The Elusive Beakers of Western Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2018, Bonus Blog!

Melinda A. Martin
University of Memphis

During an excavation in 2008, in northeastern Arkansas, a beaker rim sherd and handle was located on the last day of excavations at the bottom of the unit. This find contributes a sample of an Early Mississippian, Cherry Valley phase beaker (A.D 1050-1200), to a small corpus of known beaker sites in eastern Arkansas.


Figure 1. Mound Place Incised Beaker from the Knappenberger site in northeast Arkansas (Photo courtesy of Melinda A. Martin).

Due to the rarity of beakers in northeast Arkansas, I developed an avid interest in the function of these vessels and why only a few pre-Columbian sites contained them.  This interest carried over into my current graduate thesis research, which focuses on an iconographic analysis of Early Mississippian beakers and an organic residue analysis of the contents. My first step, was to establish a corpus of known beaker sites, along with accumulating whole vessels, and sherds for comparison.


Figure 2. Establishing a corpus. (Photo courtesy of Melinda A. Martin).

This warranted a trip to multiple institutions, such as the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the beakers were photographed and sampled for residue.  The project continued to grow when I was introduced to a collector who possessed beakers from Arkansas and Illinois. Word soon spread and within a month my corpus had grown from thirteen beakers to over fifty. Other museums were contacted in Illinois, such as the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign and the Dickson Mounds State Museum in Lewiston, which resulted in an additional 100 beaker fragments and whole vessels. While this sample size is larger than I had anticipated, a question still remains. Where are the beakers of western Tennessee? Beakers have been identified in eastern Arkansas, central and southern Illinois, and southeast Missouri. However, the only beakers I am aware of from western Tennessee occur at the Obion site.


Figure 3. A map featuring the Obion site in western Tennessee and the Cherry Valley site in eastern Arkansas (Garland 1992: 129).

The Obion site, located in northwest Tennessee, contained 8 beakers, which shared characteristics to beakers at the Cherry Valley site in eastern Arkansas. However, the Obion beakers show additional similarities to those from Cahokia, especially handle fist effigies. While handles in the form of forearms and hands are infrequent, isolated body parts are recurrent in Mississippian ceramic art.  Fist representational art may infuse the vessel with strength or power, transforming the contents from ordinary liquids to sacred medicines, such as black drink, to perform functions such as purification.  Fist effigies have also been located at the Beckwith Fort Site, Towosahgy, in southeast Missouri.


Figure 4. Beaker displaying a fist effigy handle from the Horseshoe Lake site in Illinois (Photo courtesy of David Dye) Private Collection.

So what does all of this mean? Why is there an absence of known beaker sites in western Tennessee and why is a fist effigy, frequently found at central and southern Illinois sites, located in this area? The mysterious vacant area of beakers could be explained by several explanations. One is that beakers are minimally represented due to ritual sodalities in the area choosing ceremonial paraphernalia not associated with black drink, or utilizing a different vessel form for distribution and consumption. While ethnohistoric accounts correlate the consumption of black drink with shell cups, the absence of shell artifacts in this area leaves that explanation questionable. Another argument could be the lack of Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) in western Tennessee and a disruption in exchange, which would inhibit the ability to obtain the ingredients for black drink. Finally, a deficiency in archaeological research concerning the western portion of the state could limit the awareness of beaker sites. Future explorations of this area has the ability to supplement our knowledge of patterning concerning sites possessing beakers.


2018 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology Blogfest, Wrap Up

Jared Barrett
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (TCPA)

Our fifth year of “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” blogfest is complete! Our yearly blogfest continues to grow. I want to say a big thank you to TCPA Board Member Sierra Bow who solicited posts, organized the blogfest, published the posts, and made it happen. TCPA would also like to thank everyone who followed along each day and especially to all those who contributed a post. If it weren’t for the posts, we wouldn’t have a blogfest, so again thank you. Going over the numbers for the last 30 days, the blogfest on our main website had 13,066 views and 8,054 visitors. We also continue to expand our international reach as well with the Netherlands (89 visits), United Kingdom (65), Canada (60), the Philippines (59), and Hong Kong SAR China (45) making up the top five countries for visitors to our website. As you can see from the numbers below, this year was our best year to date!

