Tennessee Archaeology Homeschool Program

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 5

Michael Miller

The field of archaeology is an engaging subject for children, generating interest and increasing awareness of Tennessee’s rich past. Introducing archaeological concepts, ancient artifacts, and prehistoric cultures in a homeschool setting let me tap into the rush of discovery and feeling of intrigue that archaeology holds over us.  Waving a replica stone-tipped spear around certainly got their attention, too.

As an experimental archaeologist, I strive to better understand the past by setting up scientific experiments in the present that simulate the day to day activities of prehistoric peoples. Flintknapping is the craft of working stone into tools and a skill practiced by everyone’s ancient ancestors. By applying my expertise in flintknapping to the classroom experience, I gave children the opportunity to try their hand at an age-old skill while learning about the past.

homeschool_1The North Nashville Homeschool Co-Op did an excellent job organizing this class into two 3-hour sessions of ten students between the ages of 8 and 12. I covered a wide range of human history, local archaeology, and everyone got to practice flintknapping. A short, informal, yet information-packed lecture about the prehistoric people of Tennessee got everyone thinking about their place in the landscape, use of natural resources, and cultural practices. As we sat in a large circle in the center of a barn, we imagined and talked about what life may have been like thousands of years ago. What types of things did these people eat? What kind of tools did they use? How did they structure their lives and relationships? Did they travel? Why do we find so many stone arrowheads, spear points, and knives in Tennessee?

Perhaps the most memorable part of the class is flintknapping. I still recall the first time I saw a flintknapper strike a piece of obsidian with a hammerstone and the resounding crack that opened my eyes to a whole world of seemly lost technology. The arrowheads that I had found as a child with my grandfather took on a new meaning and so did all the flint flakes. As I started breaking down a large cobble of obsidian, all eyes on me, the quick tap of a hammerstone created flake after flake of the glassy stone. I explained as I knapped about why the stone breaks the way it does, how I can control that fracture, and my understanding of how all the variables relate so that I can shape it into any type of tool I want.

After just 10 minutes, I had fashioned a leaf-shaped biface out of one of the larger flakes that I had worked down. I held up my deer antler billet (hammer) and asked if they thought it would break the obsidian like the hammerstone. They quickly shouted, “YES!” I continued to work down and shape the biface into a spear point. A few minutes later, I held up a deer antler tine and explained that I would now push flakes off of the spear point to sharpen the edges and make notches in the base so I could attach it to a wooden spear shaft. I asked them to pay special attention to pressure flaking since they all would get to try it. Once finished with my flintknapping demonstration, I had everyone pick out a large flake so they could work it down into a tool, arrowhead, or spear point.


Practice, practice, practice is a common theme when a person wants to master a skill; I related flintknapping to some of the modern-day activities that take time to learn and gain proficiency. Everyone wore safety glasses and gloves and used a leather pad for protection from the sharp-edged flaking debris. At first, most struggle with flintknapping, as understanding how to hold the percussor or flaker tool, supporting the stone, where to apply force, and the angles of the stone in relation to the tool are just a few of the factors at play. With some adjustments to each student’s technique and a quick close-up demonstration, flakes began to fly. Time, practice, perseverance, and a little cut here and there resulted in numerous arrowheads, spear points, and other kinds of stone tools. As their parents arrived and pried them away from their work, they eagerly showed off and explained to them that arrowheads are just part of the picture of prehistoric life. I hope that they all continue to practice flintknapping, explore history, and discover the vast richness of our archaeological record.


The Production of Prehistoric Turtle Shell Rattles in Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 12

Andrew Gillreath-Brown
Washington State University

Some artifacts can be quite rare and even difficult to identify in the archaeological record, especially when compared to the number of and information on projectile points and ceramics. When there are fewer available examples of an artifact type, it can be difficult to understand it’s significance, as well as how it was produced. Turtle shell rattles are one of those difficult to identify artifacts. Turtle shell rattles have been found throughout Tennessee in a variety of prehistoric and historic contexts. For the Mississippian period (ca. AD 1000–1450), there have only been approximately 72 rattles recovered in Tennessee, of which most only consist of one or a few fragments, and are often associated with ceremonial or burial contexts. You can read more about the context surrounding turtle shell rattles in my previous TCPA blog post from 2014.

