Late Archaic – Early Woodland Transitions at the Townsend Sites

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 22

Kandi Hollenbach
University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology

One of my colleagues often notes that in East Tennessee, any flat spot next to a river is going to have an archaeological site. That description certainly fits the Townsend sites, located on the south side of the Little River in Blount County,Tennessee.As you round the last curve on US Hwy 321 and find yourself suddenly in the expanse of Tuckaleechee Cove, it’s easy to understand why various groups lived along this roughly 5 km stretch of the valley floor over the past 10,000 years.

Late Archaic

Late Archaic “silo ” feature.

Four sites were excavated within the right-of-way of US Hwy 321 by the University of Tennessee Transportation Center’s Archaeology Group, when TDOT widened the highway. Most of my work on the Townsend sites with the UT Archaeological Research Lab has focused on the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods.

The Late Archaic period is the first relatively intensive use of the site, beginning around 4,500 years ago. The sites include 82 features dating between 4,500 and 2,800 years ago, a number of which are extremely large pit features, referred to as “silos.” These large pits presumably held significant food stores, such as hickory nuts, chestnuts, and acorns – each with enough to feed roughly 1,000 people at one feasting event, or a family of five for several months. Most of the pits are also located in the same general vicinity, perhaps reflecting communal storage.

In addition to hunting, fishing,and gathering wild nuts, fruits, greens, and seeds, the Late Archaic occupants began cultivating native seed crops, such as little barley (Hordeum pusillum) and chenopod (Chenopodium sp.). They cooked these seeds in soapstone vessels, as evidenced by pollen, starch grains, and phytoliths recovered from food crusts adhering to the vessel interiors. The occupants would have obtained these soapstone vessels through trade with groups from western North Carolina, where soapstone outcrops.

Late Archaic Features at Western 40BT90.

Late Archaic Features at Western 40BT90.

Around 850 BC, there is a gap in the occupation, and when Early Woodland peoples re-occupied the Cove around 700 BC, they settled in a different fashion than their predecessors. Instead of digging extremely large storage pits in the same general area, the Early Woodland occupants dug smaller pits that were spaced further apart. They also appear to have built relatively more substantial structures (there are no postholes with Late Archaic artifacts, but a smattering with Early Woodland artifacts). It is possible that they lived at the site for more extensive periods of time (but not year-round yet), and had organized their collective labor and storage at the family level, resulting in more dispersed households with smaller storage pits. The occupants also no longer used soapstone vessels to cook their food: they switched to pottery instead. Yet their foodways seems to be the same: hunting, fishing, wild plant resources, and cultivated seed crops.

Early Woodland Features at Western 40BT90.

Early Woodland Features at Western 40BT90.

For all that we do know about the shift between the two occupations, there are many additional questions: Why the hiatus in occupation, and why the shift in settlement pattern once groups reoccupy the Cove? Why the switch from soapstone to ceramic vessels? Jason Windingstad, a geoarchaeologist, noted a high-energy depositional environment between the Late Archaic and Early Woodland deposits at the site, suggesting a degree of flooding. Perhaps the Cove was too wet and/or unstable for groups to continue to trust the storage of large amounts of nuts in single pits. As we continue to pull together data from other Late Archaic and Early Woodland sites in East Tennessee, hopefully we will find answers to <some of these questions and come up with exciting new ones.

Special thanks to the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Federal Highways Administration for funding the Townsend Archaeological Project; and the UT-ARL staff for their insight and assistance.