30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 24
University of Tennessee, Knoxville
During the 2018 May mini-term, seven field school students and a bevy of volunteers followed me into knee-high brambles, weeds, and poison ivy to investigate Early Woodland contexts at the Cherokee Farm site (40KN45) on the UT-Knoxville’s high-tech campus.
I am interested in the transition between the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods in East Tennessee. By the end of the Late Archaic period (ca. 3000-1000 BC), Native American groups across the Midwest and Midsouth had domesticated several plants and were growing them across the region. These include squash (Cucurbita pepo), sunflower (Helianthus annuus), marshelder or sumpweed (Iva annua), and goosefoot or chenopod (Chenopodium berlandieri). They also grew other crops, including maygrass (Phalaris caroliniana) and little barley (Hordeum pusillum), that do not show markers for domestication but were clearly cultivated alongside the domesticated plants.
Here in East Tennessee, Late Archaic groups were cooking these seed crops in soapstone bowls and likely storing them in relatively large pit features (see Wells et al. 2014). But archaeologists generally associate the succeeding Early Woodland period (roughly 1000-200 BC) with significant change in cultural practices. Early Woodland groups are the first in this area to widely make and use pottery. Archaeologists generally tie use of pottery to more sedentary lifestyles, as mobile groups are not likely to bother with toting relatively heavy, relatively fragile ceramic vessels along with them. Indeed, the Early Woodland period is also the first for which we see postholes in East Tennessee, suggesting that they first began building more substantial structures at this time (see Chapman 1994; Driskell and Norrell 2015).
So I was hoping to excavate several Early Woodland storage pit and cooking features at Cherokee Farm with the 2018 May mini-term field school so that we could get a better idea of how Early Woodland groups living along this stretch of the Tennessee River had adapted their lifestyles to farming crops like chenopod and maygrass. We opened up several features on the second river terrace that had been identified during previous testing of the site in 2008, prior to the development of the Innovation Campus by UT. We also used ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to try to locate additional features in areas outside of the areas exposed in 2008.
The students and volunteers did excellent work over our short three weeks in the field. Plagued by bramble roots, our GPR data better reflected those places where the radar antenna could not make good contact with the ground due to vegetation. And our features yielded few artifacts, mostly a handful of small ceramic sherds and chert flakes associated with stone tool manufacture. However, some of the best Woodland artifacts came from a historic cellar that we excavated, dating to the mid 19th century. We did excavate a set of features associated with heavy burning, including an area of highly oxidized clay and a large amount of wood charcoal. But the amorphous nature of the base of the pit features suggests that either they had been disturbed by burrowing creatures or that they represent a tree (or trees) that had been burned in place. We are analyzing the plant remains to see if the charcoal recovered does indeed represent a single species.
In addition to the excavations, the students prepared a garden plot at the UT Gardens and planted a set of domesticated chenopod seeds (C. berlandieri var. nuttalliae, or red Aztec spinach) closely related to those that would have been grown by Early Woodland groups at Cherokee Farm.
On the last day of the field school, we hosted a Public Day, where the students prepared a set of posters providing an overview of our work at the site and the garden. We had roughly two dozen people visit the site before we were rained out.
By some metrics, the field school results are not particularly impressive. We investigated six features, one of which was a historic cellar and another of which appears to be a tree burn. All of the artifacts and floatation samples could fit in two curation boxes. And the small garden plot only yielded three chenopod plants. But those features and artifacts were used to train seven undergraduate students, three graduate students, and eight volunteers in excavation and lab techniques, and introduced them to GPR. They also served as opportunities for another dozen volunteers to engage with the artifacts in the lab, through washing, sorting, counting, and weighing. And I have used the leaved of the three chenopod plants to demonstrate how this “lost crop” tastes to students who are currently taking my Paleoethnobotany class this fall, as well as several dozen attendees at the Cherokee Archaeology Symposium, hosted by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in Cherokee, NC.
The field season also taught me that this second river terrace (or at least this spot along it) was sparsely used by Early Woodland peoples, so I will turn my efforts to locations along the first terrace in my next investigations. But just as importantly, it has given me opportunities to talk with students, volunteers, the interested public, and some of the descendants of these Early Woodland groups about the rich heritage of East Tennessee.
Chapman, Jefferson. 1994 (revised edition). Tellico Archaeology: 12,000 Years of Native American History. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Driskell, Boyce N., and Robert J. Norrell. 2015. Tuckaleechee Cove: A Passage through Time. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Wells, Edward W., III, Sarah C. Sherwood, and Kandace D. Hollenbach. 2014. Soapstone Vessel Chronology and Function in the Southern Appalachians of Eastern Tennessee: The Apple Barn Site (40BT90) Assemblage. Southeastern Archaeology 33(2):153-167.