Continued Dog Burial Research in Tennessee.

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 29

Meagan Dennison
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In 2014, I blogged about indigenous dogs from Tennessee for TCPA’s inaugural 30 Days of Archaeology, just as I was getting started with my dissertation research on dog burials. These days, I am deeply entrenched in data collection on dog burials from prehistoric and Historic Cherokee archaeological sites in the Tennessee River Valley, and nearby areas – I am even writing this from my hotel while out on a research trip. Through skeletal and dietary analyses, I am finding out how dogs and people coexisted in the past, and how this relationship changed through time.

Dog burials are common from the Tennessee River Valley, and Tennessee in general (see Lacey Fleming’s 2015 TCPA blogpost for discussions of several dog burials from Middle Tennessee). As part of my data collection efforts, I have noted at least 120 dog burials from just the Tennessee River Valley in Tennessee alone. Around 150 additional dog burials have been uncovered from the section of the Tennessee River which runs through Northern Alabama.

For me, the dogs I find most fascinating are the Archaic dogs from the Tennessee River Valley in West Tennessee. I spent many weekends of my childhood at my grandparents’ river house near Lick Creek, which feeds into the Tennessee River just south of I-40. I distinctly remember once wading out into the water to swim and stepping on something that felt quite different from the other rocks. Back then, I called it an “arrowhead.” It was only after I started studying archaeology in college that I learned the full extent of the prehistory in this region. During the Middle and Late Archaic Periods (ca. 8,000-3,500 years ago), mobile groups of foragers occupied this portion of the Tennessee River Valley, moving from base camp to base camp, where they created large trash middens composed of mainly fresh-water mussel shell, but also lithic artifacts, animal bone, and plant remains. These middens, often referred to as “shell middens” or “shell mounds,” accumulated gradually over time, and were also used as cemeteries for both people and dogs. Archaeologists Madeline Kneberg and Tom Lewis focused primarily on excavating these shell midden sites during the 1940s, prior to TVA dam construction and subsequent inundation.

WPA/TVA Archaeology Photographs, 1930s-1940s

Figure 1: Dog burial from the Eva Site, Benton County, TN. Photo courtesy of the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture and University of Tennessee Libraries WPA/TVA Archaeological Photographs.

Kneberg and Lewis, and their field crews, uncovered a total of 51 dog burials from seven of these Middle and Late Archaic sites in West Tennessee, including Big Sandy, Cherry, Eva, Kays Landing, Ledbetter Landing, McDaniel, and Oak View Landing (Bissett 2014; Lewis and Kneberg 1947, 1959; Lewis and Lewis 1961). Only 10 of these dogs were associated with human burials, while the rest were buried in their own graves. Dogs were purposefully placed in a curled up, or flexed, position (see Figure 1), indicating that they were buried soon after death, and with care. People buried in these shell middens were also commonly interred in a flexed position. These dogs were small in size, only about the size of a beagle (Worthington 2008), yet their skeletons display numerous pathologies, especially on their heads, legs and spines (Warren 2004). The high frequency of pathologies may indicate that dogs were not merely pets or commensals, but were involved in more strenuous activities.

Pathologies on the spinous processes of dog vertebrae, particularly healed fractures result in an overtly curved shape (see Figure 2), may be the result of pack-carrying. Although small in stature, the Archaic dogs may have served as beasts of burden for mobile, foraging Archaic groups (Walker et al. 2005; Warren 2004). Eighteen of the 51 dogs mentioned above have these characteristic curved spinous processes on one or more of their vertebrae (Warren 2004). Even though dogs were small, if a dog carried 10 pounds of resources or belongings, they could unburden a person from having to carry this weight. Of course, we don’t know how heavy dogs’ packs were, or how many dogs groups of people maintained at one time, or even how far they would have traveled while carrying packs. However, given the consistency of these pathologies, and the careful burial treatment, the Archaic in West Tennessee were likely an integral part of the society and a great aid to a mobile lifestyle. Aside from pack carrying, these dogs may have also served as hunting companions, pets, camp ‘garbage disposers,’ bed-warmers, or as guards (Manwell and Baker 1984). Dog burials continued in the Tennessee River Valley in West Tennessee well into the Woodland and Mississippian Periods.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Pathological spinous process of dog from the Eva Site.

