30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 29
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.
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.
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.
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!