30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 28
Erin Pritchard, Tennessee Valley Authority
Shawn Patch, New South Associates, Inc.
Lynne P. Sullivan, University of Tennessee
In the 1930s and 1940s the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) conducted archaeological investigations along the Tennessee River in what was soon to become Watts Bar Reservoir. These early excavations typically focused on large Native American mound sites and one of those was called the Bell Site (40RE1). Excavations of the Bell Site were conducted by the Works Progress Administration (Figure 1) and primarily focused on a large platform mound located at the western-most end of the site. Unfortunately the project was shut down at the outbreak of World War II and no synthesis of the work was ever written and the field notes were limited. As a result, very little was known about the site for many years until TVA revisited the site in in the late 1990s (Ahlman et al. 2000).
Figure 1. WPA excavations of the largest platform mound at the Bell Site (Photo courtesy of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture).
In 2014 TVA hired New South Associates, Inc. (NSA) to conduct geophysical investigations of the island to see what deposits remained (Figure 2). Results showed that not only was the site largely intact, but it presented numerous research questions on where the site would fit within the larger framework of pre-contact sites in the region, specifically within the context of the Mississippian period (AD 1100-1600).
Figure 2. New South Associates Staff conducting ground penetrating radar at the Bell Site.
Features identified through magnetic gradiometer and ground penetrating radar (GPR) appeared to be separated into three distinct zones within the site boundaries that were believed to be separate occupations. The western-most zone (Zone 1) included four potential platform mounds (including the largest one partially excavated by the WPA) and two other mounds surrounding a large plaza. The Eastern-most zone (Zone 2) appeared to be a large platform mound surrounded by two potential ditches or palisades (defensive walls). The area in between was thought to be either a village area or separate occupation (Zone 3).
Because no chronological data can be obtained through geophysical survey, NSA hypothesized these zones to be separate areas not occupied simultaneously. Based on WPA excavations and a radiocarbon date obtained from the large platform mound, Zone 1 was believed to have been largely occupied during the Hiwassee Island Phase of the Mississippian Period (AD 1100-1300). While no existing data were available from Zone 2, it was hypothesized the other end of the site was occupied later (possibly Dallas Phase AD 1300-1450) since this portion contained an additional platform mound and plaza surrounded by multiple defensive structures. It was assumed that these areas were not occupied concurrently given their close proximity and possible defensive structure that divided them.
Figure 3. Test Unit 8 profile drawing and photo.
To better understand the significance of the Bell Site, TVA again contracted with NSA in 2018 to conduct limited testing that might address some of these hypotheses and ground truth the results of the geophysical testing. Fieldwork was completed in a week and focused on the features identified within Zone 2 as well as verification of potential plaza areas within all three zones (Figure 3). Some of the specific research questions focused on the connection between the three distinct zones, identification of potential plazas, generation of archaeological collections from controlled proveniences, and placing the Bell Site within a regional context.
Eight test units were excavated within Zones 2 and 3 that focused on the potential palisade features, posts, and one potential Dallas Phase house (Figure 4 and Table 1). In addition to test units, NSA completed shovel tests within the four potential plaza areas located within all three of the zones.
Figure 4. Location of test units within features identified from the geophysical survey.
Table 1. Information regarding test unit excavations.
As part of this excavation work, TVA invited its tribal partners to participate in the fieldwork to provide training opportunities for those not having an archaeological background. Representatives from five Tribal Nations, The Chickasaw Nation, Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, Seminole Nation, United Keetoowah Band, and Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma came out for the week and assisted NSA and TVA staff in the excavations. In addition, TVA invited other internal business units to participate as well as some of the volunteers from its Thousand Eyes Site Stewardship program. A total of 50 individuals participated throughout the week (Figures 5 and 6).
Figure 5. Turner Hunt of the Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma and Abby Eggert (TVA Volunteer) with Matt Evans (New South Associates, Inc.) drain water from one of the excavation units after extensive rain.
Figure 6. Corain Lowe-Zepeda and Turner Hunt (Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma) and Brigita Leader (Seminole Nation of Oklahoma) screen for artifacts.
Results of the excavations were somewhat surprising in that radiocarbon dates collected from the ditch/palisade feature in Zone 2 all appear to be associated with the Hiwassee Island Phase (contemporaneous with the large platform mound in Zone 1) (Figure 7). Based on the shovel tests conducted, the team feels that at least two separate plazas exist in Zone 1 and Zone 2, but the results within Zone 3 were inconclusive. A new working hypothesis suggests that Zone 3 represents a central village area that may be contemporary with the two mound centers on either end of the site.
Figure 7. Radiocarbon dates obtained from the excavation units.
Multiple lines of evidence suggest the Bell site may have been particularly large and important in East Tennessee. Mound 51 was more than 30 feet high, making it larger than platform mounds at other sites such as Toqua and Hiwassee Island. Two of the burials excavated by the WPA had artifacts that are commonly associated with the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC). The presence of five known platform mounds on the same site is highly unusual in East Tennessee. Following the fieldwork NSA and Dr. Sullivan examined WPA-era collections from the Bell Site and found some very unusual artifacts not typically found in East Tennessee. These items (Figure 8), referred to by archaeologists as palettes, have been found at Etowah (Georgia) and Moundville (Alabama).
Figure 8. Pallettes found during the WPA excavations at the Bell Site.
Placing the Bell Site into the larger framework of the Mississippian period is far more difficult. Evidence is mounting that the thirteenth century in the Upper Tennessee Valley was a time of turmoil. The suite of AMS dates obtained for the defensive works at the Bell site is contemporaneous with those obtained for the Hiwassee Island site palisades (Lunday 2018; Patch et al. 2017; Sullivan 2018).
Together, the available datasets suggest that the Bell Site may have been very significant in the East Tennessee region. It shares many similarities to prominent sites such as Etowah and Moundville. Future research is planned to address many of the new questions that have been raised.
Figure 9. The Bell Site field crew (Photo courtesy of Suhaila Nease).
Ahlman Todd M., Susan R. Frankenberg, and Nicholas P. Herrmann
2000 Archaeological.Reconnaissance Survey of Tennessee Valley Authority Lands on the Watts Bar Reservoir. With contributions by Valerie E. Altizer Joanne L. Bennett, Christian D. Davenport, Jay D. Franklin, Lance K. Greene, Hugh B. Matternes, and Erin P. Pritchard.
Final report prepared for the Tennessee Valley Authority Cultural Resources Group by the, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
2018 A Tumultuous Time. In American Archaeology 22(3):19-25.
Patch, Shawn, Sarah Lowry, Lynne Sullivan, Stephanie Smith, and David Price
2017 Archaeological Investigations at Hiwassee Island 40MG31, Meigs County, Tennessee. New South Associates Technical Report 2754. Report submitted to the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Sullivan, Lynne P.
2018 The Path to the Council House: The Development of Mississippian Communities in Southeast Tennessee. In The Archaeology of Villages in Eastern North America, edited by Jennifer Birch and Victor Thompson, pp. 106-123. University of Florida Press, Gainesville.