A Tale of Two Archaic Sites: Identifying Correlations Between Intensity of Tool Use and Land-Use Patterns

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 24

Annie Melton
Texas A&M University

Archaeological sites litter the Tennessean landscape…or so I hear, not actually having stepped foot in the state! Not having stood on Tennessean soil, though, has not prevented me from experiencing the rich archaeological record or from taking part in research projects endeavoring to answer questions regarding prehistoric populations. For the past two years, Jesse Tune and I have analyzed hafted bifaces from the Fernvale (Williamson County) and Magnolia Valley (Rutherford County) sites, attempting to understand any possible correlations between the environments where these sites are situated and how intensely the tools were used.

Bifaces from the Fernvale site.

Bifaces from the Fernvale site.

Both the Magnolia Valley and Fernvale sites are within the Harpeth River watershed of Middle Tennessee, have extensive Late Archaic occupations, and have produced sizable samples of hafted bifaces from that period (53 for Fernvale and 33 for Magnolia Valley). Magnolia Valley is located in an upland setting near the headwaters of the Harpeth River, while Fernvale is situated on an alluvial terrace along the South Harpeth River. The seasonal occupations of occupation for these two sites during the Archaic was most likely was impacted by their differing upland/lowland settings. While Magnolia Valley was most likely occupied during the fall and winter, Fernvale would probably have been occupied during the spring and early summer seasons.

Raw material availability also serves as a distinguishing factor between these two sites, and is potentially related to the intensity of tool usage as well. While relatively decent-quality nodules of Fort Payne chert were easily accessible along gravel bars in the South Harpeth River near Fernvale, the area surrounding Magnolia Valley did not have this fortune, and exhibits only poor quality, fossiliferous Fort Payne Chert found along a nearby ridgeline.

Excavations at Magnolia Valley, summer 2014. Photo c/o the Rutherford County Archaeological Project.

Excavations at Magnolia Valley, summer 2014. Photo c/o the Rutherford County Archaeological Research Program.

Therefore, we had two sites, occupied relatively contemporaneously but in distinctly different local environments. Our question was: would these differences also be reflected in how the hafted bifaces from each site were resharpened and reused over time? In order to understand how intensely points were used, we used Andrefsky’s Hafted Biface Retouch Index (HRI), which examines the frequency of resharpening flakes removed along the lateral edges of a biface’s blade. Higher amounts of retouch are represented by higher HRI values (maximum value of 1.0), while low HRI values represent less retouch (minimum value of 0.0). Bifaces which have a significant amount of retouch and high HRI index are also expected to be much less standardized in terms of length, width, and thickness than is seen in an assemblage with lower HRI values. This is because through extensive retouch a tool’s width, length, and thickness will be modified, thereby producing a high amount of variability in an assemblage with high HRI values.

Overall, we analyzed 33 bifaces from Magnolia Valley, whose HRI value averaged 0.83. We found that Magnolia Valley’s bifaces have a relatively high rate of retouch.  For Fernvale, we analyzed 53 bifaces and found that the average HRI value was 0.78, just slightly less than Magnolia Valley’s. We also noticed that more than half (51%) of the Fernvale bifaces had an HRI value of 0.8 or less.

Pic_9_Fernvale_MV_HRI_ComparisonNow to compare! With the results for both sites, interesting differences began to emerge. Using Mean Values, Magnolia Valley’s assemblage has slightly higher HRI than Fernvale. This met our expectations that, given the lack of decent-quality raw materials in the vicinity of the Magnolia Valley, the bifaces would be used more intensively. However, both sites exhibit relatively high HRIs, suggesting intensive resharpening and reuse occurred at both locations.

We expected to see more standardization in the length, width, and thickness of bifaces in the Fernvale assemblage, given its lower HRI value (the assumption being that more intensive use results in greater variation and vice versa). However, we noticed that the opposite was true: Late Archaic bifaces from Fernvale exhibited less standardization than those from Magnolia Valley.

Overall, we are looking at two sites where stone tools were intensively used and resharpened as opposed to site occupants manufacturing new tools. This behavior may reflect raw material availability: In areas with limited resources such as Magnolia Valley, people are expected to exhaust more relative utility than in areas with abundant resources. However, decent-quality lithic raw material is relatively abundant in the South Harpeth River Valley. Another possible explanation for the high HRI values from Fernvale may lie in the inter-group relationships of the Late Archaic. In her analysis of the skeletal remains from Fernvale, Dr. Shannon Hodge identified evidence of interpersonal conflict, including signs of warfare and trophy taking. While lithic resources near Fernvale are regionally abundant, increased population pressures and warfare may have influenced the degree to which stone tools were being used. These conflicts may have imposed increasing constricted territorial boundaries, limiting people’s access to specific raw material source locations. Therefore, site inhabitants engaged in more intensive biface reduction in order to increased the use-life of their tools.

Panorama of excavations at the Fernvale site in 1985. Photo c/o the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

Panorama of excavations at the Fernvale site in 1985. Photo c/o the Tennessee Division of Archaeology.

At the same time, Fernvale’s easy access to a lithic material may explain the greater variability seen within the assemblage. Occupants of Magnolia Valley would have needed to travel further in order to acquire necessary raw materials, resulting in more standardized assemblages. For the less standardized Fernvale assemblage, this may be a result of the high amount raw material variability found near the site.

*Editor’s Note: The 2013 report on excavations at the Fernvale site was published as part of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology’s Research Series, and is available for free download via the TDOA web page. You can read more about work at Magnolia Valley in the 2014 blog posts by Jesse Tune and Tim de Smet.