365 Days of Tennessee Archaeology: 2016 and Beyond

Phillip Hodge
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology
Tennessee Department of Transportation

Well, that’s it, folks. Another “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” is in the books! I want to thank everyone who followed along each day and especially all those who contributed a post! Special appreciation is also due to Aaron Deter-Wolf, Jesse Tune, and Andrew Gillreath-Brown, who solicited contributions, organized the blogfest, and made it happen! Just this morning, Jesse and Aaron reported that we reached more than 50,000 people on Facebook, accumulating more than 3,000 reactions, comments, and shares, and had almost 11,000 visits to our website! The most viewed posts were Sarah Levithol’s on the skull discovered in Elliston Place near downtown Nashville, Sarah Sherwood’s on Rebel’s Rest in Sewanee, and Aaron Deter-Wolf’s on the archaeology of tattooing. As they do every year, these numbers underscore the success and popularity of the blogfest.

I continue to be impressed each year with the quality and diversity of archaeological research, outreach, and stewardship activities in Tennessee. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to offer a few reflections on the posts this year as a way to wrap up the 2016 blogfest and let you know what TCPA has accomplished this year and where we’re heading in the upcoming year. Let me start with what is, by now, a cliché and entirely unoriginal observation to say that modern archaeology takes a village. That is, it takes specialists from many different fields of study to collect and interpret information about the past. It is also true that modern archaeology is now taking place in our villages. I was impressed this year by the number of surveys, excavations, or outreach projects that TCPA archaeologists are carrying out in the towns and communities where they live and work. Take for example, Ryan Parish of the University of Memphis and his Nonconnnah Creek survey in Shelby County, or Sarah Sherwood of the University of the South and her excavations at Rebel’s Rest in Sewanee, or Jared Barrett of TRC Environmental and his excavations of the Civil War era Cotton Gin in Franklin. Not only are these projects local, but they’re also projects that the communities in which they’re located are interested and invested.

Like most things today, archaeology is rapidly migrating to digital technologies and processes. Danny Gregory’s post on New South Associates smartphone based field recording system is an important development that blurs the line between field, lab, analysis, and reporting – steps in the archaeological research process that were once wholly distinct. Likewise, Paige Silcox and Aaron Deter- Wolf’s post on efforts at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology to digitize the state site files and incorporate them into a geographic information system will facilitate statewide analyses and reveal patterns and relationships in the state’s database that were not visible in an analog system. However, I would be remiss not to mention Tracy Brown’s post, which reminds us that no matter how advanced our technology, there will always be a place in archaeological research for local informants and good old fashioned gum-shoe archival research.

Journalists and others have described the opening decades of the 21 st century as the age of big data. I’ve often wondered what big data would look like in archaeology and I think David Anderson and his colleagues have provided an answer with the Digital Index of North American Archaeology. The DINAA database allows for the first time the continental (and theoretically, global) scale integration of spatial, cultural, and chronological data. The big picture questions DINAA will allow us to ask is hard to comprehend. If this is indeed the age of big data, then Sierra Bow and Stephen Carmody and colleagues posts on molecular analyses points to the power of “small data.” What’s most impressive, however, is that today we have the technology and theoretical openness to ask questions at both ends of this spectrum, from the global to the atomic, and everywhere in between.

Finally, as I read the posts each day I kept coming back to one question: are our observations about the past scalable to the present? That is, are our observations of the past scalable such that we can use them to address problems we face today and to inform our expectations of the future? And, by extension, contribute in a meaningful and practical way to policy discussions aimed confronting the challenges of a complex, ever changing world. To take one example, I thought Jesse Tune’s post on adaptation to late Pleistocene environmental change spoke to this dilemma. The New York Times recently ran a cover story about coastal inundation and the overwhelming challenges it presents to local governments. Late Pleistocene hunters and gatherers are admittedly a long ways from modern Americans in coastal Georgia, yet the fundamental human challenge both face is the same and is limited by the range of options and resources that structure their lives. Archaeology can contribute to this discussion by translating our long view of the past to a better understanding of social, economic, and environmental problems, and their consequences, in the present. This, in my view, is the grand challenge of archaeology here in Tennessee and around the world.

Before I sign off, I want share with you some of the initiatives TCPA has been working on this year. While the year got off to a frozen start, with a record snowstorm and cancellation of the Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology (CRITA) meeting, the Board and officers held virtual meetings and discussions online throughout the year and have racked up a number of important accomplishments. We awarded our annual research grant in the spring, coordinated with the National Park Service, MTSU, and the Tennessee Historical Commission throughout the summer on the Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster, and organized and hosted 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology this fall. We’re also monitoring several important federal legislative efforts related to archaeological sites and artifacts and are currently preparing comments on the prehistoric module in the state’s social studies standards.

Perhaps our most important accomplishment this year is sponsoring “Secrets of the Nolichucky,” which is a documentary on the Cane Notch site near Johnson City. Jay Franklin and his colleagues at East Tennessee State University carried out excavations there this past winter. I had the opportunity to visit Jay’s lab earlier this year and see some of the Cane Notch material first hand – it is nothing short of amazing. The documentary will air on East Tennessee Public Television late this year or early 2017. You can see the trailer here (also embedded below).

If you like what you’ve heard and read about this month, you can help TCPA continue this work and expand our outreach efforts by joining or renewing your membership today. Starting today and running through International Archaeology Day on October 15, you can join TCPA or renew your existing membership for $15, which is a 25% discount off of the regular membership rate. Just go to the membership page on the TCPA website and click on the link for “Discounted Full Membership.” If you join or renew before October 15, your membership will cover the remainder of 2016 and remain in effect through December 2017. I just took advantage of this offer myself! I hope you’ll join me and help TCPA fulfill its mission to support professional archaeology in Tennessee.

On behalf of TCPA’s board, officers, and membership, thank you again for following along through 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology! I also want to take this opportunity to thank all of the professional archaeologist in the state, including your students, employees, and volunteers, who put TCPA’s mission into practice and advocate for professionalism in archaeology in the best way possible –through your actions. This year has been an unqualified success for TCPA and we look forward to an equally successful year in 2017. See you at CRITA!