This past Spring, I received funding from the TCPA Research Award, and the Patricia Black Fund from the Anthropology Department at the University of Tennessee to carry out dental micro-wear texture analysis for 39 of the dogs in my dissertation sample, including dogs from Big Sandy, Cherry, Eva, and McDaniel. Dental micro-wear texture analysis uses confocal light microscopy and specialized computing software to characterize the wear patterns on teeth, which are produced by different types of foods in an individual’s diet (DeSantis 2016). Wear is detected as either a pit or scratch in the surface of enamel. High frequencies of pits indicate a hard diet, while high frequencies of scratches and few pits indicate a softer diet. For dogs, differences in pits and scratches may indicate if dogs were doing a lot of bone crushing, or eating more meaty portions of animals, or more processed plant foods.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Dental mold making of archaeological dog teeth.

Teeth from the 39 dogs were first cleaned with acetone, and then a dental mold impression was made with the same dental molding materials used by dentists (Figure 3). High-resolution casts were created from the dental molds and scanned for wear patterns. Just last week, I spent nearly 20 hours scanning dental casts from these 39 dogs at Vanderbilt University’s Dietary Reconstruction and Ecological Assessments of Mammals Laboratory with help from Dr. Larisa DeSantis and her graduate students. While some dogs were too old or too young to preserve micro-wear, others were more forthcoming (Figure 4). Once a tooth surface is scanned, the computer software translates the surface topography into numbers which represent frequency of pits, frequency of scratches, depth of pits and alignment of scratches. The entire process is labor intensive and time consuming, but the results will provide a fresh look at dogs from the Southeast, as well as paleo-diet of Southeastern peoples. The results of these analyses are forthcoming, and will be included in my dissertation, and presented at the Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology meeting in January 2018. The combination of skeletal and dietary analyses will hopefully reveal more about how dog populations were managed in the past and the roles they played in past societies. Much more to come!

Figure 4

Figure 4: Photo simulation of surface wear on dog tooth from a Mississippian site in East Tennessee.



References Cited
Bissett, Thaddeus Geoffrey (2014) The Western Tennessee Shell Mound Archaic: Prehistoric Occupation in the Lower Tennessee River Valley between 9000 and 2500 cal yr BP, Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
DeSantis, Larisa, R. G. (2016) Dental Microwear Textures: Reconstructing Diets of Fossil Mammals. Surface Topography: Metrology and Properties 4(2):023002.
Lewis, Thomas M. and Madeline Kneberg (1947)The Archaic Horizon in Western Tennessee. The University of Tennessee Record Extension Series Vol. 23, No. 4, Knoxville.
(1959) The Archaic Culture in the Middle South. American Antiquity 25(2):161-183.
Lewis, Thomas M. and Madeline Kneberg Lewis (1961) Eva, An Archaic Site. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Manwell, C.  and C. M. Ann Baker (1984) Domestication of the Dog: Hunter, Food, Bed-Warmer, or Emotional Object. Journal of Animal Breeding and Genetics 101:241-256.
Walker, Renee B., Darcy F. Morey and John H. Relethford (2005) Early and Mid-Holocene Dogs in Southeastern North America: Examples from Dust Cave. Southeastern Archaeology 24(1):83-92.
Warren, Diane M. (2004) Skeletal Biology and Paleopathology of Domestic Dogs from Prehistoric Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Indiana University, Bloomington.
Worthington, Brian E. (2008) An Osteometric Analysis of Southeastern Prehistoric Domestic Dogs. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University.

A Lumper’s Take on Paleoindian and Early Archaic Projectile Points from the Mid-South

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 16

Shane Miller
Mississippi State University

A few minutes ago, one of my colleagues, Derek Anderson, walked into my office, handed me a projectile point in a bag, and asked, “What would you call that?” In other words, what projectile point category, or type, is it? In this particular case, I shrugged and replied “Sykes or White Springs?” and we then proceeded to google those types so we could see pictures of other examples. We both decided it was a pretty good match. From this projectile point, he could say that the artifacts he was analyzing contained an artifact that dated to the Middle Archaic period.

Even though it was quick assessment, it was based on a large literature of archaeological sites, radiocarbon dates, and various projectile point guides like Cambron and Hulse’s projectile point guide, which is the most commonly used guide for the Tennessee River valley. There are also more far-reaching attempts to make sense of variability in projectile point types, like Noel Justice’s guide for eastern North America or the online Projectile Point Identification Guide.