Breakdown of Blogfest Website Traffic through TCPA’s webpage:

  • 2014: 7,000 views / 3,300 visitors
  • 2015: 10,864 views / 5,888 visitors
  • 2016: 10,932 views / 6,775 visitors
  • 2017: 10,289 views / 5,848 visitors
  • 2018: 13,066 views / 8,054 visitors

The most viewed post on our website during the blogfest was Paul Avery’s post about the Civil War earthwork in Bedford County with 2,755 visits followed by Nathan Shreve’s post about the Sixteenth Century Spanish presence in upper East Tennessee (889), Eileen Ernenwein and Reagan Cornett’s post regarding new research at the David Crockett Birthplace State Park (768), Jacob Lulewicz’s post about AMS dates and WPA-Era platform mound excavations across Southern Appalachia (628), and Ellen Lofaro’s post about archaeological curation and why it matters (444).

On our Facebook page, the blogfest this year reached 41,630 people and generated 3,726 reactions, comments, and shares. In 2017, our 30 day archaeology blogfest reached 45,000 people on Facebook and generated more than 2,000 reactions, comments, and shares. The most viewed posts on Facebook were Nathan Shreve’s post about the Sixteenth Century Spanish presence in upper East Tennessee, followed by Eileen Ernenwein and Reagan Cornett’s post regarding new research at the David Crockett Birthplace State Park, Ellen Lofaro’s post about archaeological curation and why it matters, and Jesse Tune’s post on pre-Clovis archaeology in Tennessee.

Breakdown of 2018 Blogfest Facebook Traffic (Top Five Reaches):

  • Day 13: 6,067 reaches (576 clicks/actions) – Across the Mountains: Sixteenth Century Spanish Presence in Upper East Tennessee (Nathan Shreve)
  • Day 21: 3,279 reaches (340 clicks/actions) – Farther Down the Nolichucky: New Research at David Crockett Birthplace State Park (Eileen G. Ernenwein and Reagan Cornett)
  • Day 15: 2,867 reaches (227 clicks/actions) – Archaeological Curation – Why does it Matter? (Ellen M. Lofaro)
  • Day 11: 2,577 reaches (201 clicks/actions) – Thoughts on pre-Clovis Archaeology in Tennessee (Jesse W. Tune)
  • Day 14: 2,298 reaches (278 clicks/actions) – University of Tennessee Anthropology and the Legacy of Walter Klippel (Jennifer Green and Meagan E. Dennison)

Most Shared 2018 Blogfest Facebook Post from TCPA’s Page:

As they do every year, these numbers from both our website and Facebook page speak to the popularity of the blogfest and serve as a great indicator that TCPA is reaching its audience and making people aware about Tennessee Archaeology. Our topics were wide ranging spanning the entire human history Tennessee. The posts were diverse and covered many areas of interest in Tennessee. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I have!

In addition to another successful blogfest, I wanted to bring to your attention a few other items before I close.

TCPA held its second annual Tennessee Archaeology Day on September 8th, 2018. The goal of Archaeology Day is bringing Tennessee archaeology to the public through free events and activities for archaeologists of all ages. Over 600 people came out to our event this year! Like last year, the response from visitors was overwhelmingly positive and we are already starting to plan next year’s event. The success of Archaeology Day wouldn’t have been possible without the major help of Paige Silcox, Sarah Levithol, and Lauren Walls and we thank them again for all their hard work. On behalf of the Board, I want to thank all of you, our event sponsors, and TCPA members for making Archaeology Day a success and ensuring that TCPA continues to fulfill its mission to promote archaeological awareness and stewardship of the past.

Also, make sure to get your copy of the 2018 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster and postcard. This year’s poster and postcard honor the Julius Rosenwald Fund and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology’s recently completed Rosenwald School Survey. You can read more about this fund and survey in Sarah Levithol and Ben Nance’s 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology blogpost.

To get your 100 percent FREE COPY of this year’s poster and/or postcard, please send an email to with your name and address, and indicate if you want a poster, a postcard or both!

You can also mail us your address to our P.O. Box:
c/o Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University
Box 10
Murfreesboro, TN 37132

TCPA will ship you a copy of the poster free of charge.
Huge thank you to the Tennessee Historical Commission for providing the grant that funds this poster each year.

If you followed the blogfest and like what TCPA is doing, you can help ensure that this work continues and that we continue to expand our outreach efforts by joining or renewing your membership in TCPA today. You can do so anytime by visiting the membership page on our website. You can follow us on Facebook to get current updates on Tennessee archaeology and find out about future events. You can also join our email list at

And last and certainly not least, make sure to join us for the 2019 Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology (CRITA) event which will be held January 18-19, 2019 in the Tennessee Room, James Union Building, on the campus of Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The TCPA business meeting will be held on Friday afternoon, January 18, 2019 at 3:00 pm.

