Middle Mississippian Archaeology at Pile Mound, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 29

Jay Franklin, East Tennessee State University
Jeremy Menzer, University of Arkansas

We reported on our initial archaeological testing and geophysical survey at the Pile Mound Site in this blog in 2014. William Myer of Carthage, Tennessee first recorded the site in the early 20th century, and mentioned the presence of one mound measuring approximately 5 feet high. Myer also described several other mound sites in the region; however, most of these were inundated by Dale Hollow Reservoir in 1943. Our 2014 work focused on geophysical survey of the mound and associated village site along with “ground-truthing” (archaeological testing) of certain anomalies discovered by magnetometer.

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Geophysical Plan View Map of the Pile Mound and Associated Features (Jeremy Menzer)

The 2014 survey and testing revealed the presence of an elaborately constructed platform mound built using piles and pavements of large limestone clasts and a few non-local quartzite clasts. The mound space is clearly delineated from the village area. AMS radiocarbon dates indicate a village site dating to about AD 1250 and mound construction began just before AD 1300. Recovered artifacts included a chunkey stone and check stamped and cord-marked shell tempered pottery. A particular feature of the pottery at the Pile Mound site was the inclusion of crushed local chalcedony in the pottery temper along with shell. We suggest this is a holdover from the preceding Woodland Period and represents attempts by local communities to hang on to their identity in an ever-growing Mississippian world. This work is significant because it is a first look at Mississippian communities in the far upper reaches of the Cumberland Valley, specifically in the headwaters of the Wolf River near Pogue Creek Canyon State Natural Area where we have conducted years of archaeological survey and testing.

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Ground-penetrating Radar (GPR) Image of Possible House Floor at the Pile Mound Site (Jeremy Menzer)

In May 2015 and this past summer, we continued with geophysical survey primarily using ground-penetrating radar (GPR). We were able to identify at least three possible house floors and a number of archaeological features. Archaeological investigations as part of ETSU’s annual summer field school focused on ground-truthing one of the house floors and excavation of two pit features. Our concentrated efforts were met with great success. We verified one house floor south of the mound. Associated pottery appears to represent the Middle Mississippian with shell temper and elongated loop handles. GPR survey identified at least two more potential house floors, too.

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Photogrammetry Image of Structure 1 at the Pile Mound Site (Jeremy Menzer and Jay Franklin)

We excavated two anomalies discovered by the GPR. These turned out to be very large but relatively shallow pits. Most likely, these were initially borrow pits used to re-plaster house walls, etc. Such pits are typical of late prehistoric village sites and quickly become refuse pits. Feature 8 measures approximately 3.5 by 3 meters across and 30 cm deep. It contained numerous animal bone remains including white-tailed deer, black bear, and wild turkey. It also contained thousands of freshwater periwinkle gastropod shells. Shell tempered pottery and ceramic beads were also recovered. Feature 9 measured approximately 1.8 by 1.5 meters in diameter and 30 cm deep. It contained far less periwinkle shell but did possess numerous white-tailed deer and black bear fauna and shell tempered pottery.

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Photogrammetry Image of West Profile of Feature 8 (Jeremy Menzer and Jay Franklin)

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Photogrammetry Image of Feature 9 Excavated (Jeremy Menzer and Jay Franklin)

We are awaiting four new AMS radiocarbon dates but expect them to be similar to the previous two. Ground-truthing of Structure 1 indicates a probable domestic house of single set post construction measuring about 6 meters a side. The Mississippian pottery from the site appears to represent a transitional Middle Mississippian assemblage: (elongated) loop handles dominate, but we also recovered a few strap handle vessel fragments and a couple of flattened loop handles. Surface treatments are check stamped and cord-marked, and there is mostly Mississippi Plain.

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Pot Break, Loop Handled Vessel, Structure 1, Pile Mound Site (Jay Franklin)

Beginning this winter, we will target new areas for GPR survey to try and locate the central plaza and more houses. We will also begin geophysical survey of the nearby West Mound site. The West Mound is approximately 6 meters high, and the associated borrow pit is still visible. We have also located several other mounds in the area, and all appear to be spatially associated with caves. A major focus of our work will be establishing the chronology and potential contemporaneity of these mound sites near the headwaters of the Wolf River in an effort to address regional socio-political relationships. We will also excavate Structure 1 at the Pile Mound site in summer 2016. Stay tuned. . .

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West Mound and Associated Borrow Pit (Jay Franklin)

 

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