Archaic Period Lifeways and “Big Data”

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 25

Tanya M. Peres
Florida State University

Archaeologists have long been interested in studying the lifeways of people that lived across the Eastern Woodlands during the Archaic Period. The past decade has seen an increased number of research projects on Archaic Period sites in Tennessee. I have been involved with several of those projects. You can read about them in previous “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” blog posts (Black Cat Cave, Magnolia Valley, Cumberland River). There are many things to learn about Archaic Period lifeways – Where did people live? What did their houses look like?  How did they wear their hair? What did children call their parents? Did multigenerational families live in one community? What foods did they eat? How did they cook them? Did they eat them out of individual bowls or was eating a communal event? These, and many other, questions are what I wonder about when I am troweling the bottom of a square excavation unit, writing observations in my all-weather field notebook, or sifting through the residues of life from thousands of years ago. Food and foodways are what I tend to focus on the most in my research.

Within foodways archaeology, my research speciality is zooarchaeology, the identification and analysis of animal bones and shells from archaeological sites. Animal remains help us to better understand the types of foods people ate and the environmental areas that were important places for hunting, trapping, and fishing. During our analysis we record which animals are in the sample, which parts of the animals are present (legs, feet, ribs, head pieces, etc.), how many of these are in the sample, the weight of the bone, teeth, and shells, and we record if there were any changes to the animal remains – such as burning, cut marks, or unusual breakage patterns. The datasets created from this type of analysis can be very large and difficult to share with other researchers in ways that are meaningful and useful. However, data sharing is important if we are to successfully answer questions about Archaic Period lifeways across a very large region like the Eastern Woodlands.

What we know about Archaic Period foodways is that people hunted, gathered, trapped, and fished for animals available in their local environments. This appears to have resulted in them moving their settlements around on a seasonal basis to follow the food. What we don’t know about the Archaic Period is how foodways differed across the interior part of the Eastern Woodlands. It is easy to make gross generalizations about a large chunk of prehistory, but it is much more difficult to take a step back and see nuanced similarities and differences on a regional basis. That is where the “big data” project I am a part of comes in.

The zooarchaeological data that I have collected from sites along the Cumberland River in Davidson and Cheatham counties and Black Cat Cave in Rutherford County have been instrumental to my participation in the Eastern Archaic Faunal Working Group (EAFWG), a National Science Foundation-funded “big data” research initiative. The working group is the brain-child of Sarah Neusius (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and Bonnie Styles (Association of Science Museum Directors) and is comprised of zooarchaeologists and archaeologists with multiple large Archaic period faunal datasets from the interior of the Eastern Woodlands that have come together to answer big picture questions using our data in a new integrated way. The biggest questions we are trying to answer are:

  • How did the use of fish, shellfish, waterbirds, and turtles vary across the Eastern Woodlands?
  • What were the reasons for the variation? Cultural? Environmental?

An important component to this is being able to integrate our datasets without changing the original data collection. To do this, we developed protocols to assess and integrate our non-standardized datasets via the Digital Archaeological Record (tDAR*). tDAR, an international repository for digital data, allows unprecedented access to large numbers of datasets and has built-in tools for integrative analysis. This provides the means for the EAFWG to consider the causes of the intensification of aquatic animal use in new and sophisticated ways. Most notably, faunal assemblages from 23 archaeological sites are being studied in detail at local, sub-regional, and regional scales providing new perspectives on the correlation between environmental, demographic, and cultural variables.


Archaeological sites included in the EAFWG data integration project.

The working group has met three times in person over a period of 4 to 5 days (and will have our last official retreat later this week). We set aside time to get together at every professional conference to check in on the progress of our work and discuss next steps. When we are not together we work on shared documents through Google Drive, phone calls, Skype, and on our individual datasets in tDAR. In addition to the unparalleled opportunities for digital data integration, the EAFWG and tDAR give us the means to curate and preserve our data forever.


(Left):  EAFWG Members held their first meeting at the Illinois State Museum in January 2015. (Right)  Members of the EAFWG met in January 2017 at Florida State University.

* – tDAR is a non-profit organization, currently administered by the Center for Digital Antiquity at Arizona State University, Tempe, that was formed to meet federal guidelines for archiving, curating, and managing digital archaeological data.