Archival Research and Tennessee Archaeology: Chasing Down the Good Professor

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 25

Tracy C. Brown
Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute


Location of Oliver Springs, Tennessee ( 2016)

Archival research is a major component of all archaeological studies focused on a particular geographic location. It entails a thorough search to identify and review the already existing media (e.g., files, books reports, maps, correspondence, etc.) pertinent to the history of the area under study.  In June 2016, I began archival research for a report on the prehistoric archaeology of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, and its immediate vicinity. At the Oliver Springs Public Library, I encountered a mysterious quotation in The Story of Oliver Springs, Tennessee and its People: Vol. IV. First Settlers Around 1800 – A Study of Town Government (1985) by long-deceased Oliver Springs historian Snyder E. Roberts. The quotation is as follows:

Professor Richard Davis, an authority on anthropology, says that the recently constructed sewage disposal plant for the Oliver Springs sewage system was found to be on the site of an old Indian mound, and that a second mound is located nearby.

A mound site in Oliver Springs was surprising and welcome news, but during my many years in Tennessee archaeology, I had never heard of a Tennessee anthropologist by the name of Richard Davis. Maybe I had somehow missed him? Maybe he was an out-of-state college professor who had only rarely done archaeology in Tennessee during the 1970s or 1980s?  Perhaps he had been in charge of the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106) review for the proposed Oliver Springs Waste Water Treatment Plant (sewage plant)?  Who was this man, and was he still alive?


Oliver Springs Waste Water Treatment Plant.

Suzanne Hoyal, the Site File Curator at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, had no survey records on an archaeological site at the sewage plant, and the City of Oliver Springs had no report on a past Phase I archaeological survey at the sewage plant site. Apparently, no Section 106 review had been necessary prior to its construction. The mystery deepened at this point, and it became all the more imperative to find Professor Richard Davis.  He might still have archaeological records and artifacts from the sewage plant site.

An Internet search for anthropology professors working outside of Tennessee identified only one Dr. Richard Davis, an archaeologist at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. He had never done any archaeological work in Oliver Springs. It occurred to me that the individual in question might be Dr. R.P. Steven Davis, now an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He had been a graduate student at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) in the early 1980s. Perhaps Roberts had asked him to come over to Oliver Springs and examine the sewage plant site—and he had simply misidentified Steve as a professor at UTK.  According to Steve, he had never done any archaeological work at the sewage plant site. An e-mail inquiry was sent to key archaeologists at major Tennessee colleges and universities to ask if they might know a Professor Richard Davis who had worked in Tennessee during the 1970s or 1980s. Dr. Jefferson Chapman at UTK suggested that Snyder E. Roberts might have contacted Dr. Richard Beale Davis, a former professor at UTK. However, this Professor Davis was not an authority on anthropology. He was a Professor of English and a famous scholar who studied the intellectual history of the Colonial South.  No other anthropological respondents at major Tennessee colleges and universities knew a Professor Richard Davis.


Oliver Springs Historical Society (Abston-Daugherty Museum). Photo by Wesley Lee (2016).

Focusing on the local level, I contacted the current anthropology and history professors at Roane State Community College in Harriman, Tennessee, which is near Oliver Springs. One history professor responded that he knew about a Richard Davis, but he was not a professor of anthropology. He lived in Oliver Springs and had been a past principal at the Oliver Springs Elementary School—and he was knowledgeable about the history of Oliver Springs. He encouraged me to contact the Oliver Springs Historical Society (OSHS) about Mr. Davis. Instead, I thought it best to join the society as a member. Mr. Wesley Lee, an officer in the society, first confirmed for me that Mr. Davis was still alive and was likely the Richard Davis cited by Snyder E. Roberts. Several elderly members of the OSHS essentially confirmed it. Richard Davis had been found.


Professor John C. Webster, Oliver Springs School, 1900-1905 (after Roberts 1982:18a)

One nagging question remained. Richard M. Davis had never been a college or university professor. He had been a teacher and principal in the local public school system, so why had Snyder E. Roberts referred to him as “Professor Richard Davis?” Unable to get in touch with Mr. Davis at that time, I went back to the Oliver Springs Public Library to see if any clues might be there. On my previous trip, I had ignored a 1982 Snyder E. Roberts volume of no seeming prehistoric archaeological significance entitled The Story of Oliver Springs and Its People: 1. The Story of Oliver Springs Schools; 2. Oldtimers and the Days Back When, – or When Grandpa Was a Boy. Within the Oliver Springs schools section, Mr. Roberts had included biographical sketches and photographs of numerous principals in the early schools of Oliver Springs.  He had placed the title Professor in front of all their names rather than Principal.  In each Oliver Springs public school of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it had been customary for teachers and students to address their degreed school administrators as Professor.  In keeping with this local tradition from his childhood, Snyder E. Roberts had chosen to address Richard M. Davis as “Professor Richard Davis” in his 1985 writings on the history of Oliver Springs.

This is just one small example of how an old, local custom can result in a misunderstanding of archived document statements pertinent to archaeological research. I have met with Richard M. Davis, and he has kindly agreed to share with me his knowledge of the former mound site at the sewage plant and other archaeological sites in the Oliver Springs area.

Editor’s Note: Tracy Brown also runs the blog Archaeology in Tennessee.