Hiwassee Island Revisited: Using Non-Invasive Technology to Evaluate Archaeological Sites on TVA Land

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 28

Erin Pritchard 
Tennessee Valley Authority

 As a federal agency, the Tennessee Valley Authority is responsible for the identification and evaluation of archaeological sites on its managed lands under the National Historic Preservation Act. Over the last several decades the agency has surveyed many thousands of acres of land and identified over 11,500 sites on its property. A majority of the public land managed by TVA is located along the Tennessee River and its tributaries where people have been settling for thousands of years. The task of completing TVA’s inventory while simultaneously evaluating and ensuring the protection of these many thousands of sites has been incredibly challenging.


Shawn Patch (New South Associates) talks to Emman Spain (Thlopthlocco Tribal Town) and Pat Ezzell (TVA Historian and Tribal Liaison) about ground penetrating radar.

With the significant depth of archaeological deposits along the Tennessee river (sites documented as deep as 12-15 feet below the surface), traditional survey methods are not typically effective for full identification of both horizontal and vertical sites. Coupled with that are ever-expanding problems with curation of archaeological collections. Repositories are running low on space, and federal agencies are struggling to pay for long term curation costs and material continues to come in. Agencies such as TVA must find more innovative and efficient ways to address these federal obligations.

Toward that goal, TVA has been exploring new technology to document archaeological sites. In the last few years, the agency has experimented with non-invasive geophysical techniques to survey TVA parcels. This methodology has proven to be most effective in the reexamination of previously recorded sites with limited known archaeological information, some not having been thoroughly examined since the 1930s and 40s when they were first discovered. A most recent example of these investigations was done at Hiwassee Island.

Hiwassee Island, located at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers in Meigs County, Tennessee, was initially visited as early as 1885 with numerous excavations over the next century including work by John W. Emmert (1885), Clarence B. Moore (1913-1914) and Mark Harrington (1919). These early explorations identified as many as 24 mounds on the island. Most of these earlier excavations focused on the conical mounds now known as Hamilton burial mounds.

WPA/TVA Archaeology Photographs, 1930's - 1940's

WPA workers at Hiwassee Island (Photo courtesy of McClung Museum of Natural and Cultural History)

The largest excavation conducted at Hiwassee Island occurred in the late 1930s when the University of Tennessee investigated the site prior to the inundation of Chickamauga Reservoir. Labor for this effort was provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The focus of the excavation was on the Mississippian Village located on the north end of the island. Among the findings was a central plaza, palisade/stockade and large platform mound. Information collected from these investigations provided one of the first regional chronologies in the Southeast and the fieldwork and most importantly the resulting report was touted by numerous professionals in the field as being innovative for its time.

WPA/TVA Archaeology Photographs, 1930s-1940s

WPA Excavations of large platform mound on Hiwassee Island (Photo courtesy of McClung Museum of Natural and Cultural History)

Since the 1930s several small scale surveys and excavations have been conducted at the site. A reconnaissance survey in 1987 re-examined previously identified features, such as shell middens and mounds, still remaining on the island. An archaeological field school conducted between 1997-1999 assessed the extent of intact deposits along the shoreline as justification for stabilization to protect eroding features. While both of these efforts provided data to indicate the potential for remaining significant archaeological deposits, no comprehensive assessment of the island was made until 2015.


Marianne Shuler (TVA Archaeologist) learns how to use the gradiometer

In 2015 TVA hired New South Associates to conduct a geophysical survey of the island to provide comprehensive data on the extent and nature of archaeological deposits to help support its nomination for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and provide TVA with information to better manage the resource. Under the direction of Shawn Patch and Sarah Lowry, New South Associates conducted an initial magnetic gradiometery survey across the island and a ground penetrating radar survey in areas where the magnetometer identified potential archaeological features. In addition, conductivity and magnetic susceptibility data were collected by Eileen Ernenwein from East Tennessee State University. The fieldwork also included a week of training for TVA and other regional archaeologists and Federally recognized Indian tribal representatives to learn more about how this new technology works.

Geophysical results clearly indicate the island retains significant archaeological deposits. A total of 649 anomalies believed to be cultural features were identified in either the GPR or gradiometer data. These include middens (39), structures (129), pit features (356), palisades or portions of palisades (26) and historic homesteads (13). While resources were identified across the island (both prehistoric and historic), data collected from the previously identified Mississippian component on the island was included some of the more exciting finds associated with the project.


