30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 7
Tennessee Division of Archaeology
Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area is a Mississippian mound center along the Harpeth River in Cheatham County, Tennessee. The central portion of the site consists of 12 earthen mounds, and a 7-acre plaza which is surrounded by houses, cemeteries, and activity areas. Mound Bottom and the adjacent, contemporaneous Pack Site have been collectively referred to as the “Great Mound Group,” and are the largest grouping of ancient Native American mounds in Tennessee. The site was featured on the 2014 Archaeology Awareness Month poster, and during the inaugural “30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology” blogfest I contributed a short history and description of Mound Bottom. This year I follow up that initial post with a description of recent archaeological and preservation efforts at the site.
In 2016, TDOA Archaeologists relaunched active research at Mound Bottom through a collaborative effort with Tennessee State Parks and the Tennessee Division of Natural Areas. That research used moderate resolution light imaging, detection, and ranging (LiDAR) data, along with magnetometer data collected by David Dye (University of Memphis), Chet Walker (Archaeo-Geophysical Associates), and Bill Lawrence (TDOA), to identify a series of potential above- and below-ground features throughout the site area. Ultimately our analysis confirmed the presence of several extant mounds situated outside of the main site core, and also demonstrated that two previously-recorded mounds (Mounds M and N) did not exist, and were likely the result of historical mapping errors.
Some of the most intriguing features identified in the remote sensing data were a grid of raised earthen berms spread across the site core. For nearly two centuries, conventional wisdom has been that both Mound Bottom and the Pack site were surrounded by defensive palisades, although no direct evidence of such a feature has been discovered at Mound Bottom to date. In the 1970s, investigators noted intersecting, low embankments enclosing the eastern end of the plaza at Mound Bottom. These features, which they identified as an “inner palisade,” match portions of the raised berms we saw in LiDAR data. TDOA archaeologists and volunteers conducted ground truthing excavations on several of the earthen berms during the summer of 2016. Ultimately through the collection of artifacts, radiocarbon samples, and analysis of aerial imagery we were able to demonstrate that the raised berms were the remains of historic fence rows, and not ancient palisade lines.
In 2017 the TDOA was awarded a Preservation Grant from the Tennessee Historical Commission to conduct new remote sensing excavations at Mound Bottom. This past summer, Tim de Smet and his students from the Binghamton University Department of Geological Sciences & Environmental Studies conducted several weeks of data collection at the site, using aerial techniques, electromagnetic-induction, electrical resistivity, and ground-penetrating radar to identify possible subsurface archaeological features. The data collected this summer is still being processed, however preliminary results suggest the presence of intact structure footprints on early mound summits, and previously-unknown non-mound architecture throughout the site core, some of which may predate mound construction.
Mound Bottom was first listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. Information from the 2016 and 2018 investigations will be used to update that original nomination to better describe site conditions and integrity. The updated nomination will also include a history of archaeological work at Mound Bottom and discussion of site significance in light of contemporary understandings of the archaeological sequence. In addition, this data will be used to support future site interpretation, management, and preservation strategies.
Due to its sensitive nature and lack of facilities, access to Mound Bottom is prohibited without permission of the Harpeth River State Park. Both park staff and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology give periodic tours of the site throughout the year. You can follow Mound Bottom State Archaeological Area on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/MoundBottomTN/