On behalf of TCPA’s board, officers, and membership, thank you again for following along through our 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2018 blogfest! 2018 has been a great success for TCPA and we hope to continue this success into 2019!

Re-analyzing Copper-Alloy buttons from the Overhill Cherokee Towns

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 30

Eric Schweickart
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

From the early 1700s to the American Revolution the Cherokee built several towns, collectively known as the Overhill towns, along the banks of the Little Tennessee River. The completion of the Tellico Dam in 1979, at the confluence of the Little Tennessee and Tennessee rivers near Lenoir City, Tennessee, inundated thousands of acres of land along the banks of the Little Tennessee River, including portions of these Cherokee towns. In advance of this controlled flooding, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Parks Service contracted with the University of Tennessee to survey the affected area and mitigate discovered archaeological sites. As a result, portions of these towns were excavated by UT archaeologists during reservoir construction. The artifacts excavated from non-burial contexts are currently curated at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee and are available to researchers for study.

Figure 1

Figure 1: 18th century map of the Overhill towns.

As part of my PhD dissertation research, I examined 287 copper-alloy buttons recovered from the archaeological excavations of five Overhill Cherokee towns affected by Tellico Dam construction activities Chota, Tenasse, Tomotley, Toqua, and Citico. These buttons are a sample of a larger data set of approximately 1500 buttons that I have examined from archaeological sites dating between 1725 and the American Revolution. This larger data set includes buttons from two other localities in addition to the Overhill Cherokee sites: Brunswick Town, North Carolina and Williamsburg, Virginia. The sites excavated at Brunswick Town were primarily owned and occupied by wealthy British colonial merchants or plantation owners and their families, while the sites excavated in and around Williamsburg were primarily occupied by enslaved Africans and African-Americans.

All of the buttons from these sites were originally manufactured in Europe, predominantly England, and were imported to the New World through the complicated trade network that spanned the North Atlantic during the colonial era. The buttons found at the Overhill Cherokee towns were brought there by fur traders, who exchanged European-manufactured goods for deer skins, which were then sent back to England to be made into leather goods. The Cherokee were heavily involved in the fur trade in the mid-eighteenth century and one of the goals of my dissertation is to understand how Cherokee individuals and families interacted with the global marketplace through the analysis of the buttons recovered from the archaeological remains of their homes.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Button Types. Illustrations by Carlyle McCulloch Urello, adapted from Kuttruff 2010.

While my data analysis is still ongoing, I have made several preliminary discoveries. The three most common methods English brass-workers used to make buttons were flat cast, two-piece, and crimped. Flat cast buttons were the simplest to make; molten brass was poured into a sand mold in the shape of a finished button and then filed or lathed to remove any mold seams or casting flaws. Two-piece buttons were made by casting the front and back of each button separately and then soldering them together after they cooled. Crimped buttons were made by cutting out circles of brass that had been hammered into thin sheets, called battery, and then crimping them over a wood, bone, or horn backing using a heavy stamp.

There are approximately equal amounts of each type of button in my larger data set, suggesting that merchants imported about the same number of flat cast, two-piece, and crimped buttons into the colonies. However, two-piece buttons make up about 80 percent of the buttons found at the Overhill sites, with very few crimped buttons uncovered archaeologically. This is likely because, unlike European and enslaved African consumers, Cherokee individuals did not primarily use buttons to secure pieces of clothing together. In the mid-eighteenth century, most Cherokee clothing was held together with cloth ties rather than buttons. Instead, Overhill Cherokee individuals attached buttons to the edges of their garments with strings or leather thongs, using them as decorative elements which dangled down rather than facing out from a piece of textile.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Button Type Analysis.

Of the three manufacturing techniques used by British button manufacturers, two-piece buttons best fit Cherokee tastes. Two-piece buttons have a much rounder cross section than flat cast and crimped buttons, making them much more appealing when viewed from the side. Additionally, two-piece buttons were the only hollow button type of the three, meaning that the noise they made when struck together is similar to the noise made by tinkler cones. Tinkler cones, made from flat sheets of copper or brass rolled into a cone, have been found on archaeological sites in the Southeast dating back centuries. Archaeological and ethnographic data indicate these objects were suspended from strips of leather and used to ornament clothing, where they were valued for their metallic gleam and the distinctive noise they made when they struck one another. This suggests that Cherokee consumers had the ability to preferentially select the trade goods that met their needs and tastes.