Turtle shell rattles from the Mississippian period have a much different construction than those from the Historic period (ca. AD 1450–present). How did people in prehistory construct turtle shell rattles, and how can this help us to identify small, broken pieces of turtle shells that may have functioned as rattles? These were some of the questions that I addressed in my research at Middle Tennessee State University.


Turtle shell rattle illustration from Hiwassee Island (left; Lewis and Kneberg 1970:Figure 28) and tattoo inspired by the Hiwassee Island artifact.

To answer these questions, I turned to experimental archaeology, which, in this case, was to recreate an artifact to understand the process of the past item or technology. To create a turtle shell rattle, I needed to first decide on a design (e.g., where to drill the holes, type of cordage to use, type of tools to use). I decided to model the reconstruction after one of the Hiwassee Island rattles, which was illustrated by Lewis and Kneberg (Figure 28). Incidentally, this is also the illustration that I based my tattoo on.


Microscopic view of distinctive ridge from drilling process with the bow and chert drill.

Once deciding on a design, the first step I took was to use river cane and sand to try to drill the holes into the turtle shell**, which really did not work at all. In my second attempt, I used a bow and chert drill, which worked quite well and very quickly. The chert drill created a concave, oval shape, and a small ridge in the middle of the hole when the shell was drilled from one side, which is similar to the hole shape of most Mississippian period turtle shell rattles. When the shell broke during the drilling process (an unintended effect), it left very sharp angles coupled with drill indentations, which was also similar to some possible rattle fragments from the Fewkes and Castalian Springs sites.


Prehistoric turtle shell with possible drilling indentation from Castalian Springs in Middle Tennessee.

After the top (carapace) and bottom (plastron) of the shell were drilled, cordage and rattle implements were added to complete the rattle. I used suede cordage although cedar or a similar fibrous material was most likely used to make cordage prehistorically. For rattle implements, I simply used river pebbles, although prehistorically, drum teeth and hard seeds were also used.

By studying and recreating the drilling stages, we can recognize turtle shell rattle manufacturing among artifacts recovered from the archaeological record. The breakage patterns among turtle shells allow us to see and identify this process in the archaeological record. The study of cordage and river pebbles can also allow us to see the unintentional modification upon the turtle shell. From my limited use of the rattle, there was no immediate modification caused by the cordage or the river pebbles, although extensive use may result in some unintended modifications to the rattle. These factors show some of the indicators of how to identify turtle shell rattles within the archaeological record, no matter how small the piece.

Check out this video (also embedded below) for some of the process of creating a turtle shell rattle.


Finished experimental turtle shell rattle with example of the pebbles that were used as the rattle implements, and the bow and chert drill used in the drilling process.

**Disclaimer: No turtles were harmed in the making of the experimental rattles. These were empty shells that were collected under the proper Wildlife permits.



What Put the “Forge” in Pigeon Forge?

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 4

Alan Longmire
Tennessee Department of Transportation

What put the “forge” in Pigeon Forge? Obviously there was a forge there, but what kind of forge? A simple blacksmith shop doesn’t often lend a name to a community. In 18th and 19th century usage, a forge is a type of ironworks, a place where iron was not only worked, but actually made from ore.

In early 19th century Tennessee there were two types of ironmaking operations that made two different kinds of iron. The blast furnace produced cast iron in the form of both finished products and pig iron, so named for the bars (pigs) that branched off from the main casting channel (trough) when the furnace was tapped. The blast furnace is what most people think of when ironmaking is mentioned. Then there’s the bloomery or Catalan forge, an open fire in which charcoal and iron ore are combined to produce a ball or “bloom” of spongy iron which is then worked under a large hammer to make wrought iron, the easily forgeable bar iron used by blacksmiths. A bloomery can also turn cast iron into wrought iron, which is a very important thing. Both of these kinds of ironworks were in Sevier County beginning in the 1810s. The forge that Pigeon Forge was named for was a Catalan-type bloomery forge, and was used not only to produce wrought iron from ore, but also to turn the cast iron pigs from Love’s Blast Furnace on the East Fork of the Little Pigeon River into wrought iron barstock. The forge was dismantled and moved to Kentucky around 1870 after having produced no iron since 1860.

