The Elusive Beakers of Western Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2018, Bonus Blog!

Melinda A. Martin
University of Memphis

During an excavation in 2008, in northeastern Arkansas, a beaker rim sherd and handle was located on the last day of excavations at the bottom of the unit. This find contributes a sample of an Early Mississippian, Cherry Valley phase beaker (A.D 1050-1200), to a small corpus of known beaker sites in eastern Arkansas.


Figure 1. Mound Place Incised Beaker from the Knappenberger site in northeast Arkansas (Photo courtesy of Melinda A. Martin).

Due to the rarity of beakers in northeast Arkansas, I developed an avid interest in the function of these vessels and why only a few pre-Columbian sites contained them.  This interest carried over into my current graduate thesis research, which focuses on an iconographic analysis of Early Mississippian beakers and an organic residue analysis of the contents. My first step, was to establish a corpus of known beaker sites, along with accumulating whole vessels, and sherds for comparison.


Figure 2. Establishing a corpus. (Photo courtesy of Melinda A. Martin).

This warranted a trip to multiple institutions, such as the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the beakers were photographed and sampled for residue.  The project continued to grow when I was introduced to a collector who possessed beakers from Arkansas and Illinois. Word soon spread and within a month my corpus had grown from thirteen beakers to over fifty. Other museums were contacted in Illinois, such as the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in Champaign and the Dickson Mounds State Museum in Lewiston, which resulted in an additional 100 beaker fragments and whole vessels. While this sample size is larger than I had anticipated, a question still remains. Where are the beakers of western Tennessee? Beakers have been identified in eastern Arkansas, central and southern Illinois, and southeast Missouri. However, the only beakers I am aware of from western Tennessee occur at the Obion site.


Figure 3. A map featuring the Obion site in western Tennessee and the Cherry Valley site in eastern Arkansas (Garland 1992: 129).

The Obion site, located in northwest Tennessee, contained 8 beakers, which shared characteristics to beakers at the Cherry Valley site in eastern Arkansas. However, the Obion beakers show additional similarities to those from Cahokia, especially handle fist effigies. While handles in the form of forearms and hands are infrequent, isolated body parts are recurrent in Mississippian ceramic art.  Fist representational art may infuse the vessel with strength or power, transforming the contents from ordinary liquids to sacred medicines, such as black drink, to perform functions such as purification.  Fist effigies have also been located at the Beckwith Fort Site, Towosahgy, in southeast Missouri.


Figure 4. Beaker displaying a fist effigy handle from the Horseshoe Lake site in Illinois (Photo courtesy of David Dye) Private Collection.

So what does all of this mean? Why is there an absence of known beaker sites in western Tennessee and why is a fist effigy, frequently found at central and southern Illinois sites, located in this area? The mysterious vacant area of beakers could be explained by several explanations. One is that beakers are minimally represented due to ritual sodalities in the area choosing ceremonial paraphernalia not associated with black drink, or utilizing a different vessel form for distribution and consumption. While ethnohistoric accounts correlate the consumption of black drink with shell cups, the absence of shell artifacts in this area leaves that explanation questionable. Another argument could be the lack of Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) in western Tennessee and a disruption in exchange, which would inhibit the ability to obtain the ingredients for black drink. Finally, a deficiency in archaeological research concerning the western portion of the state could limit the awareness of beaker sites. Future explorations of this area has the ability to supplement our knowledge of patterning concerning sites possessing beakers.


The Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 27

Jacob Lulewicz
Washington University in St. Louis

How were Southern Appalachian social networks reorganized in the context of shifting sociopolitical landscapes? How did social networks serve to mediate episodes of heightened social, political, and economic uncertainty? The Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project seeks to address these questions through the reconstruction of a 1,000-year history of social networks across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia (Figure 1) between roughly AD 600 and 1600.


Figure 1. Location of the Southern Appalachian project area.

Two major junctures in the social histories of Southern Appalachia occurred between roughly AD 600 and 1600. One ca. AD 1150 and once ca. AD 1325. The first of these major transitions, at ca. AD 1150, was characterized by the classic markers of “Mississippianization” including the emergence of hierarchical political systems, institutionalized inequality, new religious practices, and an intensified agricultural economy. This is also the point at which Etowah emerges as a major socio-religious center for the Southern Appalachian region. The second of these transitions, ca. AD 1325, is characterized by the collapse of Etowah as a major center, the reorganization of communities across the region, and the influx of non-local peoples from middle Tennessee into eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.

Using a database of over 350,000 ceramic sherds from roughly 100 sites across the region (Figure 2), social networks were constructed to evaluate how regional relationship were reorganized across each of these transitions. Two kinds of social networks were built: one set of networks based on tempering practices and one set of networks based on surface decoration. Tempering practices likely reflect potting communities within which technological information is passed between potters. Surface decorations (complicated stamped, cordmarked, painted, etc…) represent social signals, the use of which do not have to be learned through processes of teaching and learning like the use of different technologies (e.g., temper choice). In this case, networks based on temper use are akin to the kinds of interpersonal networks within which we might pass down a particular biscuit recipe, where face-to-face teaching, learning, and information exchange must take place. Networks based on surface decorations however are akin to networks within which members may all have a particular political bumper sticker on their car. In this case, members need not interact with one another or maintain personal relationships.


Figure 2. Location of archaeological sites used in this study.