Figure 4

Figure 4: Tinkler Cones. Photo by Karl Kuttruff, adapted from Kuttruff 2010.

The research presented above is an example of how collections of artifacts excavated decades ago can still be utilized to answer research questions. These data sets are still relevant today and, by re-analyzing them using new methods of inquiry, archaeologists can shed new light onto the lives and decisions made by people in the past. As I continue my analysis I hope to uncover more information about how the Overhill Cherokees acquired copper-alloy buttons and used them in their everyday lives.

References Cited:

Kuttruff, Karl

2010       Fort Loudoun in Tennessee: 1756-1760 History, Archaeology, Replication, Exhibits, and Interpretation. Waldenhouse Publishers, Inc. Walden, TN.

Year Two at the Pickett State Park Archaeology Museum and ETSU Archaeological Research Station

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 29

Lauren Christensen, University of Arizona
Jay Franklin, East Tennessee State University

The Pickett State Park Archaeology Museum and ETSU Archaeological Research Station hosted its 2nd annual Archaeology Day event this month on Labor Day weekend (Figure 1). Visitors came to learn to build and decorate pottery, try their hand at atlatl spear throwing, watch and learn from skilled flintknappers, and see the archaeology exhibits in the museum. We have continued into Year Two of our museum operation and programming and have been met with great success. Several hundred guests have already been to the museum and participated in programming this year. Visitors to the museum can still participate in atlatl throwing, pottery building, and group hikes down to the nearby site of Rock Creek Mortar Shelter. The museum exhibits feature many Rock Creek artifacts, some of which date to 11,500 years old.

Figure 1

Figure 1.

Those who visit this year will be able to see the new 2018 temporary/rotating exhibit that we installed over the winter. As our featured exhibit this year, it highlights some of our recent work at Enval, a Paleolithic rock shelter site in the mountains of southcentral France. The Enval exhibit features a variety of beautifully made stone tools, exotic and local raw materials, jewelry items, and mobiliary/parietal art. Enval dates to about 17,000 years ago at the tail end of a very cold period (Figure 2). Animal bones found at Enval indicate the site was occupied during the winter. This is important because it demonstrates that late Ice Age humans occupied the mountains during extremely harsh conditions. The stone tools found there indicate far ranging interactions with people from hundreds of kilometers in multiple directions. We wanted to compare Enval artifacts to those from Rock Creek. Although the materials from Enval are older, this side-by-side comparison demonstrates that upland people in both the Appalachians and mountains of southcentral France were not marginal or isolated, as many have mistakenly assumed. The people at Enval were intimately and implicitly connected to the rest of the world during the Ice Age: a time when they were still hunting and gathering.


Figure 2.

The research station hosted an ETSU Archaeology field school in June. ETSU students excavated at Rock Creek and processed the recovered artifacts at the research station. These new discoveries will be added to existing museum exhibits by ETSU students and faculty. In conjunction with Tennessee State Parks, we also hosted our fist Junior Ranger Archaeology Field School (Figure 3). Those participating learned to sort and characterize artifacts and helped us dig at Rock Creek over a period of three days. They also learned to flintknap, build fires, create pottery, and throw spears all by using the same prehistoric technology that early people used. Our history and native gardens are the latest addition to the museum. Just out back, the history garden features many crops (like corn and squash), and medicinal herbs (like tansy) that have been used historically by people living in the region. The native garden features little barley, maygrass, amaranth, and chenopod, all staples of cultivation for early native peoples in the southeast. Moving forward, the gardens will also become a part of our public outreach here at Pickett State Park. We will have the museum open a couple of weekends this fall when the leaves begin to turn, and we look forward to Year 3! Stay tuned.

Figure 3 (1)

Figure 3. 

Bell Site Revisited: Archaeological Testing at 40RE1

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).


References Cited

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.

Lunday, Elizabeth
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.

The Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 27

Jacob Lulewicz
Washington University in St. Louis

How were Southern Appalachian social networks reorganized in the context of shifting sociopolitical landscapes? How did social networks serve to mediate episodes of heightened social, political, and economic uncertainty? The Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project seeks to address these questions through the reconstruction of a 1,000-year history of social networks across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia (Figure 1) between roughly AD 600 and 1600.


Figure 1. Location of the Southern Appalachian project area.