Preheating the furnace at the Pigeon Forge Saddleup in February, 2014. Photo by Christopher Price (original: http://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=28823&page=1)

Preheating the furnace at the Pigeon Forge Saddleup in February, 2014. Photo by Christopher Price (original: http://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=28823&page=1)

In the summer of 2013 I got an email from Mike Angst at the University of Tennessee Archaeological Research Laboratory asking for a copy of a TDOT report on the Wayne Furnace site, a blast furnace operation in Wayne County in Middle Tennessee. Since I am not only an archaeologist but also a blacksmith and experimental ironmaker, I was immediately curious and offered to help out with any questions he had. It turned out that UT had been asked to help find the location of the original forge in Pigeon Forge by the town historian and librarian, Veta King. I immediately volunteered to help with the research and fieldwork. Unfortunately there is not much left of the forge site besides a thick layer of iron oxide forge scale because of flooding and later development, but while we were there I mentioned to the historian that if she could provide me with access to the orebanks I and some friends of mine could smelt it into wrought iron.

King was enthusiastic about this idea, and arranged for it to happen at the 2014 Pigeon Forge Saddleup, a living history event held at a campground not far from the forge site. A visit to one of the orebanks gave us 120 pounds of ore. I roasted and crushed it (this removes chemically bound water and increases the surface area to help with the chemical reaction needed to make iron) and packed it into buckets for later use.

My smelting partners and I made one run of iron from half the ore to test how well it would work with great success, and the stage was set. We would have liked to use the same type of forge for our demonstration, but a Catalan forge is a large and labor intensive thing to build and run so we decided to use the more primitive short stack bloomery furnace method which can be built and operated by two or three people in a day.

Hot lag pouring out of the furnace. Photo by Christopher Price (original: http://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=28823&page=1)

Hot slag pouring out of the furnace. Photo by Christopher Price (original: http://www.bladesmithsforum.com/index.php?showtopic=28823&page=1)

Thus, on February 21 the crew rolled into Pigeon Forge to make iron from the local ore for the first time since 1860. My partners were Dr. Jesus Hernandez, Mark Green, Dennis McAdams, and Christopher Price, all of whom are experienced in making iron. We set up the furnace, a 10-inch bore stack of clay 48 inches tall atop a brick plinth that evening and prepared for our smelt the following day.

The theory of making iron is simple: Iron ore, which in this case was goethite (Fe2O3[OH]+H2O), is roasted to produce magnetite (Fe3O4). This is reduced by exposure to carbon monoxide at high temperatures. The CO strips the oxygen from the ore, leaving behind pure iron and the residue of silicates in the rock as slag. Charcoal is the fuel of choice because it burns clean and adds no unwanted elements such as sulfur or phosphorus.

Horseshoe made from the bloom.

Horseshoe made from the bloom.

The smelt itself began at 10 AM on February 22 by loading the stack with charcoal. Once it was up to temperature we began adding the crushed ore with equal weights of charcoal. One charge of each was added every ten minutes as the fuel/ore column worked its way down the stack. At 2:30 PM the furnace was ready, with a bloom of spongy iron and slag resting in the base. By this time we had quite a crowd for the extraction. This is the fun part: you open the base of the brick plinth and pull out a white-hot ball of near-molten iron, put it on a tree stump, and beat it into a solid mass with a team of guys wielding ten-pound sledge hammers before it cools off too much to work. And we had success. 54 pounds of ore and 130 pounds of charcoal produced a ball of solid iron weighing 20 pounds, the first iron made in Pigeon Forge from local ore in 154 years. Team member Christopher Price filmed the event and made a 10-minute documentary I encourage you to watch.

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 10

The Ancient Native American Blowgun in the Southeast

Tracy C. Brown
Archaeology in Tennessee Blog

The children of Middle Tennessee were introduced to the blowgun during the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, the source of their education was entertainment television. Local network affiliates in Nashville presented Saturday afternoon showings of Tarzan movies, often featuring Johnny Weissmuller in the title role. In these old movies from the 1930s and 1940s, indigenous African warriors sometimes used blowguns against their enemies, usually pith-helmeted big game hunters from London. These blowguns were hollow, cylindrical, wooden tubes with diameters like that of a Roosevelt dime and with lengths similar to that of a good-sized milkshake straw. The blowgun ammunition consisted of tiny darts tipped with fast-acting poison. For thousands of us Middle Tennessee kids, this became our mental template for all blowguns, and this template was further reinforced by their similarity to the beloved pea-shooter toys available to us in local five-and-dime stores such as Kuhn’s Variety Store.