GPR and gradiometer data results from Mississippian Village

As expected, the Mississippian village area of the island contained the highest density of archaeological features which included burned houses, middens, pit features and evidence of palisades. More specifically, results indicate that at least seven palisades once stood around the Mississippian town. One of these clearly defined palisade wall features includes what appear to be bastions. Excavations conducted during the WPA period identified at least one palisade, but now it appears that the Mississippian village expanded and/or contracted numerous times throughout its occupation. The time frame for these additional palisades cannot be determined through geophysical testing, so more testing is needed to establish a chronology.


Interpretive results of Mississippian village.

Geophysical survey of Hiwassee island proved to be a successful method for providing TVA with the information needed to justify the site’s inclusion in the NRHP. In fact, the State Review Board of the Tennessee Historical Commission unanimously accepted Hiwassee Island as eligible for listing in the NRHP on September 14th. TVA hopes to see the site officially listed by the end of 2016!

More importantly, the work that has been conducted through these non-invasive methods has provided the agency with data that will help them manage archaeological sites on its land more effectively in the future. This methodology will allow the agency to evaluate and protect these resources without having to face large amounts of new archaeological collections or impact sensitive features such as burials. Once a site is excavated it is gone forever. Non-invasive technology allows archaeologists to collect sufficient data to limit our need for extensive excavations, so we are doing archaeology smarter and protecting these resources for many generations to come.


Reflecting on ANCESTORS: Post Exhibition Discoveries and Future Research Directions

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 23

Kevin E. Smith 
Middle Tennessee State University 

About a decade ago, James Miller and I were struggling to complete revisions for Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region (University of Alabama Press, 2009). Reaching a stopping point on a project that clearly isn’t over can be quite a challenge—but those “exclamation points” are necessary times when we focus down on where we are and, perhaps even more importantly, determine what profitable places we might go next. The temporary exhibition ANCESTORS: Ancient Native American Sculptures of Tennessee at the Tennessee State Museum (October 30, 2015-May 15, 2016) provided an opportunity for another exclamation point in the on-going story of the “Ancestors.” When I accepted the challenge in 2013 from several patrons to “bring them home to Tennessee so people can actually see them,” I did so with the notion that this would not just be a “show-and-tell” of the sculptures. I also envisioned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to facilitate new research and new conversations that would expand our understanding and appreciation of these rare (and even unique) creations. Many friends and colleagues took up the challenge of that opportunity to collaborate during—and now after—the exhibition. So, what have we learned and where are we going next?


Four statuary pairs reunited during the exhibition. Upper left: Sellars Farm pair, Male (McClung 1940.1.1) and Female (Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.). Upper right: Riddleton pair, Male (Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.) and Female (National Museum of Natural History A334009). Lower left: Brentwood pair, Male (National Museum of the American Indian 0007277.00) and Female (Tennessee State Museum 82.100.1091). Lower right: Beasley Mounds pair, Male (National Museum of Natural History A334008) and Female (National Museum of Natural History A334011).

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then seeing the objects in person must be worth at least 100,000 words. For the first time, we brought together in the same room four male–female pairs—each pair believed to have been sculpted by a different person or workshop. Reuniting these male–female pairs—and seeing them together as they have not been seen since the time of their creation—gave us the opportunity to compare details of scale, proportion, and color that are difficult to capture in photographs taken hundreds of miles apart at different times. One of the first things I noticed on Day 1 was that the males were all sculpted from stone that was very slightly lighter colored than the stone chosen for the females. We continue to ponder the potential significance of that new observation.


Left: Facial pigments on kneeling male figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.1). Right: Details of hands and “wrist knots” on female figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.2)

Other fine details emerged: several females exhibit small nodes on the wrist that link them stylistically to negative-painted female effigy bottles of the same era. A tiny handful of the statues exhibit an unusual and detailed carving of the legs and feet on the base—a critical stylistic trait probably limited to a very short time period and linking the workshops of Smith and Wilson counties in Tennessee with those of the Etowah Mounds in Georgia. This trait is also exhibited on a very small number of bottles and figurines from Tennessee—raising new things to ponder there as well. The chance to notice new details on one statue—and then immediately step across the room to see if it occurs on others (or not)—is an opportunity difficult to reproduce. Even something as seemingly simple as the locations and direction of plow damage on presumed pairs may eventually yield new insights into their burial position and relative orientation.


Details of feet and legs on bases. Left: Kneeling male figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.1). Right: Kneeling female figure, at or near Moss Mounds, Collection of John C. Waggoner Jr.

Among the scholars who joined us as collaborators were Dr. Jan Simek and Sierra Bow (University of Tennessee), who expanded their research on prehistoric pigments to include examination of the raw stone as well. Detailed examinations using portable X-ray fluorescence and reflectance spectrometry revealed that at least one of the statues had been spiffed up with modern paint by a recent owner, along with more details on the types, colors, and location of genuine prehistoric pigments. While the presence of pigments on the four statues from Sellars Farm has long been known, the exhibition enabled us to capture images of some of the most vivid depictions to date, including the yellow face mask on the male and the black painted hair on his mate.


