30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 5
Ryan M. Parish
Department of Earth Sciences,
University of Memphis
One principle that I feel governs archaeology is a desire to uncover our shared history and connect communities to that past. It is always gratifying to bring archaeology to life through local projects and public involvement. The realization that archaeology isn’t always conducted in far off distant lands excites most people. Therefore, as an archaeologist I feel that it is of vital importance to me to engage the public and encourage the discovery, conservation, and preservation of our cultural resources.
The establishment of the Nonconnah Creek Conservancy in Memphis, Tennessee is an effort by a number of individuals to restore, conserve, and preserve both the natural and cultural resources located along the Nonconnah Creek drainage. However, the main vision of the organization is to connect the greater Memphis community to these resources that currently few know much about.
The name Nonconnah derives from a Choctaw term for a prophet or seer “nan ikhanna” (Seale 1939). The Nonconnah Creek drainage runs from east to west flanking Memphis proper to the south culminating in McKellar Lake, an oxbow of the Mississippi River. A bit further to the west, the creek empties into the Mississippi River. Nonconnah Creek is one of two major drainages in the region, the other being the Wolf River flowing parallel to the north. Both waterways were heavily utilized throughout prehistory spanning the entire cultural sequence of Western Tennessee. Major archaeological surveys conducted in the 1950’s through the late 1970’s documented approximately 100 prehistoric sites and eight historic sites immediately adjacent to the creek and its tributaries.
Modern day development including industrialization, the construction of three major highways, and housing divisions has destroyed many of the known archaeological sites. A number more remain buried under 4 to 10 meters of artificial fill laid down as the natural floodplain was covered over during channelization and development. The creek also suffers from severe incision caused by unrestricted runoff and increased flow. The unchecked illegal dumping and accumulation of trash culminate in the stereotypical image, held by most Memphians, of Nonconnah Creek as ‘a drainage ditch.’ Nevertheless, the creek features diverse flora and fauna, as well as broad gravel bars containing chert, agate, petrified wood, and various fossils including a remarkable deposit of very well-preserved Pleistocene flora remains. Evident along most sections of the creek is a thin organic layer containing acorns, walnuts, gum balls, pine combs, leaves, and intact tree timbers from the last Ice Age. The excavation of the Nonconnah Creek Mastodon in the late 70’s provided a detailed glimpse into the climate during the Pleistocene 20,000 years ago.
Recently, I began taking my Cultural Resource Management classes from Memphis State University down to a section of the creek near our campus. The section of the creek we visit gives us a good opportunity to learn the basics of survey and how to operate a spade. Without any expectations we resigned ourselves to digging through hard clay clean fill. Surprisingly, at the end of the semester we located a portion of a midden deposit containing lithic and ceramic artifacts . The class this semester hopes to expand testing in this area to ascertain if these deposits are intact. Nothing beats having lecture outside in the field and the survey work allowed us to interact with the public.
The Nonconnah Creek Conservancy was established this spring. The organization gives us the opportunity to become involved with the community, raise awareness of the natural and cultural treasures present, and encourage the public to become stewards of these resources. Students are becoming involved both as active members and as board members, and enjoying lecture outside while gaining practical experience. The ongoing efforts to establish a greenway along Nonconnah will serve Memphis through recreational and educational programs. Finally, increased public awareness regarding the flora, fauna, geology, and archaeology will serve to monitor these resources and grow our understanding of the land.
The Nonconnah Creek mastodon was discovered by two young men who recognized the importance of the find and partnered with a team of scientists to document it. The potential for more paleontological and archaeological finds exists. Last May an angler pulled a mastodon tooth from the creek, and I’ve been shown a Woodland projectile point found on one of the gravel bars. Continued documentation of the paleo-flora remains will give us a more complete understanding of the regional conditions at the end of the Ice Age. Likewise, the lateral erosion of the creek’s cut banks may reveal intact cultural deposits. In the years to come, more discoveries may be found by those who enjoy the creek, are aware of the resources, and recognize the significance of what these discoveries may tell us about where we live and who we are. Archaeology is anthropology, geology, science, exploration, and discovery, but archaeology is also service to the community through conservation and outreach.