Danny McCarter using a Cherokee Blowgun. Original image from the Cherokee Heritage Center, Tahlequah, Oklahoma (http://www.cherokeeheritage.org/attractions/blowguns/)

Dr. Prentice M. Thomas, Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee (UTK) in Knoxville, Tennessee, shattered my childhood blowgun template. Dr. Thomas was trained in Mesoamerican archaeology at Tulane University, but he was sometimes tasked with teaching an archaeology or cultural anthropology course focused on the southeastern United States. In a course entitled Indians of the Southeastern United States, Dr. Thomas informed us that the blowgun was also an ancient Native American weapon used in the Southeast and that it was still in use during the historic era. The Native American tribes that used it included the Choctaw in Mississippi, Chitimacha in Louisiana, Catawba in South Carolina, and Cherokee in North Carolina, North Georgia, and East Tennessee. However, this blowgun was very different from my mental template for such weapons.

The textbook for my course was the first edition of The Southeastern Indians by the late Dr. Charles Hudson, who was a distinguished cultural anthropologist at the University of Georgia. Based on information provided by Speck (1938:198-204), Hudson (1976:273) described the southeastern blowgun as follows:

“Boys and young men used blowguns to kill squirrels and birds and other small game. The blowgun was made of a hollowed piece of cane cut to a length of seven to nine feet. The darts they used were about 10 to 22 inches long and were round in cross section. They were made of hard wood and had several inches of thistledown or animal hair tied to one end to form an air seal in the blowgun. The Cherokees were accurate with the blowgun up to 40 or 60 feet. Their darts had sufficient velocity to penetrate the bodies of birds, but with larger game they shot for the eyes, and reportedly with good success. We have no evidence that they used any kind of poison on these darts.”

The raw material used to make these long blowguns was the tall river cane (Arundinaria gigantea) that grew along rivers and large second order streams in the southeast. During ancient times, the fletching on the tail ends of the blowgun darts was fluffy hair from the eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus) or tail fur from the eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger). Scottish thistle (Cirsium vulgare) was not available to Native Americans for dart fletching until the historic era when European immigrants introduced it to North America.

The Cherokee Heritage Center’s Danny McCarter shows us how to make a Cherokee river cane blowgun.

As a UTK archaeology student, I was totally sold on the atlatl and bow and arrow as highly efficient and deadly Native American weapons. The blowgun still aroused a bit of negative suspicion in my mind until one fateful day in the middle 1970s. It was about 2:00 p.m. on a weekday, and several of us students were processing prehistoric artifacts in the Normandy Archaeology Laboratory. Suddenly, three jovial graduate students entered with a homemade southeastern blowgun. Lacking natural materials such as river cane and ironwood splinters, they had fashioned a classic Native American blowgun and dart from more readily available materials. The long blowgun barrel appeared to be made of metal (electrical conduit pipe), and it had been fitted with a carved wooden mouthpiece. A dart had been fashioned by filing down a long nail or gutter spike and applying fletching.

Everyone in the laboratory was amazed at this makeshift bit of experimental archaeology, which was obviously based on some deep research into Native American blowguns. Then a laboratory worker asked the most salient question: “Does it work?” I doubted it because the sharpened metal dart looked way too heavy to be propelled by a puff of breath from a person’s mouth. Everyone in the room spread out as a graduate student dropped his metal dart into the blowgun, backed up against a wall, took a deep breath, and fired the dart. It left the muzzle with such high velocity that it could barely be seen during its short flight, and it imbedded with a loud “thud” into the plywood panel of a closet door. I rushed over to closely examine the embedded dart. My eyes crossed in amazement! It had penetrated nearly all the way through the 0.25-inch plywood panel. Clearly, a lighter wooden dart would have traveled much farther and with greater velocity. From that moment forward, I realized that the ancient Native American blowgun of the southeast was a powerful, very dangerous, and highly efficient weapon.

The old Normandy Archaeology Laboratory in South Stadium Hall at UTK is the same room as the current Historical Archaeology Laboratory established by Dr. Charles Faulkner and now operated by Dr. Barbara Heath. If you ever drop by her laboratory, you might examine the center portions of the top plywood panels in the closet doors. The small hole left by the experimental blowgun dart may still be there after all these years.