Archaeological Research and Protection during the Boone Reservoir Drawdown

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 22

Ted Wells
Tennessee Valley Authority

Jay Franklin
East Tennessee State University

Lauren Woelkers
East Tennessee State University

In 2014 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) discovered a sink hole near the base of Boone Dam which is located near Johnson City, Tennessee. Inspections found that flowing ground water had created and would continue to create voids beneath the dam if not repaired. So in 2016 TVA began the 5 to 7 year Boone Dam Seepage Remediation project which involves injecting grout into the voids and constructing a concrete barrier wall inside the earthen dam. As a federal agency TVA is required under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to consider how projects like this will affect archaeological sites.


Proposed Repairs for the Boone Dam Remediation Project.

TVA’s lake levels normally fluctuate throughout the year to control flooding in the valley with “summer pool” being the highest level and “winter pool” being the lowest level. For safety reasons, the repair project will require an extended drawdown which means the lake level will be held at 10 feet below “winter pool” for the project duration. Archaeological sites in the exposed lakebed will be exceptionally vulnerable to looting, erosion, and unintentional damage until vegetation reestablishes itself. Where archaeological sites are not naturally revegetating, TVA will artificially revegetate them by applying a mix of seed and fertilizer to help prevent erosion and hide archaeological sites. Fortunately, natural revegetation has happened quicker and denser than we anticipated.

It is important to recognize that lower lake levels will also negatively impact the local economy, which benefits from lake recreation. Since East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is part of the affected community and has demonstrated archaeological interest at sites in and around Boone Reservoir, the repair project inadvertently presented an opportunity to survey and research highly significant archaeological sites normally inundated by water for much of the year. ETSU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, under the direction of Dr. Jay Franklin, will be surveying the exposed lakebed in TVA’s custody and will synthesize the results with S.D. Dean’s survey of a privately owned lakebed. S.D. and Jay have long collaborated and advanced our understanding of the region’s prehistoric record.

ETSU Monitoring Archaeological Sites within the Exposed Lakebed.

TVA has also engaged the public to help protect the archaeological sites in their community. Select members of the public are participating in TVA’s Thousand Eyes Monitoring Program along with ETSU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department to monitor the condition of archaeological sites and report damage throughout the duration of the project.

Since all instances of damage cannot reasonably be prevented, TVA will offset losses by funding ETSU graduate level research. The goal will be to analyze ETSU’s prehistoric and historic ceramic collections to help us understand the types of ceramics being used locally and when they were used.  The results of the research will be presented to the local community and at future Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology Meetings.

One of the things that first generated interest in archaeology at Boone Reservoir for those of us at ETSU (Franklin, Dean, and students) was monitoring certain sites on private property that we believed had early historic Native American pottery. The pottery bore great resemblance to Qualla Cherokee pottery from western North Carolina and also Overhill Cherokee pottery, known better from 18th century sites in southeastern Tennessee. We had some of the pottery dated by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). OSL dating allows for direct dating of pottery instead of relying on associations with archaeological carbon. Our dates came back mid to late 15th century and early 16th century – far earlier than we expected. We began to wonder if perhaps there were earlier Overhill Cherokee towns in upper East Tennessee long before the historically well-documented Tellico towns of the 18th century. So when TVA Cultural Resources invited us to participate in survey work on Boone, we were very excited about the opportunity.

Qualla cob roughened rim pottery.

Qualla Cob Roughened Rim from the Austin Springs Site.

Thus far, we have added 96 new (previously unrecorded) sites around Boone Reservoir (65 on the Holston River and 31 on the Watauga River). The new sites range from the Paleoindian through the Mississippian/protohistoric Cherokee and early historic Euroamerican. Based on the success of our initial OSL dating results, we now consider OSL dating an integral component to our survey level investigations at Boone Reservoir – something not possible with radiocarbon dating. This gives our survey finer-grained chronological resolution.

Punctated incised Qualla rim pottery.

Punctated Incised Qualla Rim from the Austin Springs Site.

For previously recorded sites at Boone Reservoir, we also added new chronological and historical information. Three previously recorded historic sites now also have prehistoric components, while two previously recorded prehistoric sites now also have historic components. Nine previously undetermined prehistoric sites now have particular culture historical components. There are two previously indeterminate historic sites that now have specific components. Eight prehistoric sites with known components now also have additional components, and the same holds true for 13 historic sites with known components.

We have also documented dozens of raw material (chert, quartzite, etc.) outcrops around the reservoir. We can therefore potentially discuss mobility and resource extraction in the region.

In sum, our new surveys have added greater chronological resolution to the prehistory and history of Boone Reservoir. We are also addressing early Cherokee history here and with our raw material surveys, and are attempting to address patterns of settlement along the Holston and Watauga Rivers.