Hiwassee Island: Partnering with Tribes to Ground Truth Geophysical Studies

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 28

Erin Pritchard
Tennessee Valley Authority

Hiwassee Island, located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in Meigs County, Tennessee contains a rich history dating back many thousands of years.   The island is now owned in fee by the U.S. Government under the stewardship of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and is under easement with the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) for the management of wildlife (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Hiwassee Island

Prior to the inundation of Chickamauga Reservoir, numerous archaeological excavations occurred on Hiwassee Island and the true extent of intact deposits remaining was unknown. In 2016 (Previous Blog ) we reported on TVA’s efforts to document these remaining deposits through geophysical survey (Figure 2). This survey produced outstanding results indicating that the Mississippian village located on the island still retained significant integrity with as many as seven palisade features. Only one palisade feature had initially been identified on the island from previous excavations. The island was recently determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places using data collected from this as well as the many other studies conducted on the island.

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Figure 2. Shawn Patch (New South Associates) working with Gano Perez (Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma) during the geophysical field school on Hiwassee Island.

In 2017 TVA continued its research efforts on the island by conducting limited test excavations to ground truth the results of this previous study and to collect radiocarbon dates from the newly identified palisade features. The following results highlight some of the more interesting findings for this project.

The scope of work for the test excavation was limited as the agency did not wish to damage more features than was necessary to collect sufficient carbon samples. Fieldwork was limited to one week and eight test units (measuring 1m by 50cm, 1m by 1m, or 1m by 2m depending on the anomaly being tested). The research design for the project sought to identify a sequence for the palisade construction through the radiocarbon dates as well to examine differences in construction methodology for each of the five palisades that were investigated.

TVA partnered with federally recognized tribes to provide an archaeological field school opportunity for non-archaeological staff and to provide training for tribal monitors. Eight tribal participants from five tribes (Chickasaw Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma, and the United Keetoowah Band) participated in the excavations along with TVA staff and managers, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and volunteers from TVA’s Thousand Eyes Archaeological Site Stewardship Program (Figures 3a-c).

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Figure 3a-c: a: (upper left) Shawn Patch excavates a unit while Corain Lowe-Zepeda (Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma) and Jason Jackson (Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency) screen for artifacts; b (bottom left): Matt Girty (United Keetoowah Band) excavates as Karen Loven (Thousand Eyes Volunteer), Jamie McCabe (New South Associates, Inc.) and Michaelyn Harle (TVA) screen for artifacts; c (right)  Corain Lowe-Zepeda excavates as Benny Wallace and Catie Hamilton (both from the Chickasaw Nation) observe her findings.

Results of the excavations (Table 1) confirmed our initial interpretation of feature type in all but one of the units. Radiocarbon dates collected suggest that the village expanded over time reaching its peak during the later Mississippian Dallas Phase. While additional radiocarbon dates would be needed to fully support this hypothesis, these initial results confirm that the information potential of this island is still extensive further supporting its eligibility for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.

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Table 1.  Radiocarbon results from each of the excavated units.

The one surprising result was found in Test Unit 1 where the thick linear anomaly was initially hypnotized to be a late Mississippian wall surrounding what was once a large platform mound excavated during the 1930s Works Progress Administration work which is believed to have been the center of the village.   Excavation of the feature now suggests that this feature is actually a ditch of unknown origin. Based on the content of the feature, we believe it was filled during the later portion of the Hiwassee Island Phase (Figure 4).

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Figure 4.  Test Unit 1 profile showing fill placed in the feature.

While not all features ended up being what we initially hypothesized, it was clear the technology is very effective for identifying archaeological features and TVA was able to obtain radiocarbon dates to further hypothesize on the expansion and/or contraction of the village. Results of these limited excavations confirmed that this non-invasive technology can be an effective approach to collecting data from known archaeological sites in order to evaluate potential significance and provide the agency with sufficient data to properly manage archaeological sites on its federal lands.

More importantly, the experience TVA had with inclusion of Federally recognized tribes in the field work was extremely rewarding. What started out as a field school for the tribal reps ended up being a learning opportunity for all of the participants in the project (Figure 5). Similar projects are already planned for the future and staff is very excited for the opportunity to work with tribes to learn more about their rich history in the Tennessee Valley.

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Figure 5. Participants in the Hiwassee Island field school.

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