Sierra Bow using portable X-ray fluorescence (left) and reflectance spectrometry (right) to examine pigments and raw materials of statuary.

Among the most stunning of discoveries—which occurred during the first day of exhibition installation—was that three of the statues were made of crystalline minerals, later confirmed as calcite. Although the materials from which these pieces had been carved had previously been described as marble, hard limestone, and quartzite sandstone, we now can suggest that the raw materials for these three had to come from caves. Even these preliminary results open up amazing new possibilities for understanding more about the process of creation.

During the course of putting together the corpus for the exhibition, previously unknown and apparently genuine statues made their existence known, two of which we were able to include in the exhibition. An even larger number of known but “long lost” statues reappeared, though most came to our attention too late to be included in the show, but not too late for detailed future examination and documentation. Unfortunately, our hope that “Eve,” the female from the Link Mounds in Humphreys County (missing in action since 1895), might emerge during the exhibition remained unfulfilled. However, a few tantalizing clues to the post-1895 story of this “Holy Grail” of lost statues did emerge, and so the search for her continues. Two of Thomas Jefferson’s long lost pieces recently made their way back to Monticello. And another long misplaced and very important statue from the Etowah Mounds was located recently and is now on the list for an upcoming visit.


Statue discovered during the exhibition (left, Kneeling female figure, at or near Moss Mounds, Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.) and the still missing “Eve,” Link Mounds.

And so, while ANCESTORS the exhibition served as another important “!” in the story of these amazing examples of native artisanship, it was by no means an end. We continue to study and digest the multitude of “new things” learned over the past four years, and planning continues to present a post-exhibition catalogue in the not-so-distant future outlining new conclusions and guiding us in new directions for the next exclamation point. Although most of the exhibition statues have long since made their way back to their respective curating institutions, one statuary pair remains temporarily united at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture in Knoxville. Thanks to the generosity of the private owner of the female statue from Sellars, this premier male–female pair (the male half of which is the Tennessee State Artifact) will remain together through the end of 2016. If you missed your chance to see them at the Tennessee State Museum, you can still visit them in Knoxville.

Acknowledgments: First and foremost, my thanks to James V. Miller (Independent Choctaw scholar, deceased) – my friend and co-author of Speaking with the Ancestors. The exhibition itself, of course, could not have happened without the able work of co-curators Rex Weeks (Tennessee State Museum) and Robert V. Sharp (Independent Scholar). David H. Dye’s many decades of experience photographing difficult subjects like statuary enabled him to create an enormous set of images that will fuel additional research for many years. In addition to funding, the extraordinary work of the “behind-the-scenes” museum staff in capturing a constantly changing “vision” for the exhibition in the final product was above and beyond. Finally, I thank the Mississippian sculptors who captured these truly magnificent images in stone so many centuries ago.


Archaeological Research and Protection during the Boone Reservoir Drawdown

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 22

Ted Wells
Tennessee Valley Authority

Jay Franklin
East Tennessee State University

Lauren Woelkers
East Tennessee State University

In 2014 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) discovered a sink hole near the base of Boone Dam which is located near Johnson City, Tennessee. Inspections found that flowing ground water had created and would continue to create voids beneath the dam if not repaired. So in 2016 TVA began the 5 to 7 year Boone Dam Seepage Remediation project which involves injecting grout into the voids and constructing a concrete barrier wall inside the earthen dam. As a federal agency TVA is required under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to consider how projects like this will affect archaeological sites.


Proposed Repairs for the Boone Dam Remediation Project.

TVA’s lake levels normally fluctuate throughout the year to control flooding in the valley with “summer pool” being the highest level and “winter pool” being the lowest level. For safety reasons, the repair project will require an extended drawdown which means the lake level will be held at 10 feet below “winter pool” for the project duration. Archaeological sites in the exposed lakebed will be exceptionally vulnerable to looting, erosion, and unintentional damage until vegetation reestablishes itself. Where archaeological sites are not naturally revegetating, TVA will artificially revegetate them by applying a mix of seed and fertilizer to help prevent erosion and hide archaeological sites. Fortunately, natural revegetation has happened quicker and denser than we anticipated.

It is important to recognize that lower lake levels will also negatively impact the local economy, which benefits from lake recreation. Since East Tennessee State University (ETSU) is part of the affected community and has demonstrated archaeological interest at sites in and around Boone Reservoir, the repair project inadvertently presented an opportunity to survey and research highly significant archaeological sites normally inundated by water for much of the year. ETSU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department, under the direction of Dr. Jay Franklin, will be surveying the exposed lakebed in TVA’s custody and will synthesize the results with S.D. Dean’s survey of a privately owned lakebed. S.D. and Jay have long collaborated and advanced our understanding of the region’s prehistoric record.

