Geophysics, Burned Houses and Cherokee-Spanish Interactions at Cane Notch, Middle Nolichucky Valley, Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 8

Eileen G Ernenwein1, Jay Franklin1, and Nate Shreve2
1East Tennessee State University; 2University of Mississippi 

After the failed Spanish expedition of Juan Pardo in 1568, the historical record for the Southern Appalachians is largely absent until the later accountings of Englishmen Gabriel Arthur and James Needham in 1673. Yet we know from oral tradition, much later historical records, and limited archaeological evidence that significant and dynamic social transformations took place for Native Americans living in East Tennessee and the surrounding region. It is clear from prior scholarly works, and that of our own, that the Middle Nolichucky Valley hosts an unusually large array of pre-contact and contact-era sites. We began targeting one such site, Cane Notch (40WG143), after locals discovered a large eroded Native American pit or dump area near the edge of the river bank. This eroded area contained the remains of 55 partial Cherokee vessels which were coupled with European glass trade beads.

Our investigation began in 2014 with surface surveys and geophysics. To date, the entire site (> 7 ha) has been surveyed with magnetometry, a method that measures very subtle changes in magnetic properties of the subsurface down to approximately 1.5 meters. At least seventeen houses are clearly visible in these data, most likely because they were burned. They are recognized by their strong signatures and because their size and shape are within the range of known houses from the period. Archaeological features show up in magnetometry when they include accumulations of topsoil, organic-rich refuse, or burned material, or if they have been burned in place. The magnetometry data shows many of these among the larger house footprints.


Complete magnetometry dataset, showing locations of likely houses and other archaeological features in red. The GPR survey area is outlined in yellow.

The site is also being surveyed with ground penetrating radar (GPR), a method that sends radio waves into the ground and measures their reflections from buried features and layers. Reflections are measured continuously, resulting in a three-dimensional dataset of the upper 1-2 meters (depending on soil properties). To date the GPR data have detected ten houses, including four that also show in the magnetometry data. Many other reflections suggest archaeological features including pits and middens.


GPR Survey to date, showing the locations of potential archaeological features at two different depths. Ten possible house structures have been detected, of which four are probably burned because they also show up in the magnetometry data.

Together the geophysical data reveal the layout of the site’s architectural components, with 23 probable houses that are mostly grouped into two separate clusters or villages. Surface surveys, excavations, and radiometric dates show that these are two distinct settlements. In the east, an early- to mid-15th century village related to the Pisgah archaeological culture. In the middle to western portions of the site is a mid- to late-16th century village.


Interpretive Map of Cane Notch showing locations of probable houses and other features as indicated by magnetometry and GPR. Key finds from excavations in the Pisgah area include (a) a Pisgah rim sherd, and (b) a sea shell bead. The southern half of a house in the Cherokee section was dense with cultural material including (d) a blue glass trade bead, (e) an in situ broken Cazuela bowl, (f) several Overhill Cherokee rim sherds, (g) a seed pot, and (h) a probable Spanish arquebus lead shot ball.

We excavated the southern half of one winter house in the Protohistoric Cherokee section of the site, which is now well-dated by AMS radiocarbon on charred nutshell to the 1560s. This house was constructed by setting large timber posts into a shallow basin, after which walls were erected using clay and split river cane.  Partitioned benches and river cane beds lined the interior of the walls, while a large circular clay hearth stood in the center of the house, contrasting greatly against the sandy floor.

There are several interesting things about the house. First, it burned in rapid fashion and appears to have surprised the inhabitants. We have cross-mended 15 pottery vessels, several of which appear to have been dropped or arrayed in the manner of their last usage (resulting in a “mini Pompeii”). Secondly, we recovered a probable Spanish arquebus lead shot ball from good context in the roof fall of the structure. A recent GIS model (Sampeck et al. 2015) puts the Juan Pardo entrada as going directly across the site in 1567. Other historic artifacts recovered from the structure include 40 glass trade beads, an iron needle, and several tightly rolled brass aglets or beads. Finally, ceramics recovered in this structure represent a local interpretation of (Cherokee) Qualla pottery, as well as shell tempered Overhill Cherokee pottery. The latter was previously not known to be present in this region for another 200 years, when it begins to show up much farther south in the eastern Tennessee Valley.


Southern half of the Cherokee winter house excavated in winter 2015-16. This house can also be viewed from any angle in the photogrammetric 3D model embedded below.

This project was envisioned with the goals of sharing our work with both the general public as well as answering important questions that the Cherokee wished us to pursue.  As a result, we teamed up with Nolichucky Pictures in an effort to share the archaeological process with the general public. Secrets of the Nolichucky is a public documentary set to air on PBS Tennessee in 2017 (updates can be found on the Facebook page). The Cane Notch site is also vitally important to our understanding of Cherokee history because it represents the northwest frontier of Cherokee settlement. Further, Cane Notch is one of perhaps two dozen communities that represent the protohistoric Cherokee in upper East Tennessee. The area was not a hinterland then, but rather a vibrant (and vital) culture area in its own right.