Two major junctures in the social histories of Southern Appalachia occurred between roughly AD 600 and 1600. One ca. AD 1150 and once ca. AD 1325. The first of these major transitions, at ca. AD 1150, was characterized by the classic markers of “Mississippianization” including the emergence of hierarchical political systems, institutionalized inequality, new religious practices, and an intensified agricultural economy. This is also the point at which Etowah emerges as a major socio-religious center for the Southern Appalachian region. The second of these transitions, ca. AD 1325, is characterized by the collapse of Etowah as a major center, the reorganization of communities across the region, and the influx of non-local peoples from middle Tennessee into eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.

Using a database of over 350,000 ceramic sherds from roughly 100 sites across the region (Figure 2), social networks were constructed to evaluate how regional relationship were reorganized across each of these transitions. Two kinds of social networks were built: one set of networks based on tempering practices and one set of networks based on surface decoration. Tempering practices likely reflect potting communities within which technological information is passed between potters. Surface decorations (complicated stamped, cordmarked, painted, etc…) represent social signals, the use of which do not have to be learned through processes of teaching and learning like the use of different technologies (e.g., temper choice). In this case, networks based on temper use are akin to the kinds of interpersonal networks within which we might pass down a particular biscuit recipe, where face-to-face teaching, learning, and information exchange must take place. Networks based on surface decorations however are akin to networks within which members may all have a particular political bumper sticker on their car. In this case, members need not interact with one another or maintain personal relationships.


Figure 2. Location of archaeological sites used in this study.

Networks based on temper (Figure 3) are highly correlated with geography. That is, those potters living closer to one another are practicing similar forms of pottery manufacture, with little crossover between populations living in Tennessee and Georgia. We see this pattern repeated over the entire 1,000-year period, signaling the continued resilience of such relationships as kinship, marriage practices, and residence patterns even across the critical points of transition. Given that pottery production was likely undertaken primarily by women, what is indicated is the enduring foundation of women’s social and political networks across the region. In evaluating these networks, it is clear that Etowah is one of the only sites in the network with substantial ties that cross-cut these separate communities of potters, with many ties between Etowah and communities in Tennessee. Such access to social capital from across both northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee likely contributed to Etowah’s rise as a major political center.


Figure 3. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on temper data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of tempering practices between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of tempering agents in their respective ceramic assemblages.

Unlike networks based on temper, those based on highly-visible signals adorning the exteriors of pottery display a completely different patterns of regional relationships (Figure 4). While few interpersonal relationships existed between societies inhabiting northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, there seems to have been region-wide participation in practices and relationships driving the choice of surface decoration. No clear sub-groups based on geographic proximity exist. Rather, networks are open, with few communities occupying central locations in the networks. These open networks, which also seem to remain stable between AD 600 and 1600, likely reflect a combination of a macroregionally shared clan system and/or shared religious practices and ideology that serves as a context for continued interaction between northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee communities. Whatever the case, the sociopolitical landscape of Southern Appalachia was clearly defined by multiple, cross-cutting sets of social, political, and economic relationships that were fundamentally stable across major periods of socio-political reorganization.


Figure 4. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on surface decoration data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of surface decorations between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of surface decorations in their respective ceramic assemblages.

While sociopolitical entities like chiefdoms are often characterized as fleeting, unstable strategies of political organization, what is clearly highlighted here is that the relationships underlying these political systems were some of the most enduring features of Southern Appalachian societies. While specific leaders, lineages, families, and strategies may have come in and out of control every 100 years or so, the relationships and connections between non-elites were incredibly resilient in the face of social, political, and economic transformation, reorganization, and collapse.

Phase II of the Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project will focus more closely on the post-Etowah (post AD 1325) landscape, a period marked by the collapse of a major political center and the influx of non-local migrants into the region. These migrants into Southern Appalachian from the middle Tennessee region seem to have been pushed out of these areas by migrants from further west who were suffering at the hands of a major drought. In addressing processes of immigration into the Southern Appalachian region, Phase II of the project is driven by the following questions: How do interregional social networks structure immigration events? And how are community-scale institutions reorganized to mediate the influx and introduction of non-local people into existing communities? These questions will be addressed by extending the project boundaries to include the middle Tennessee region and through close analysis and reanalysis of changes to the organization of specific communities across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.




TDOA’s New Web-based Site Record Submission

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 26

Paige Silcox and Satin Platt
Tennessee Division of Archaeology

One of the primary functions of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA) is to maintain the state’s Archaeological Site File, the official repository for information about archaeological sites in the state of Tennessee. We determine what constitutes an archaeological site, assign state site numbers, and record information about the sites on documents called Site Survey Records, also known as site forms. We maintain an archive of site forms, both paper and electronic and manage a geospatial database of site data and survey information. We currently have over 26,000 recorded archaeological sites in Tennessee adding, on average, about 300 new sites each year.

