30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 13
Meredith D. Hardy, PhD
National Park Service
Southeast Archeological Center
The National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) is proud to partner with the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology and Middle Tennessee State University in presenting the 2016 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month Poster. This is a big year for cultural resources and the National Park Service – it is the 100th anniversary of the NPS and the 50th anniversaries of the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act and the establishment of SEAC. This year’s poster features a painting commissioned for SEAC’s 50th anniversary, highlighting the archaeological mitigation of the large mound at the Shiloh Mounds complex at Shiloh National Military Park, in Shiloh, Tennessee. The painting illustrates the changes and continuities of archaeological inquiry over the past 50+ years. The composition of field crews has broadened to include women and people of diverse heritages. And even with technological advances, many of the actual field techniques of archaeology remain unchanged.
The Shiloh Mounds complex is located within the aboriginal homelands of the Chickasaw Nation, and was built and occupied between about A.D. 950 and 1350. The site includes seven large flat and conical burial and ceremonial mounds, a central plaza, smaller house mounds, and a surrounding palisade line. Mound A, or the Temple Mound, is one of the largest late prehistoric Mississippian period Indian mounds in the Tennessee River Valley, and one of the largest mounds on lands managed by the National Park Service.
The first recorded excavations at the site were conducted in 1899 by Colonel Cornelius Cadle, then Superintendent of the Shiloh Military Park. Clarence Bloomfield (“C.B.”) Moore visited Shiloh in 1914 and drew a detailed sketch map of the site, but did not conduct excavations. Archaeological investigations were next conducted at the site in 1933-1934 by Frank H. H. Roberts, Jr., of the Bureau of Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, under the auspices of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civil Works Administration. Several trenches were excavated both in mounds and in the plaza. It would not be until 1998 when additional investigations were conducted across the entire site by Dr. Paul Welch, who took soil cores and conducted limited excavations into several small house mounds.
Due in large part to changing river patterns, a large portion of Mound A was eroding into the Tennessee River. Concern about the potential for further erosion was first addressed in 1979, when SEAC archaeologists conducted test excavations into Mound A to determine if significant information would be lost if erosion continued. Engineering studies demonstrated that regardless of the stabilization efforts employed, at least 25 feet (nearly eight meters) of the mound and adjoining bluff line would disappear over the next few decades. Already, roughly 98 feet (30 meters) of the eastern edge of the site had been lost since the 193o’s excavations. A major stabilization program intended to halt further erosion was implemented by NPS and the Nashville District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2000.
Controlled excavation and scientific study were determined to be the best solutions. It was the responsibility of the NPS to assess and mitigate the effects of this ongoing loss to cultural and archaeological resources. To prepare for the upcoming investigations, Dr. Paul D. Welch of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, was contracted to provide a detailed synthesis of all previous investigations conducted at the site.
Saving the ancient mounds became a shared interest of the park, the archaeologists, and the Chickasaw Nation, the federally recognized Tribe affiliated with the site. A respectful relationship developed between the Chickasaw Nation and the NPA, and a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2001 between representatives of the Chickasaw Nation, SEAC, and the park, whose provisions guided the excavation, analysis, and reporting. This project has helped expand the tribal historic preservation program for sharing information with Chickasaw people in Oklahoma and with other southeastern tribes.
Beginning in 1999, a series of extensive remote sensing surveys were undertaken to identify the locations of the Roberts’ New Deal-era excavations. In 2001, the archaeological excavations of the mound began with a one-meter wide step trench across the mound. The large-scale excavations began in 2002 and concluded in 2004. Over 170,000 individual artifacts were recovered, including prehistoric ceramics and lithics, and even a few historic objects, and over 600 features were identified. Soil samples were taken for both flotation and numerous types of studies: accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), micropmorphology and microstratigraphy, pollen and phytolith analysis, macrobotanical analysis, and inductively coupled plasma-optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES) for phosphorus and other elements.
While circumstances beyond the control of the park resulted in the mitigation only being partially completed, it nonetheless resulted in the recovery of some amazing information about history of the mound’s construction and its significance. Mound construction was far more complicated and time consuming than once believed, and both symbolic and engineering considerations were important. Mound A was built in seven separate stages, spanning many, many years. Multiple prepared surfaces and a variety of structures were found on some stages. The abandonment of structures and mound summit surfaces, and their replacement, was often accompanied by elaborate ceremony. We now know that brightly colored soils, some of colors such as red and white that were highly symbolic to many southeastern Indian groups.
When the fieldwork was completed in the summer of 2004, clay was used to backfill the excavations, creating a thick impermeable cap the top and slopes of the mound and covering the entire area of predicted loss. The cap was then covered with a thin layer of topsoil and seeded in order to provide a protective barrier for the unexcavated archaeological deposits below. For now, it appears that this strategy has slowed the bluff’s erosion, which will unfortunately continue until a natural slope or angle of repose has been achieved.
For more information about the Shiloh Mounds archaeological investigations, current projects, and volunteer opportunities please visit the NPS’ Southeast Archeological webpage, like us on Facebook (NPSSEAC), and follow us on Twitter at @NPSSEAC. For more information about Shiloh National Military Park, please visit www.nps.gov/shil.
(Information on the history of excavations at Shiloh is summarized from Archeological Investigations at Shiloh Indian Mounds National Historic Landmark (40HR7), 1999-2004, by David G. Anderson, John E. Cornelison, Jr., and Sarah C. Sherwood, 2013).
Editor’s Note: Copies of the 2016 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster will be available in early October. Please fill out the form below if you would like a free copy!