Archaeology in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 21

Heath Bailey
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park resides an ever-growing archaeological site assemblage as diverse as its world-renowned flora and fauna.

At first thought, the Great Smokies hark to scenes of mountain serenity and lush vacation escape from the trappings of suits, commutes, and fifty hour work weeks. For visitors less adventurous, the hub-bub of its northern gateway communities can serve up a sensory overload supply of creature comfort and state fair-like flare all the year round. This allegiance of area tourism has been a mainstay of Smoky Mountain culture since the Park’s inception; and it is to be appreciated too. In his 1969 essay, Appalachian Wilderness, the late Edward Abbey even writes his own family into a token Great Smokies getaway to “these real mountains.”

What many don’t know is that beyond the cotton candy and car shows, the dinner theaters and gem shops, lies a living laboratory of archaeology, pledged for preservation in state and representing the many lifeways of man’s mountain existence extending uninterrupted at least to the Kirk Series of the early Archaic.

Plan and relief views of testing conducted by Hiram Wilburn, the Park's first investigator of archaeology.

Plan and relief views of mound testing conducted by Hiram Wilburn, the Park’s first investigator of archaeology.

Once dismissed as an archaeological hinterland of exclusive seasonal-ephemeral use, a mounting body of evidence suggests considerable year-round prehistoric occupation on both Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the Park. Recent findings have evidenced early Woodland occupation in the Little River drainage well upstream from the Townsend excavations undertaken by the University of Tennessee a decade ago. It is no secret that southern areas of the Park sharing a contemporary boundary with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians share also a considerable amount of archaeology with the Cherokee. New surveys motivated in recent years upon southern aspects leading to the Little Tennessee River and the historic Overhill Cherokee Towns have also yielded results of high site frequency.

A headstone at one of over two hundred historic cemeteries at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A headstone at one of over two hundred historic cemeteries at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

This is all to say that much of the low hanging archaeological fruit still remains unpicked within the Park. The well-known works of Hiram Wilburn and George Macpherson during the Park’s infancy and the efforts of Quentin Bass and Larry Kimball in the late 1970s continue to be built upon by their contemporaries. Our Archaeology Program is in the process of evaluating and recording the many historic cemeteries within the Park – these sites being, of course, the hallowed interment grounds of the area’s Euro-American pioneers prior to Park formation. We are developing the methods by which historic homesteads, many razed by government bulldozers and all enveloped by nearly a century of vegetation growth, are to be considered for identification and full record. The many mines and logging sites of the industrial era still deserve further work and fuller research. Numerous Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps are under current investigation as well.

Innumerable archaeological research ideas remain at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Investigations in extractive mineral industries, historic metallurgy within local Appalachian agrarian communities, prehistoric site distribution and predictive modeling within the Ridge & Valley and Blue Ridge contact zone, and the tough topics of displacement history during Park formation as evidenced in the archaeological record count as only a few unexplored topics. There is much potential for work within the Park’s archaeological collections as well. The list goes on and on; and the unpacking of centuries of human use in the Great Smoky Mountains is an abundant task that will return new findings well into the next.

An early 18th century Cherokee winter house recently excavated in cooperation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the University of Tennessee.

An early 18th century Cherokee winter house recently excavated in cooperation with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the University of Tennessee.

The current works of the Archaeology Program are making strides to connect cultural sites with their descendant communities and Park visitors. We are organizing and educating capable and qualified volunteers to accomplish felt work; and in addition to recruiting higher academic interest of the Park’s many archaeological topics, we hope to inspire youth to discover history and archaeology, to see the material past as worthy of study – or, for a start, maybe to see it as just plain cool.

The landscape now drawn as the largest piece of preserved wild space in the east speaks volumes to its former human inhabitants, both historic and prehistoric. In an area comprising over 800 square miles, two states, nearly 6,000 feet of elevation change, and over 9000 years of human use, much of the Great Smoky Mountain’s archaeology remains untold and unexplored. Luckily for us, it also remains preserved for the benefit of this and future generations of visitors and researchers alike.

If you are interested in pursuing research or volunteer opportunities at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, please contact Park Archaeologist Heath Bailey at