I’ll be honest, I study this stuff for a living and I find the myriad of projectile point types daunting (not to mention the vast literature in archaeology on classification and typology), and in order to make sense of it all, I readily admit… I am a lumper. I look for similarities (rather than focus on the differences), and then compare those similarities in projectile point shape and design to the stratigraphic and radiocarbon record.

I take this approach for two reasons:

  1. It’s really hard for even modern knappers to replicate the same point shape over and over again. There’s a lot of contingencies to consider, from skill levels to variation in raw material. These are not things that were made on an assembly line.
  2. If I do decide to differentiate two types based on some minute detail, I prefer that decision to be backed up by a quantitative approach using geometric morphometrics. The words may seem fancy, but the premise isn’t – it’s a statistical analysis of shape.

Last year, Thad Bissett and I combined our spreadsheets of radiocarbon dates and stratigraphic information to a Bayesian statistical analysis to generate date ranges for our “lumper” categories of projectile point types from the Tennessee River. Partially inspired by Chris Moore’s work on the Savannah River Valley, it occurred to me that I could distill this information down to a cheat sheet for others to use while we’re still working on tweaking our analysis for publication.Cheat Sheet

Here’s a link to the poster where you can find some more technical detail on how we conducted the analysis.

And here is the cheat sheet that I prepared based on this analysis with pictures of points from archaeological sites from Kentucky Lake from the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville. The two Cumberland projectile point images were provided by Jesse Tune and come Alabama and Kentucky.


**Link to a high-resolution version of the cheat sheet chart**

Late Archaic – Early Woodland Transitions at the Townsend Sites

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 22

Kandi Hollenbach
University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology

One of my colleagues often notes that in East Tennessee, any flat spot next to a river is going to have an archaeological site. That description certainly fits the Townsend sites, located on the south side of the Little River in Blount County,Tennessee.As you round the last curve on US Hwy 321 and find yourself suddenly in the expanse of Tuckaleechee Cove, it’s easy to understand why various groups lived along this roughly 5 km stretch of the valley floor over the past 10,000 years.

Late Archaic

Late Archaic “silo ” feature.

Four sites were excavated within the right-of-way of US Hwy 321 by the University of Tennessee Transportation Center’s Archaeology Group, when TDOT widened the highway. Most of my work on the Townsend sites with the UT Archaeological Research Lab has focused on the Late Archaic and Early Woodland periods.

The Late Archaic period is the first relatively intensive use of the site, beginning around 4,500 years ago. The sites include 82 features dating between 4,500 and 2,800 years ago, a number of which are extremely large pit features, referred to as “silos.” These large pits presumably held significant food stores, such as hickory nuts, chestnuts, and acorns – each with enough to feed roughly 1,000 people at one feasting event, or a family of five for several months. Most of the pits are also located in the same general vicinity, perhaps reflecting communal storage.

In addition to hunting, fishing,and gathering wild nuts, fruits, greens, and seeds, the Late Archaic occupants began cultivating native seed crops, such as little barley (Hordeum pusillum) and chenopod (Chenopodium sp.). They cooked these seeds in soapstone vessels, as evidenced by pollen, starch grains, and phytoliths recovered from food crusts adhering to the vessel interiors. The occupants would have obtained these soapstone vessels through trade with groups from western North Carolina, where soapstone outcrops.

Late Archaic Features at Western 40BT90.

Late Archaic Features at Western 40BT90.

Around 850 BC, there is a gap in the occupation, and when Early Woodland peoples re-occupied the Cove around 700 BC, they settled in a different fashion than their predecessors. Instead of digging extremely large storage pits in the same general area, the Early Woodland occupants dug smaller pits that were spaced further apart. They also appear to have built relatively more substantial structures (there are no postholes with Late Archaic artifacts, but a smattering with Early Woodland artifacts). It is possible that they lived at the site for more extensive periods of time (but not year-round yet), and had organized their collective labor and storage at the family level, resulting in more dispersed households with smaller storage pits. The occupants also no longer used soapstone vessels to cook their food: they switched to pottery instead. Yet their foodways seems to be the same: hunting, fishing, wild plant resources, and cultivated seed crops.

Early Woodland Features at Western 40BT90.

Early Woodland Features at Western 40BT90.