ETSU Monitoring Archaeological Sites within the Exposed Lakebed.

TVA has also engaged the public to help protect the archaeological sites in their community. Select members of the public are participating in TVA’s Thousand Eyes Monitoring Program along with ETSU’s Sociology and Anthropology Department to monitor the condition of archaeological sites and report damage throughout the duration of the project.

Since all instances of damage cannot reasonably be prevented, TVA will offset losses by funding ETSU graduate level research. The goal will be to analyze ETSU’s prehistoric and historic ceramic collections to help us understand the types of ceramics being used locally and when they were used.  The results of the research will be presented to the local community and at future Current Research in Tennessee Archaeology Meetings.

One of the things that first generated interest in archaeology at Boone Reservoir for those of us at ETSU (Franklin, Dean, and students) was monitoring certain sites on private property that we believed had early historic Native American pottery. The pottery bore great resemblance to Qualla Cherokee pottery from western North Carolina and also Overhill Cherokee pottery, known better from 18th century sites in southeastern Tennessee. We had some of the pottery dated by optically stimulated luminescence (OSL). OSL dating allows for direct dating of pottery instead of relying on associations with archaeological carbon. Our dates came back mid to late 15th century and early 16th century – far earlier than we expected. We began to wonder if perhaps there were earlier Overhill Cherokee towns in upper East Tennessee long before the historically well-documented Tellico towns of the 18th century. So when TVA Cultural Resources invited us to participate in survey work on Boone, we were very excited about the opportunity.

Qualla cob roughened rim pottery.

Qualla Cob Roughened Rim from the Austin Springs Site.

Thus far, we have added 96 new (previously unrecorded) sites around Boone Reservoir (65 on the Holston River and 31 on the Watauga River). The new sites range from the Paleoindian through the Mississippian/protohistoric Cherokee and early historic Euroamerican. Based on the success of our initial OSL dating results, we now consider OSL dating an integral component to our survey level investigations at Boone Reservoir – something not possible with radiocarbon dating. This gives our survey finer-grained chronological resolution.

Punctated incised Qualla rim pottery.

Punctated Incised Qualla Rim from the Austin Springs Site.

For previously recorded sites at Boone Reservoir, we also added new chronological and historical information. Three previously recorded historic sites now also have prehistoric components, while two previously recorded prehistoric sites now also have historic components. Nine previously undetermined prehistoric sites now have particular culture historical components. There are two previously indeterminate historic sites that now have specific components. Eight prehistoric sites with known components now also have additional components, and the same holds true for 13 historic sites with known components.

We have also documented dozens of raw material (chert, quartzite, etc.) outcrops around the reservoir. We can therefore potentially discuss mobility and resource extraction in the region.

In sum, our new surveys have added greater chronological resolution to the prehistory and history of Boone Reservoir. We are also addressing early Cherokee history here and with our raw material surveys, and are attempting to address patterns of settlement along the Holston and Watauga Rivers.

The Southeastern U.S. Ancient Turkey Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 16

Tanya M. Peres and Kelly L. Ledford
Florida State University 

The eastern wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) is well-known as a food and raw material resource for Pre-Columbian Native Americans. During the multi-year analysis of the animal remains excavated from the Fewkes site in Williamson County it became increasingly noticeable that some of the turkey remains from that Mississippian period mound and village were quite large compared to our modern domesticated specimens. This stood out as being unusual to us because typically domesticated animals are larger in body size than their wild counterparts. Here we were looking at 800-year old wild turkey bones that seemed to be a lot bigger than modern domesticated turkeys – including Thanksgiving turkeys donated by students to our comparative collection!


Aerial view of the Fewkes Mounds site, Williamson County.

We wanted to know if what we thought was “robust” actually was. So, we conducted a pilot study that involved taking standard measurements of all of the archaeological turkey bones we had in the collection and comparing those measurements to both modern domestic and wild turkey populations, male and female. It turns out that based on these metric data we can determine some of the turkey bones were from male turkeys and fewer from females. These data proved to be statistically significant. (Authors’ note: these data will be available in published form in our forthcoming article “Archaeological Correlates of Population Management of the Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) with a Case Study from the American South,” in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports).

