Artifacts, Displays, and Public Archaeology: TDOT Honors Commitment to Install Exhibit in Perry County

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 27

Marsha Welch
Tennessee Department of Transportation

Between 2005 and 2011, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) conducted archaeological excavations at the Elvis Riley Site (40PY288) just north of Linden, Tennessee. This site was first identified by TDOT archaeologist Gary Barker in 2005 while surveying the right-of-way required for the new State Route 13 Bridge over the Buffalo River. Gary found the site was relatively undisturbed and contained deeply buried deposits. Over the next 6 years, Gary oversaw the work by a contract archaeological firm on test excavations at the site, and eventually the full excavation and analysis of the portion of the site within the proposed right-of-way. Analysis of the artifacts and excavation data determined that the Riley site contained Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian components. All material classes were identified: lithic debitage and stone tools, earthenware pottery, botanical specimens like seeds and nuts, animal bones, and bone tools.


Phase III excavations at 40PY288.

Unfortunately, Gary passed away in late 2013 after a long illness, and did not get to see the project to its completion. Perry County and the Buffalo Valley were special to Gary and his family. Some years before he passed, they bought a beautiful piece of property on the Buffalo, where they spent many weekends camping, swimming, and generally having an all-around good time with family and friends. Since he owned property in Perry County, and oversaw the excavations at the Riley site, Gary worked with locals in Perry County who were interested in archaeology to establish the Buffalo River Archaeological Society. In his role as a TDOT archaeologist, he was also approached by local officials to create an educational exhibit about the excavations and about Tennessee prehistory using materials from the Riley site. At the time, TDOT committed informally to doing so, but not long after, Gary passed away, the analysis wrapped up, and the exhibit in Linden fell by the way side.

Fast forward to 2016. Gerald Kline, TDOT’s long time archaeology program manager, was contacted by Linden’s mayor-elect, Wess Ward, and Perry County Sheriff Nick Weems about the exhibit. That phone call resurrected the idea of the exhibit, and I jumped at the opportunity to follow through on the commitment that Gary made years ago to the city of Linden. After a few initial meetings to find out what Wess and Nick had in mind, I got to work.

The materials and records from the excavations at the Riley site are curated at TDOT’s Archaeology Lab in Nashville. I started by pouring over the draft report and the artifact catalog to get a sense of the range of materials from the site. It didn’t take long to realize that I had hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of artifacts to sort through to locate the exhibit quality specimens. My goals for the exhibit were two-fold. I wanted to educate visitors about the archaeological research process and to present a broad view of middle Tennessee’s prehistoric record as reflected at the Riley site. I consequently focused on complete, representative artifacts, like projectile points, ground stone tools, and pottery that would best illustrate adaptation to specific environments and change over time.


The completed display as it can be seen in city hall in Linden, Tennessee.

The “keep it simple” principle guided the design and installation of the exhibit. Mayor Wess Ward and Sheriff Nick Weems purchased a locking, secure exhibit case for the artifacts to be displayed inside the lobby of Linden City Hall. I started by creating a large-format background that was designed to look like the profile of an archaeological site. I divided the background into four “strata” and diagnostic artifacts were arranged chronologically, with the oldest material in the lowest levels of the exhibit and the more recent ones in the uppermost levels, much like they were found at the Riley site. This simple, easy-to-follow layout created a basic overview of material culture change throughout the last 9,000 to 10,000 years in southern middle Tennessee. Brief descriptions of each prehistoric period represented at the Riley site were included as a side-bar that correlates with each “stratum” on the background. I included information about settlement and subsistence, social organization, and chronology to give visitors a way to compare and contrast change from one cultural and chronological period to another.

I finished the exhibit in late July and it opened to the public on August 4. The first few days after it opened, Mayor Wess Ward and Sheriff Nick Weems called to proudly report that City Hall had been full of people all week that came to see the exhibit. It was personally satisfying to take on this project and see it through to completion, and even though I didn’t know Gary, it was even more gratifying in light of what I learned about his commitment to the archaeology at the Riley site, to the family that owned the property, and to the citizens of Perry County and the community of which he was a part. Shortly after he passed, the Tennessee House of Representatives adopted a joint resolution (#653) recognizing Gary as an “…exemplary public servant and consummate professional who worked assiduously to improve the quality of life for his fellow citizens.” Even though the exhibit in Linden is small, it is a tangible reminder of the outreach at the heart of public archaeology and exemplifies the approach that Gary took in his career as a TDOT archaeologist.