30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 30

Archaeological Survey of Big South Fork

Mark M. Crawford III
Founder, Williamson County Archaeological Society

Based on past and current archaeological research, the area that encompasses Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area has been consistently inhabited by people for more than 10,000 years. Long before the National Park’s inception, the Cumberland Plateau attracted people seeking a multitude of occupational and recreational activities. In modern times, canoeing and kayaking are extremely popular along the Big South Fork, as well as hunting, horseback riding, and hiking. Numerous species including black bear, deer, turkey, etc. populate the many ecological niches found within the park. Geologically, Big South Fork lies along a plateau composed of horizontal sheets of sandstone and shale, deposited like layers of a cake. Sandstone is much more resilient than the shale layers. As the water cuts downward through the plateau, deep gorges are formed. Once the shale layers are exposed along the steep gorges they erode quickly and leave the sandstone layers suspended above creating rock overhangs or shelters.

Example of a rock shelter in Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.

Example of a rock shelter in Big South Fork River and Recreation Area.

These rock shelters were a major focus of activity for people in the past, as they served as a convenient locality for a multitude of activities. Due to the uniquely dry conditions, preservation of the material culture left behind is enhanced. Unfortunately this makes the sites a target for modern-day looting. The illegal digging of these sites by collectors and treasure hunters threatens to destroy the priceless information they contain. To mitigate this threat, an archaeological survey was initiated in collaboration between Middle Tennessee State University and the National Parks in 1996. So far the survey has identified over 400 previously unrecorded cultural sites in rock shelters dating as far back as the Paleo-Indian period, through the Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods, as well as much more recent activity such as moonshine manufacture. This year, Courtney L. Croft, Brandy Dacus-Hale, and I accepted internships to continue the unfinished survey of the over 750 miles of bluffline within the park’s borders.

The "Jewel and Nash" site where equipment used to dig illegally was left behind.

The “Jewel and Nash” site where equipment used to dig illegally was left behind.

On a typical day in the field we start early in the morning, hiking to the bluffline where rock shelters frequently occur. We then follow along the bluffline, entering rock shelters as we find them and identifying cultural materials visible on the surface. For example, we survey the rock shelter for stone tools, fire boxes, and metal rings that once held barrels together (probably for moonshine stills). We cover approximately one mile of bluffline a day and find an average of two archaeological sites in that time. Each new site is named and assigned a unique number. A metal tag with the corresponding number is then attached to the wall of the shelter for future identification. We measure, draw a rough sketch, and fill out an information card for each new site. Each site is assessed based on the level of illegal digging or lack thereof, erosion, and modern hiker/hunter impact. Once recorded, this information is filed with the park and is used by law enforcement personnel to observe and protect the sites. Big South Fork encompasses 198 square miles, so it is critical to narrow down the areas that need protection. Using archaeological survey, high risk areas can be identified and better protected.

One of the livestock pens identified in this year's survey.

One of the livestock pens identified in this year’s survey.

All in all, we identified 54 new sites, roughly 40 percent of which had been damaged by illegal digging. Historic sites consisted of 3 livestock pens constructed of ax-hewn timber, as well as shelters containing evidence of square stone fire boxes, broken glass jars, and rusty metal barrel rings (all that was left of what once was a wooden barrel). At one such site we recovered a coiled copper pipe probably used in the manufacture of moonshine. Prehistoric sites were identified by the presence of stone tool making debris, the stone tool fragments themselves, and pottery fragments. Stone tool debris, unfortunately, only identify a site as prehistoric, a time period that stretches over 10,000 years. Fortunately, we were able to assign a smaller range of time for some of the sites based on the presence of stone tool fragments and ceramic sherds that are diagnostic or point to a specific time period of the prehistoric age. Stone tools belonging to the Early, Middle, and Late Archaic periods as well as the Woodland period were identified by the artifacts recovered this summer. Woodland period ceramics were recognized too. This new data concurs with previous survey analysis by MTSU interns as well as the Big South Fork Archaeologist, Tom Des Jean, in other areas of the park. All conclude that the rock shelters have been utilized and inhabited by people for over 10,000 years. Based on our survey, newly recorded rock shelters were used for the containment of livestock, making moonshine, brief and long duration habitation, hunting, as well as many other activities. In other words, these shelters were used by past people for almost anything you can imagine, just like modern buildings today, and thus were an integral part of their daily lives.

The uniquely dry conditions of the rock shelters preserve a wide range of artifacts spanning over 10,000 years. Unfortunately, they are threatened with past and current destruction by illegal digging activities. These rock shelters are priceless repositories of the story of humanity’s past and they deserve our respect and protection. But they have to be identified and recorded first. The rock shelter archaeological survey collaboration between MTSU and the National Park Service is working to identify and protect what remains of our collective past in a Tennessee treasure; Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

A view of the Big South River Gorge.

A view of the Big South River Gorge.