Traditionally, turkeys found at archaeological sites in the Southeast are thought to be the remains of meals served and eaten long ago, with the birds having been killed in the wild by ancient hunters. We agree that many of these turkey bones are probably refuse left from ancient meals. However, based on our data and studies from other parts of the Americas, we suspect that the people at Fewkes (and other late prehistoric sites in the Southeastern US) had a relationship with turkeys that was more complex than we previously thought. It is highly likely that people were managing wild turkey populations, possibly to the point these turkeys were domesticated, or at least on the brink of it.


Drawing of Mississippian period ceramic vessel from Moundville, Alabama (from Steponaitis and Knight 2004)

The artifactual evidence from the late prehistoric Southeastern US suggests that in some cases, turkeys were part of the larger world-view and were not seen as mere food items. This is notable because out of all of the birds that lived in and migrated through the Southeast, only four are depicted on Native American with relative regularity, the turkey being one of them. A total of thirteen marine shell gorgets from three sites in East Tennessee are known that depict turkey cocks, while an effigy bowl from the Moundville site in Alabama is interpreted as depicting a turkey with snake-like attributes (Steponaitis and Knight 2004).

In her book Cherokee Folk Zoology : The Animal World of a Native American People, 1700-1838, Arlene Fradkin (1988) notes that the Cherokee sought out turkey feathers, especially those of adult males, for their iridescent bold colors. The feathers were used to make women’s short gowns, mantles, blankets, and even hair ornaments; they were also attached to the base of arrows (Fradkin 1988:269-270, Table B-1). Textiles recovered at the archaeological site of Spiro in Oklahoma were crafted from yarn spun from the down of numerous types of animals, including turkeys (Power 2004:137). Other ethnographic and ethnohistoric sources identify turkey bones as raw material for tools and jewelry. One ethnohistoric record from the Southeast notes that hundreds of turkeys were paid as tribute while in another account, turkey poults were taken home to be raised by humans. In the mid-1970s at the Mississippian period (AD 1000-1350) site of Mound Bottom (40CH8), in Middle Tennessee yielded an apparently roofless structure rectangular post structure immediately adjacent to a house, which was preliminarily interpreted as a turkey pen (TDOA n.d.). Further analysis of this assemblage and additional fieldwork at Mound Bottom may reveal additional architectural evidence for turkey population management.


Hixon Style marine shell gorget with turkey cock motif, ca. AD 1200-1350 , East Tennessee.

While we can tease out the cultural importance of turkeys in the lives of Pre-Columbian Native Americans in the Southeastern US via the ethnographic and ethnohistoric chronicles and through objects made and used by Native Americans, it is the study of the bird bones themselves that will ultimately allow us to understand the interactions between humans and turkeys. Moving forward, there are a few avenues of research that we plan to pursue. The first is to crowdsource information on ancient turkeys from other sites around the Southeastern US through an online database. This will expand our dataset and make it accessible to other researchers. We are also interested in the chemical make-up of the turkey bones to determine what they were eating (i.e., wild locally available foods vs. foods found in Native American gardens). In addition, DNA analysis of the ancient turkeys in our study area is already underway, and will allow us to unequivocally determine the sex of the specimens we were unable to measure or that we could not confidently identify. Overall, through all of these avenues we hope to successfully demonstrate the complexity of human-animal relationships in prehistoric Tennessee and in the Southeast.

Snake Monster Gorgets of the Southern Appalachians

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 27

Mark M. Crawford III
Williamson County Archaeological Society

Snake Monster, Brakebill South variety. Picture courtesy of Jon Muller.

Snake Monster, Brakebill South variety. Picture courtesy of Jon Muller.

Archaeological research is entering a golden age and it’s not because archaeologists are digging. As most of you probably know, excavation in a prehistoric or historic site is a destructive process. Once the site has been excavated, it is gone forever. Thus, non-destructive techniques are the preferred method as researchers attempt to glean new insights into the past. One exciting and fun aspect of modern archaeology is re-examining older collections of artifacts with more modern techniques and technology. This process generates new data and, often, new insights. When you add the fact that museums are increasingly providing free online pictures of their collections, it becomes possible for the modern researcher to assemble a modest data set of any particular artifact genre of his/her choice and examine them for patterns without ever disturbing the remaining precious time capsules of our collective past. In this post I discuss my examination of the iconography of over 340 examples of “rattlesnake” gorgets and what they can tell us about the differing, regionally sensitive ways Native Americans visualized a fascinating animal, the snake, during the 15th, 16th , and 17th centuries in the prehistoric East Tennessee region of the Southern Appalachians.

Snake Monster field illustration. Drawing by Mark M. Crawford III.

Snake Monster field illustration. Drawing by Mark M. Crawford III.

