What is the Tennessee Division of Archaeology?

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 6

Michael C. Moore
State Archaeologist and Director, Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Some confusion exists regarding the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) and our place within the “big picture” of Tennessee archaeology.  This blog seeks to clear up a few common misconceptions about the Division (several things we do, and several things we can’t do).

The TDOA was established in 1970 under the Department of Conservation (TCA 11-6-101-121).  Our first staff members were hired in 1972, with additional staff brought aboard over the next few years that included three regional archaeologists, a historic archaeologist, and various field positions.  In 1991, the Department of Conservation merged with the Environment side of the former Department of Health and Environment to become the Department of Environment and Conservation.


The original TDOA Regional Archaeologists: Carl Kuttruff (L), John Broster, and Brian Butler (R).

State-wide field projects have comprised an important Division mandate since the beginning.  Significant investigations on state-owned properties include Mound Bottom, Sellars Farm, Pinson Mounds, Fort Loudoun, Ft. Pillow, Fernvale, Riverbend Prison, SR-42 (Algood), Hiwassee Old Town, Sandbar Village, Carter House (Williamson County)Spencer Youth Center, Middle TN Veterans Cemetery, Bicentennial Mall, and Ropers Knob.  Select site investigations on non-state lands include Brick Church Pike Mound, Fort Southwest Point, First Hermitage, Yearwood, Penitentiary Branch, Fort Blount, Brandywine Pointe, Coats-Hines Mastodon, Johnson, Old Town, Gordontown, Austin Cave, Carson-Conn-Short, Rutherford-Kizer, Brentwood Library, Moss-Wright and collaborative investigations along the Cumberland River near Nashville following the 2010 floods.  Thematic historic site surveys (such as potteries, gunmaking, Highland Rim iron industry, Civil War, World War II, and Trail of Tears) have also been an important component of TDOA research.  Reconnaissance surveys for prehistoric sites have been conducted within the Obion, Duck, Cumberland, Harpeth, Caney Fork, Collins, Calfkiller, and Hiwassee/Ocoee River watersheds.

The Division’s ability to perform larger-scale site excavations (such as Ft. Loudoun, Hiwassee Old Town, and Spencer) has significantly diminished over the years due to the same position reductions experienced by other state agencies.  Division positions have been cut roughly 70% over the past 25 years, from about 35 positions during the mid-1980s to our current 10 positions in 2016.  Most of the eliminated positions were part-time/seasonal posts used to employ project field crews.  We now focus on smaller-scale survey and site investigations, and also respond to emergency situations as possible (such as the new Nashville Sounds baseball stadium in downtown Nashville).

Other TDOA mandated responsibilities have grown over the decades to play a much larger role in our day to day operations.  The site information file section is one such example, as we are responsible for assigning official state site numbers along with managing data for the 26,000+ sites recorded in the state to date.  An upcoming blog from Division archaeologist Paige Silcox will elaborate on this role.

Another vital responsibility is our review of federal and state undertakings to assess possible impacts to known or potential archaeological resources.  The TDOA provides all federal archaeological services to the Tennessee SHPO office (through a contract with the Tennessee Historical Commission), and that includes just over 900 project responses for FY15-16.  Our FY15-16 state reviews comprised 210+ project responses as well as 25+ permits issued for archaeological work on state lands.

Our technical assistance section offers advice and direction to a wide variety of entities seeking archaeological assistance.  These entities include federal/state/local agencies, private consultants, law enforcement, university professors and students, development community, avocational archaeologists, and the general public.  Our work ranges from assessments of proposed state land projects, to responding to reports of discovered sites and/or disturbed human burials, to answering questions about artifacts found.

Public education opportunities (notably school presentations and service programs) are something that Division staff attempt to accommodate as schedules allow.  Regrettably, there are many more requests than available time to commit.  This is one area where demand far exceeds our ability to perform.

Each month we receive calls/emails from people asking (demanding) we stop a proposed undertaking because “Indian graves” are present.  Such contacts are usually in response to an unpopular project on private property.  Our office informs these folks what we know about the area in question, and may provide recommendations to developers and/or local planning agencies as appropriate.  But we also have to tell callers there is no state law that requires private landowners to evaluate the potential for archaeological destruction, even if known sites are present.  With that said, state cemetery laws do require a court order prior to removing a human burial (ancient or modern).

Perhaps the most notable TDOA misconception relates to historic cemeteries.  Such cemeteries unfortunately fall through the cracks in Tennessee as there is no public agency officially responsible for these resources.  Several attempts to propose such legislation have yet to be successful.  The TDOA has become the default contact for citizens concerned about ongoing or proposed cemetery disturbance.  These calls/emails are often emotionally charged, and understandably so.  We provide archival information and advice as possible, and offer a historic cemeteries fact sheet on our website, but must consistently decline requests to assess cemetery locations and boundaries.  Instead, we offer our consultants list for people in need of those services.  Sometimes the cemetery concern is a property/access dispute between one or more individuals.  Our office does not intervene in private property affairs, so we recommend folks acquire the services of legal counsel and/or contact local law enforcement.   Admittedly very few people seeking action are satisfied with these responses.

These paragraphs have presented several (but certainly not all) TDOA mandated responsibilities, and hopefully clarified the Division’s role regarding private property issues and historic cemetery concerns.  Please feel free to contact our office if there are questions about these (or other) archaeological matters.

Editor’s Note: You can find the Tennessee Division of Archaeology online via their web page and Facebook account).