For the last year, we at the TDOA Site File have been working closely with a development team to create an updated system for recording and archiving archaeological site data. This new system will allow us to collect site data from archaeologists via a web application, import approved data directly into our database, and automatically produce a standardized Site Survey Record from the recorded data.

A new method of data collection necessarily involved revising the site form and creating a new database. This was an exciting opportunity to reevaluate the data we collect and how we structure it. We went into that process with three main goals in mind:

  1. to maintain a secure, functional site database with each record tied directly to a geographic location, which we already had but we certainly didn’t want to diminish that functionality while making “improvements,”
  2. to integrate our site database with other TDOA work processes such as archaeological permitting, collections management, and the report library, and
  3. to look toward expanding the potential research value of the archaeological database.

And now, finally, all our hard work is about to pay off as we are nearly ready to launch our new web-based site record submission process!

For the general public, the process of reporting a potential archaeological site will remain the same: contact one of the site file curators at and we will assess whether an official state site number is warranted. But for our frequent flyers; private contract archaeologists, state and federal agency archaeologists, and academic archaeologists, we are excited to give a sneak peek at the new system we hope to be using for years to come.

To begin the process, each individual site reporter will register as a user on the TDEC dashboard. This dashboard will allow them to access the site record submission form as well as a personalized table listing the site records they’ve submitted and each record’s status in the review and approval process (Figure 1).

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Figure 1: TDEC Dashboard table of submitted records.

A custom-designed web form was created for our reporters to use when submitting site records for either new or previously-recorded sites. Each of the form’s seven pages collects a specific set of data; for example site location, cultural affiliation and site type, or site conditions. If a submission is not completed in one sitting it can be saved and returned to via the dashboard at any time.

Some of the changes on the new site form may appear to be minor, but will have significant impacts on the site data entry and site form production workflows. For example, the reporter will enter basic location info, such as county, quad name, and Lat/Long coordinates, which were previously entered by site file curators (Figure 2). They will also report whether the site is located on state-owned or state-controlled land and, if so, a permit number will be required before the site record can be submitted. This will allow us to eventually connect the site record database with the archaeological permitting database.

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Figure 2: Site Location page of the new Site Record Submission web form.

We’ve made a number of changes to the way we collect cultural affiliation and site type data and the expected result will be an improvement in the accuracy and research potential of our site data. Rather than site file curators assigning site types, site reporters will now select them from expandable menus under four main categories: Pleistocene Fauna, Prehistoric, Protohistoric/Contact Period Native American, and Historic (Figure 3). Storing site type data in these nested sets will eventually allow for queries at varying levels of specificity.

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Figure 3: Cultural Affiliation and Site Type page of the new Site Record Submission web form.

Many historic archaeologists will be happy to learn that we have added a new historic date range selection and will now record historic sites with likely occupations dating to between 1933 and 1950. Other data points added to facilitate specific research questions include the Military Era field (i.e., Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, etc) and an optional text field in which Ethnic Heritage can be associated with a site.

From the site file curators’ perspective one of the most exciting aspects of the new process is that to a large degree the data entry and site form production will be automated. This streamlined process will not only be more efficient, it will significantly decrease the potential for error. Submissions will be reviewed and site numbers will be assigned more quickly and a final site form will be available at the click of a button (Figure 4).

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Figure 4: Mock-up of TDOA’s new standardized Archaeological Site Survey Record [DISCLAIMER: if you upload a photo of Betty White instead of a site location map, your submission will be denied].

So yes indeed, we’ve been busy in the site file lately. In addition to creating a web-based site record submission process from the ground up, we’ve recorded 230 new archaeological sites so far this year, and nearly three quarters of those in the last three months alone! But change is on the horizon and we are so excited to see it finally come to fruition. In the meantime, keep your eyes open for an email from us announcing that our new site record submission process is online and ready to go.

Acknowledgements: Mike Moore and Jennifer Barnett for being supportive through the process, the TDEC IT team for making it happen (current status: 99% awesome), retired site file curator Suzanne Hoyal for setting us up for success, and huge thanks to our beta-testers Heidi de Gregory, Hannah Guidry, and Chris Nelson for taking time out to make sure this thing actually works and for providing valuable feedback.