We’ll start off with a little background first. The subject of my undergraduate thesis research at Middle Tennessee State University in 2012-2013 was the iconographic analysis of complex images of snake monsters engraved on marine shell, created during the late prehistoric and proto historic time periods of the southeast (AD 1400-1650) They are known popularly as “rattlesnake” gorgets, but are perhaps more accurately viewed as “snake monsters” because with their human-looking teeth and odd whisker-like appendages, they appear to be something more than a simple depiction of a rattlesnake. These artifacts are part of a tradition of engraved shell gorget manufacture that numbered in the thousands during the Mississippian era of the southeast (AD 900-1540). Snake monsters were only one type of engraved gorget. Artisans engraved incredible depictions of humans, humans with animal features, birds, spiders, and abstract designs (such as the triskeles of the Nashville area) on their concave or convex surfaces.

The two geographic concentrations of the Brakebill variety of Snake Monster. Illlustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

The two geographic concentrations of the Brakebill variety of Snake Monster. Illlustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

These engraved circular pieces of cut shell were most likely suspended below the neck on a string that passed through two holes drilled in the top of the gorget. Some researchers have suggested these designs were engraved only on a particular marine shell species native to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, known as the Left-Handed Lightning Whelk. These whelks were probably traded whole to the inland regions of Tennessee, where the gorget then was cut out of the whelk and engraved. Astonishingly, these whelks traveled by land over 300 miles from their native habitats before they were engraved! There are at least five different variations of snake monster recognized by Jeffrey P. Brain and Phillip Phillips in their work Shell Gorgets: Styles of the Late Prehistoric and Protohistoric Southeast. They built these catagories based on Jon Muller’s earlier 1966 Ph.D. dissertation that defined three varieties. Phillips and Brain’s list included the Lick Creek, Brakebill, Saltville, Carters Creek, and Citico types. All variations feature the “head” of the snake visualized in profile view (from the side) with the body of the snake curling around the “eye” and “teeth” in a naturalistic coil, most profiles faced to the right , and engravings were always on the concave side. This tradition of carving snake monsters on shell lasted over two hundred years (AD 1400-1600+).

Chronology model for snake monster gorgets. Illustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

Chronology model for snake monster gorgets. Illustration by Mark M. Crawford III.

In its simplest form, Iconography is the study of visual elements that combine to make a design. Examining the snake monster gorgets iconographically required the division of the complex image into separate fields. Once isolated, the elements were examined in space and time and patterns emerged. One such pattern was the differing geographical concentrations of design elements. These regions used different combinations of elements to complete a similar image of a snake monster. For instance, based on these differences, the Brakebill variation appeared to have two sub variations. As shown in the map above, one combination of element usage was concentrated southeast of the Knoxville area and another concentration of element usage was located in Northern Georgia. Based on the iconographic analysis, the southern Brakebill variety appeared to be much more closely related to the Citico/Carters Quarter variety then its northern sibling. This data suggested that there were separate, regionally appropriate design elements used to refer to the snake monster theme. Another pattern to emerge was based on accepted date ranges for sites where snake monster gorgets were found. My analysis revealed that certain elements occurred earlier in the archaeological record while others appeared later.

Recognizing these patterns allowed former chronologies developed for snake monster gorgets in the 1960’s by Muller and the 1990’s by Brain and Phillips to be tested and refined. Based on my analysis I was able to corroborate Muller’s assertion of a late prehistoric emergence and reject Phillips and Brain’s later proto-historically centered time frame. Chronologically and geographically, the Lick Creek variety appears first around AD 1400 at the site of Toqua on the Little Tennessee River in Monroe County, TN. The two Brakebill varieties and the Saltville category all developed around AD 1450. The Brakebill North variety first emerged near the Lick Creek site, northeast of Knoxville, while the Brakebill South variety appeared in northern Georgia, and the Saltville type was made near Saltville, West Virginia. Ultimately, these styles were followed by the popular and similar varieties of Citico/Carters Quarter. Both of these appeared simultaneously as early as the late fifteenth century AD in the Chattanooga area (including the David Davis site), and circulated until the late seventeenth century AD.

For further reading and more pictures of the snake monster gorgets, check out my thesis research via Academia.edu.

Exploring Agricultural Lands and Crop Failure around Mississippian Period Sites in Middle Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 25

Andrew Gillreath-Brown
University of North Texas

Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of two subbasins - the Harpeth and the Lower-Cumberland – in Middle Tennessee with three archaeological sites – Mound Bottom, White’s Creek, and Kellytown. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of the Harpeth and the Lower-Cumberland subbasins in Middle Tennessee with three archaeological sites – Mound Bottom, White’s Creek, and Kellytown. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

The Mississippian Period has long been seen as a time of extreme and rapid change, from intensive agriculture to the growth of large population centers and then ultimately to the collapse of the Mississippian polities in the Southeast. The collapse around AD 1500 to AD 1700 represents a complex synergy of causal processes, such as environmental degradation, conflict, drought induced water and food resource stress, and of course European contact. People react to environmental change in many different ways. These reactions do not happen on a global scale, but rather on a level where people are living their daily lives.

