyal to right working on palisade bastion).

On the other end of that phone call was the head librarian for the City of Brentwood, who sounded disturbed as she informed me that human burials had possibly been exposed during construction of the new Brentwood Library off Concord Road in northern Williamson County. Division staff (me included) responded to the call that same afternoon. Prior to leaving we checked the site files and found no previously recorded site for this location. Upon arrival at the construction zone we observed that a substantial amount of activity was underway. The library building footprint had already been cut into the base of a low ridge with a rock pad established.  In addition, grading of the proposed parking area and surrounding grounds had removed about four to six inches of soil that turned out to be deep enough to expose intact cultural resources but not destroy them. Immediately after stepping out of the truck I noticed the tell-tale sign of a “stone-box” grave with the capstones removed.

View of Division initial assessment of Brentwood Library construction zone from Knox Valley Drive, note library building rock pad to right of photo.

View of Division initial assessment of Brentwood Library construction zone from Knox Valley Drive, note library building rock pad to right of photo.

At that time we requested all activity cease until the proposed construction zone could be evaluated for additional graves and other cultural features. This sounds like a simple thing to ask when legal concerns are involved.  However, large construction projects have schedules, and deviations from schedules have real costs in terms of labor and machine hours. That the Division offered to conduct this assessment at no charge was appreciated by the City, but didn’t ease the sense of foreboding surrounding the project.

Over the next two days Division personnel defined more stone-box graves as well as non-mortuary features including palisade lines, structures, and refuse-filled pits. Our conclusion presented to City officials seemed like a horrible practical joke: “Your new library is being built on a late prehistoric Native American town. What would you like to do now?

The City of Brentwood determined that walking away from this tract of land was not a feasible option.  Since Tennessee state law does allow for human burials (ancient or modern) to be removed and reburied with a court order, the City decided to locate, remove, and rebury all graves that could not be avoided by the proposed library construction. In addition to costing the City quite a bit of money, this decision was costly through media publicity and a very upset Native American community who displayed their concern through print and television media, on-site protests, and respectful civil disobedience.

Prehistoric burials and non-mortuary features recorded during Brentwood Library site excavation, with building and parking lot overlay.

Prehistoric burials and non-mortuary features recorded during Brentwood Library site excavation, with building and parking lot overlay.

The Brentwood Library project truly represented the worst-case scenario for both the construction and archaeological communities as human graves and other significant archaeological resources were discovered after construction had begun. On a positive note, roughly 20 years later many developers now attempt to avoid this scenario by conducting archaeological assessments as part of their routine evaluation of potential project locations.

The results of the Brentwood Library excavation were published in our 2005 report titled The Brentwood Library Site: A Mississippian Town on the Little Harpeth River, Williamson County, Tennessee.  This report (revised in 2012) is available as a free pdf on the Division of Archaeology web site.

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