Networks based on temper (Figure 3) are highly correlated with geography. That is, those potters living closer to one another are practicing similar forms of pottery manufacture, with little crossover between populations living in Tennessee and Georgia. We see this pattern repeated over the entire 1,000-year period, signaling the continued resilience of such relationships as kinship, marriage practices, and residence patterns even across the critical points of transition. Given that pottery production was likely undertaken primarily by women, what is indicated is the enduring foundation of women’s social and political networks across the region. In evaluating these networks, it is clear that Etowah is one of the only sites in the network with substantial ties that cross-cut these separate communities of potters, with many ties between Etowah and communities in Tennessee. Such access to social capital from across both northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee likely contributed to Etowah’s rise as a major political center.


Figure 3. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on temper data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of tempering practices between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of tempering agents in their respective ceramic assemblages.

Unlike networks based on temper, those based on highly-visible signals adorning the exteriors of pottery display a completely different patterns of regional relationships (Figure 4). While few interpersonal relationships existed between societies inhabiting northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee, there seems to have been region-wide participation in practices and relationships driving the choice of surface decoration. No clear sub-groups based on geographic proximity exist. Rather, networks are open, with few communities occupying central locations in the networks. These open networks, which also seem to remain stable between AD 600 and 1600, likely reflect a combination of a macroregionally shared clan system and/or shared religious practices and ideology that serves as a context for continued interaction between northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee communities. Whatever the case, the sociopolitical landscape of Southern Appalachia was clearly defined by multiple, cross-cutting sets of social, political, and economic relationships that were fundamentally stable across major periods of socio-political reorganization.


Figure 4. Networks for three time periods between AD 800 and 1600 based on surface decoration data from 350,000 ceramic sherds. Red nodes are sites located in northern Georgia. Green nodes are sites located in eastern Tennessee. Ties between nodes were determined based on statistical similarity of surface decorations between each pair of sites. The structure of the networks, the arrangements of nodes and ties, are based on these similarity values, not on geography. The closer two nodes are to one another, the more similar the distribution of surface decorations in their respective ceramic assemblages.

While sociopolitical entities like chiefdoms are often characterized as fleeting, unstable strategies of political organization, what is clearly highlighted here is that the relationships underlying these political systems were some of the most enduring features of Southern Appalachian societies. While specific leaders, lineages, families, and strategies may have come in and out of control every 100 years or so, the relationships and connections between non-elites were incredibly resilient in the face of social, political, and economic transformation, reorganization, and collapse.

Phase II of the Southern Appalachian Network Histories Project will focus more closely on the post-Etowah (post AD 1325) landscape, a period marked by the collapse of a major political center and the influx of non-local migrants into the region. These migrants into Southern Appalachian from the middle Tennessee region seem to have been pushed out of these areas by migrants from further west who were suffering at the hands of a major drought. In addressing processes of immigration into the Southern Appalachian region, Phase II of the project is driven by the following questions: How do interregional social networks structure immigration events? And how are community-scale institutions reorganized to mediate the influx and introduction of non-local people into existing communities? These questions will be addressed by extending the project boundaries to include the middle Tennessee region and through close analysis and reanalysis of changes to the organization of specific communities across eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia.




Astragalus Dice Games

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 25

David Dye
University of Tennessee, Memphis

Over the past several years, I have been accumulating data on a bone artifact that I think may have been used as ancient dice. These bone dice were crafted from the astragalus or knuckle bones of bison, deer, and elk , with sides being ground into straight-sided cubes; it is unknown whether they were painted with designs of not.

Dice games were once widespread throughout Native American communities of North America, being played by men and women, not only for recreation, but also as important components of ritual practice. In Tennessee, the use of astragalus dice dates between approximately A.D. 1350 and 1450 during the Mississippian period in the Middle Cumberland Valley.

Historic accounts of eastern North American populations suggest dice gaming was associated with men and women in distinct, yet complementary, forms, with each gender having specific ceramics, deities, and rituals. Women were associated with female effigies, which represented guardian spirits that were venerated. In this sense, women appear to have employed effigy bottles as an essential part of rituals, which also included dice gaming to honor their individual guardian spirits. Women’s guardian spirits, when honored through dice gaming rituals, provided health and longevity.

Men interred with astragalus dice may have engaged in high-stakes gaming to emulate the activities of culture heroes, such as Morning Star, Red Horn, Storms-as-He-Walks, Turtle, and the Hero Twins. The mortal combat of these culture heroes with powerful antagonists, especially cannibals, giants, and monsters during the “dawn time,” often entailed trophy-taking, especially heads and scalps.

While astragalus dice frequently accompany adults in mortuary contexts, the majority are found with subadults. The presence of astragalus dice in children’s graves alerts us to the possibility of ritual practice, rather than children’s games. Children, as members of ritual societies, would have been buried with dice as a form of supplication or veneration of ancestors, deities, and guardian spirits. The emphasis on rebirth and reincarnation through dice games were primarily ritual acts that brought children, deities, and humans into a covenant of guardianship and sponsorship.

Through much of North America, dice games in general lost their ritual significance and were gradually diminished among many indigenous groups due to government and missionary prohibitions against gaming and gambling. Nonetheless, ritual dice games are still enjoyed by some native people, including the Oklahoma Seneca-Cayuga, who play the seed dice game during their annual Green Corn ceremony.

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.