To examine these decisions requires a closer look at the changes in agriculture over time, especially as related to drought. One way to do this is to determine the amount of moisture that was available to crops, then determine whether crops may have failed within a given year, or at least to what degree they may have failed. Examining locations of agricultural lands near villages and the amount of potentially productive land can provide valuable information on the local environment and to the Mississippian people’s subsistence. Studying soil moisture and crop failure can complement the field of paleoethnobotany, which we saw on Day 11. My ongoing research focuses on several major sites around Nashville in two watershed subbasins – the Harpeth and the Lower-Cumberland. However, for today, I want to focus on the Mississipppian site of Mound Bottom, located just to the west of Nashville and by the Harpeth River.

Aerial photo of Mound Bottom from 1972 (image courtesy of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology)

Aerial photo of Mound Bottom from 1972 (image courtesy of the Tennessee Division of Archaeology)

The amount of crops that fail within a year can a have tremendous impact on a village’s decisions of whether to stay or migrate elsewhere, or in further developing and refining food storage/preservation techniques or trade decisions. Some scholars have examined changes in climate and crop production during the Mississippian time period (see Anderson 1996, 2001). The changes in crop production seem to coincide with large societal shifts, such as with shifts to larger aggregated and fortified villages.

An example of precipitation variability in the Southeast (i.e., North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) that was derived from tree-ring data, showing the mean with the dotted line and the shaded area showing the standard deviation (Stahle and Cleveland 1992; see additional information below).

An example of precipitation variability in the Southeast (i.e., North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia) that was derived from tree-ring data, showing the mean with the dotted line and the shaded area showing the standard deviation (Stahle and Cleveland 1992; see additional information below).

During the Mississippian period, there was significant annual and intra-annual variability in precipitation, which may have had a major impact on agricultural productivity (Aharon et al. 2012; Anderson 1996, 2001; Anderson et al. 1995; Stahle and Cleveland 1992). If precipitation is significantly high, soil can become saturated; if significantly low, crops will reach wilting point. Both scenarios result in crop failure. Using hydrological modeling, or examining the science behind water available to crops, we examine changes in the spatial and temporal distribution of soil moisture around sites to evaluate the impact of fluctuating precipitation amounts on agricultural potential. To assess the impacts of climate on food resources, I am evaluating water conditions across the landscape to identify areas that were not suitable for crops during drought conditions, and therefore would have impacted food production. Soil moisture is the amount of water present within a defined space, like a soil column. It is essentially the inputs, like precipitation, minus the outputs, like evaporation, or water running off the surface.

The angles (degrees) of hillslopes in the area of Mound Bottom. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

The angles (degrees) of hillslopes in the area of Mound Bottom. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

To determine moisture conditions that may have been available to crops, we take into account four different variables including soils, topography, vegetation, and climate (annual precipitation and temperature). To determine annual precipitation and temperature, we use data from tree-rings that was collected and analyzed by dendrochronologists, or someone who studies tree-rings. By focusing on crop failure, we will be able to tell whether declines in agricultural productivity were due to a loss of plants or a decrease in the overall production of individual maize stalks. This allows us to determine whether certain areas within a watershed, surrounding major human population centers, were more or less susceptible to crop failure and how that relates to population movements. Let’s look at the area surrounding Mound Bottom.

Northern and southern aspects shown with aerial imagery. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

Northern and southern aspects surrounding Mound Bottom shown with aerial imagery. Map created by Andrew Gillreath-Brown.

Soils can affect these inputs and outputs because differing size sediments affect how long water remains in a particular place. For example, in a sandy soil, water will quickly drain, thus it is not available very long for crops. In addition, we must also consider slope and topography. The angle of a slope can also highly affect outputs, since a steeper slope would cause water to move more quickly downhill, thus, a flat area would be better for soil moisture. Aspect – or the direction that a slope faces – can also affect evaporation and transpiration, thus moisture retention. Solar radiation is more intense with a southern facing slope, thus less moisture is retained. In the figure to the left, you can see the places that will have the most evaporation in red, thus less moisture. If you have a really dry year or several dry years, then the red areas are not going to be very good for having water available to crops. However, if you have a really wet year or several wet years, then the blue areas may end up having too much water for crops.

