Archaic Shell-Bearing Sites in the Cumberland River Valley

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 9

Aaron Deter-Wolf
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

The Cumberland River Valley (CRV) in Tennessee exhibits a remarkable archaeological sequence including more than 5,000 recorded ancient Native American sites. Our understanding of the prehistoric sequence in the region is the result of thousands of excavations and surveys, including efforts by antiquarian scholars, archaeological consultants, state and federal agency archaeologists, colleges and universities, and Tennessee’s avocational archaeological community. However, while these investigations have contributed a tremendous body of data to archaeological understandings of Tennessee and the American Southeast, they have until recently only scratched the surface of one particular cultural component: Archaic shell-bearing sites.

To date there are 51 recorded prehistoric shell-bearing sites within the CRV, at least 40 of which can be dated to the period between ca. 6000 and 1000 cal BC. These sites are typically situated on remnant levees or lower terrace formations of larger waterways, and often overlook confluences. Shallow gravel bars situated at those confluences prior to historic dam and channel construction were once the natural habitat of freshwater mollusks including both gastropods (snail) and bivalves (mussels). It is the remains of these creatures that comprise the defining element of shell-bearing archaeological sites. 


While shell-bearing sites in other areas of the Southeast are composed predominately of bivalves, many of the CRV sites consist primarily of gastropod remains. These 5,000-year old examples were excavated from along the Cumberland in Davidson County.

Concentrations of freshwater shellfish also appear during the Archaic period at sites along other interior waterways of the Southeast, including the Green River and its tributaries in Kentucky, the Tennessee River in Alabama and Tennessee, and the Duck River in Tennessee. These sites have been historically labeled either “shell mounds” or “shell middens,” although more recent discussions from the interior Southeast favor the descriptor of “shell-bearing.” Archaic shell-bearing sites in other drainages have been intensively investigated as a result of efforts by antiquarian scholars, pre-inundation survey and salvage efforts, and the Shell Mound Archaeological Project along the Green River, as well as through more recent data reanalysis.

Conversely, few formal archaeological studies have taken place at Archaic shell-bearing sites in the CRV prior to the past decade. The presence of prehistoric shell deposits in Cheatham, Sumner, and Wilson Counties was noted in the 1940s and 1950s during reservoir surveys by the Smithsonian Institution River Basin Survey. Unfortunately, those reports contain little useful information regarding the character or in many instances even the specific locations of identified sites. Subsequent surveys of the Cordell Hull and J. Percy Priest Reservoirs by Dan Morse and colleagues from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville investigated shell-bearing deposits at six sites in Jackson and Smith Counties, culminating with Morse’s 1967 dissertation on Robinson Shell Mound (40SM4). Morse’s dissertation constitutes the first research-driven effort at interpreting Archaic shell-bearing deposits in the region.

THE RIVERBEND PRISON SITE (40DV83): A Late Archaic and Early Woo

The second edition of the Penitentiary Branch report was published in 2017 and is available for free download from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology

Investigations of shell-bearing sites in the CRV between 1970 and 1990 were similarly sporadic. The Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) conducted informal examinations of nine shell-bearing sites in Davidson and Cheatham counties in 1976 and 1977 as part of a statewide prehistoric site survey, but recorded little information on those deposits. Another more concerted TDOA effort led to data recovery excavations at the Penitentiary Branch site (40JK25) in Jackson County, directed by Patricia Cridlebaugh in 1976. A second edition of the Penitentiary Branch report was issued by the TDOA this year, and is available as a free PDF. Four years after the work at Penitentiary Branch, efforts by John Dowd and Bruce Lindstrom at the Anderson site (40WM9) along the Harpeth River marked the first systematic investigation of a shell-bearing site in the western portion of the CRV. Through collaboration with the avocational and academic community, Dowd created a report geared towards informing the public while also generating a data set that continues to provide new information. Since the 1990s, Section 106 compliance, burial removals, and salvage work have all contributed additional data on shell-bearing sites in the region.


A profile of shell-bearing deposits at the Anderson site in Williamson County, as drawn by John T. Dowd.

Since 2010, efforts combining site survey and monitoring, salvage, targeted excavations, and examinations of radiocarbon chronologies in Davidson and Cheatham Counties have revealed significant new information about shell-bearing sites in the CRV. The majority of this work was conducted in 2010 and 2012 under the auspices of the Middle Cumberland Archaeological Research Project (MCARP) directed by Tanya Peres, and the University of Tennessee’s Bells Bend Archaeological Project (UT-BBAP). Following the Cumberland River floods of 2010 the MCARP surveyed 128 sites along the Cumberland near Nashville to identify natural and anthropogenic disturbances, including eight sites with Archaic shell-bearing components. During 2010 and 2012 field seasons, the UT-BBAP examined a total of 25 previously recorded sites in the western CRV, including three with Archaic shell-bearing deposits. Finally, in the summer of 2012 Peres directed field school excavations at 40DV7. The information recovered from these various investigations resulted in a series of conference papers, scholarly articles, and a multiple property nomination for the National Register of Historic Places, all of which have laid the groundwork for broadening our understanding of the shell-bearing Archaic in the CRV.


Joey Keasler inspects looted shell-bearing deposits along the Cumberland in September, 2010.

So what’s next for the CRV sites? I’m pleased to have worked over the past year with Tanya Peres to draw together some of the recent research described above with contemporary examinations of previously excavated sites into a new edited volume we recently submitted to the University Press of Florida. In addition to Tanya and myself, contributors to that work include David Anderson, Thad Bissett, Stephen Carmody, Andrew Gillreath-Brown, Kelly Ledford, Shane Miller, Dan Morse, Joey Keasler, Ryan Robinson, Leslie Straub, and Andrew Wyatt. That manuscript is presently out for review, and we hope to have the final book in hand late next year. We hope that volume will facilitate comparative examinations of sites throughout the Southeast, as well as and inspire other archaeologists to look more closely at shell-bearing deposits along the Cumberland.