For all that we do know about the shift between the two occupations, there are many additional questions: Why the hiatus in occupation, and why the shift in settlement pattern once groups reoccupy the Cove? Why the switch from soapstone to ceramic vessels? Jason Windingstad, a geoarchaeologist, noted a high-energy depositional environment between the Late Archaic and Early Woodland deposits at the site, suggesting a degree of flooding. Perhaps the Cove was too wet and/or unstable for groups to continue to trust the storage of large amounts of nuts in single pits. As we continue to pull together data from other Late Archaic and Early Woodland sites in East Tennessee, hopefully we will find answers to <some of these questions and come up with exciting new ones.

Special thanks to the Tennessee Department of Transportation and Federal Highways Administration for funding the Townsend Archaeological Project; and the UT-ARL staff for their insight and assistance.

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 15

Magnolia Valley Field School

Jesse Tune
Center for the Study of the First Americans
Texas A&M University

Earlier this year MTSU students excavated the Magnolia Valley site, located in Rutherford County, as part of an archaeological field school. The field school was designed to teach students the methods and techniques of doing archaeology. This foundational course is something that all archaeologists do early on in their education. Beyond learning the basics of archaeology, it is a certain right of passage for undergraduate students and leaves them with a summer of memories and many new friends. The excavation and field school at Magnolia Valley was part of the Rutherford County Archaeological Research Program (RCARP), led by Dr. Tanya Peres.

Prior to the field school, only a small amount of basic information was known about the Magnolia Valley site. The site is located near the headwaters of the Harpeth River. Since the early nineteenth century, the land around the Magnolia Valley site has primarily been used to raise horses. The property was originally part of a land grant to Hardy Murphy for service in the American Revolution. However, the first person of European ancestry to live on the property permanently was William McDowell. Written accounts show that McDowell was particularly fond of the property because it reminded him of his childhood home in Scotland. Today a lone grave marks McDowell’s final resting spot on a hilltop overlooking the property.

The grave of William McDowell

The grave of William McDowell

Artifacts representing a prehistoric component were identified when a new road was being constructed on the property. During the early phases of construction, numerous flakes and stone tools were found on or near the ground surface. Following the completion of the road minimal testing done at the site suggested that there was a possibility of intact prehistoric components.

Shovel testing

Shovel testing

The summer 2014 field school was designed to maximize the experience for the students, and also record as much new information about the site as possible. The students learned multiple survey methods and were able to identify several previously unknown prehistoric sites on the property. The students surveyed approximately 300 acres by doing shovel testing. This consisted of teams of two students digging a small hole about 50 cm in diameter, and about 75-100 cm deep. A geophysical survey was also conducted in and around the area where prehistoric artifacts were originally found. Each of the students spent time with the geophysical specialist, Tim de Smet, and were able to become familiar with the more technologically advanced survey techniques used by archaeologists today. Tim will be writing a post detailing the geophysical survey in the coming weeks, so check back for more info on that!

Students learning geophysical survey methods

Students learning geophysical survey methods

After two full weeks of survey, the students spent the next five weeks excavating in the area where prehistoric artifacts were first identified. Thanks to the results of the geophysical survey, we had a much better idea of exactly where we should spend time excavating. During that time, the students practiced everything from using trigonometry to lay out excavation units, to shovel skimming, to screening, to excavating with trowels, to mapping and recording extensive written records. Archaeology is not always just about using trowels and brushes. The students quickly learned these new skills and were able to excavate many exciting features.

Much of the excavation focused on prehistoric pit features, created when the ancient site inhabitants dug holes to store or dispose of food or other supplies. These types of features are quite common at Archaic period sites throughout the region. Based on the types of projectile points recovered from the site, Magnolia Valley was occupied predominantly during the Late Archaic period, about 3,000-6,000 years ago. One particularly notable feature identified and excavated this summer was an earth oven. This type of cooking technique has been common in various times throughout most of the world. Essentially an earth oven is similar to a modern convection oven, and uses ambient heat to cook food. A small pit is dug and the inside is lined with hot rocks that have been heated in a fire. Packs of food, typically wrapped in some type of leaves, are placed onto the hot rocks in the pit. More hot rocks are placed on top of the food packs and then the pit is sealed with dirt. This cooking method can maintain a temperature near boiling for several days.

View of the earth oven

View of the earth oven

The Magnolia Valley field school was a great experience for everyone involved. The students learned the basic skills required to be a professional archaeologist. In fact, several students are already working as professional archaeologists! We all learned important information about the early historic and prehistoric periods in Rutherford County. The data gathered during the field school is currently being processed and will be presented at the upcoming CRITA meeting in Nashville. Also, check back in the coming weeks to find out more about the geophysical survey at Magnolia Valley!