One drought period recorded by Meeks and Anderson (2013) occurred around AD 1288 to AD 1308. Before this period, the Middle Cumberland area had a period of large mound building – including Mound Bottom – in addition to many scattered smaller villages. However, around the AD 1250s, settlements shifted from smaller spread out villages, to larger aggregated villages with larger and more intensive fortifications. People began abandoning the lower and central portions of the Harpeth subbasin, and moved to the south to places such as Fewkes Site in Williamson County.

This project is in its early stages but it will be able to reveal new insights into the impacts of drought on the prehistoric peoples’ farmlands, and whether it was a major contributing factor to societal shifts in the Mississippian society of Middle Tennessee.

References Cited

Aharon, Paul, David Aldridge, and John Hellstrom. 2012. Rainfall Variability and the Rise and Collapse of the Mississippian Chiefdoms: Evidence from a DeSoto Caverns Stalagmite. Climates, Landscapes, and Civilizations 198:35-42.

Anderson, David G. 1996. Chiefly Cycling and Large-Scale Abandonments as Viewed from the Savannah River Basin. In Political Structure and Change in the Prehistoric Southeastern United States, edited by John F. Scarry, pp. 150-191. University of Florida Press, Florida.

Anderson, David G. 2001. Climate and Culture Change in Prehistoric and Early Historic Eastern North America. Archaeology of Eastern North America 29:143-186.

Anderson, David G., David W. Stahle, and Malcolm K. Cleaveland. 1995. Paleoclimate and the Potential Food Reserves of Mississippian Societies: A Case Study from the Savannah River Valley. American Antiquity 60(2):258-286.

Meeks, Scott C., and David G. Anderson. 2013. Drought, Subsistence Stress, and Population Dynamics. In Soils, Climate and Society: Archaeological Investigations in Ancient America, eds. John D. Wingard, and Sue E. Hayes, pp. 61-83. University Press of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado.

David W. Stahle and Malcolm K. Cleaveland. 1992. Reconstruction and Analysis of Spring Rainfall over the Southeastern U.S. for the Past 1000 Years. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 73(12), 1947-1961. doi: 10.1175/1520-0477(1992)073<1947:RAAOSR>2.0.CO;2. Available at: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo/f?p=519:1:0::::P1_STUDY_ID:16458. Accessed on August 31, 2015.

The 2015 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month Poster:  Celebrating the Tennessee State Artifact

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 9

Tanya M. Peres, PhD, RPA
President, Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

On behalf of the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology, I am thrilled to unveil the 2015 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster, featuring our State Artifact!

The 2015 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster.

The 2015 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster.

Tennessee’s State Artifact was created sometime between AD 1250 and 1350 by a Native American artist in Middle Tennessee. This siltstone statue, and others like it, were kept in temples or shrines located in large villages and were important aspects of religious life and ritual activity during the Mississippian Perod. Nearly 800 years later in 2014, this particular statue, colloquially referred to as “Sandy,” was designated as the Tennessee State Artifact via TCPA-sponsored legislation. This statue is considered to be the finest known example of Tennessee-Cumberland style stone statuary, of which a total of 42 statues have been identified.* This group of statues are found almost exclusively in the Cumberland River Valley of Middle Tennessee and and western Kentucky.

The postcard version of the 2015 TAAM poster.

The postcard version of the 2015 TAAM poster.

“Sandy” has an impressive vitae of honors, including being the only piece of preColumbian Native American art featured in the 10-stamp “Art of the American Indian” US Postal Service series in 2004, and in the upcoming exhibition “Ancestors: Ancient Native American Sculptures of Tennessee” which runs from October 30, 2015 through May 15, 2016 at the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.  His permanent home is at the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. You can read more about the life history of the statue and the process of designating the statue as the state artifact here.

This year, we honor our Tennessee State Artifact on the Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month poster and postcard as a way to raise awareness of the native artists that resided in Tennessee for milennia before the arrival of Europeans. If you are interested in obtaining your FREE copy of the poster or postcard, please fill out the request form below, and allow up to 4 weeks for shipping and handling.


The Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month posters and postcards are a joint effort by the TCPA and Middle Tennessee State University. Funding for the posters and postcards, including shipping postage, is covered by a grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission** made to TCPA President Tanya Peres (Florida State University), TCPA Board Member Shannon Hodge (Middle Tennessee State University) and Noel Lorson (Middle Tennessee State University). Design work is courtesy of Noel Lorson, Associate Professor of Graphic Design, Department of Art, Middle Tennessee State University. The photograph of the state artifact is courtesy of Dr. David Dye, Associate Professor of Archaeology, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Memphis.

* To learn more abut this artifact and Tennessee-Cumberland statuary, please check out the fantastic 2009 volume Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee, by Kevin Smith and James Miller.