A Lumper’s Take on Paleoindian and Early Archaic Projectile Points from the Mid-South

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 16

Shane Miller
Mississippi State University

A few minutes ago, one of my colleagues, Derek Anderson, walked into my office, handed me a projectile point in a bag, and asked, “What would you call that?” In other words, what projectile point category, or type, is it? In this particular case, I shrugged and replied “Sykes or White Springs?” and we then proceeded to google those types so we could see pictures of other examples. We both decided it was a pretty good match. From this projectile point, he could say that the artifacts he was analyzing contained an artifact that dated to the Middle Archaic period.

Even though it was quick assessment, it was based on a large literature of archaeological sites, radiocarbon dates, and various projectile point guides like Cambron and Hulse’s projectile point guide, which is the most commonly used guide for the Tennessee River valley. There are also more far-reaching attempts to make sense of variability in projectile point types, like Noel Justice’s guide for eastern North America or the online Projectile Point Identification Guide.

I’ll be honest, I study this stuff for a living and I find the myriad of projectile point types daunting (not to mention the vast literature in archaeology on classification and typology), and in order to make sense of it all, I readily admit… I am a lumper. I look for similarities (rather than focus on the differences), and then compare those similarities in projectile point shape and design to the stratigraphic and radiocarbon record.

I take this approach for two reasons:

  1. It’s really hard for even modern knappers to replicate the same point shape over and over again. There’s a lot of contingencies to consider, from skill levels to variation in raw material. These are not things that were made on an assembly line.
  2. If I do decide to differentiate two types based on some minute detail, I prefer that decision to be backed up by a quantitative approach using geometric morphometrics. The words may seem fancy, but the premise isn’t – it’s a statistical analysis of shape.

Last year, Thad Bissett and I combined our spreadsheets of radiocarbon dates and stratigraphic information to a Bayesian statistical analysis to generate date ranges for our “lumper” categories of projectile point types from the Tennessee River. Partially inspired by Chris Moore’s work on the Savannah River Valley, it occurred to me that I could distill this information down to a cheat sheet for others to use while we’re still working on tweaking our analysis for publication.Cheat Sheet

Here’s a link to the poster where you can find some more technical detail on how we conducted the analysis.

And here is the cheat sheet that I prepared based on this analysis with pictures of points from archaeological sites from Kentucky Lake from the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville. The two Cumberland projectile point images were provided by Jesse Tune and come Alabama and Kentucky.


**Link to a high-resolution version of the cheat sheet chart**


Archaeology at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter (40Pt209), Pickett State Park and Forest

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 11

Jay Franklin and Lauren Woelkers
East Tennessee State University

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Figure 1. Rock Creek Mortar Shelter Summer 2017.

This past summer we continued archaeological excavations at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter (40Pt209) as part of an ETSU archaeological field school. New for this year was operating from the Pickett State Park Archaeology Museum and ETSU Archaeological Research Station. The museum opened to the public late this spring. Travis Bow, Park Ranger and Interpretive Specialist at Pickett, will have more to say about the museum in a separate blog later this month. However, public archaeology was an integral facet for the students this year, and among their responsibilities were leading hikes to the rock shelter and interacting with volunteers on site. It was a positive experience for the students and the public.

What helped make the public archaeology so positive is the fortuitous location of Rock Creek Mortar Shelter so close to the museum (a 15 minute walk). I have blogged about our work at the shelter previously (2014 and 2015), so I will simply summarize the background. Rock Creek Mortar Shelter contains intact deposits ranging from at least the end of the Pleistocene to about 1000 years ago toward the end of the Woodland Period in this region (Figure 1). We do have one AMS radiocarbon date that is Younger Dryas in age but no definitive Paleoindian artifacts yet. For now it appears that the first foragers to habitually occupy the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) did so at the onset of the Holocene during ameliorating climates. While we excavated in Woodland and Late Archaic layers this summer, too, I highlight the early Holocene finds.

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Figure 2. Blade and proximal blade fragment.

We continue to find blades in the early Holocene levels (Figure 2). This is significant because archaeologists disagree on whether true prismatic blades were purposefully made during the Early Archaic. We have recovered perhaps two dozen at Rock Creek but only a couple of blade core fragments. Our lithic flake debris analyses are ongoing, but we believe most of the cores were repurposed for the manufacture of bifaces. We have recovered numerous Early Archaic bifaces from the site along with significant numbers of biface reduction and thinning flakes in the early Holocene levels (Figure 3). Our current analyses are focused on determining if we can identify tablet flakes in the assemblage as early stage indicators of preparing cores for the removal of prismatic blades. Stay tuned. . .


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Figure 3. Early Archaic tools (from left to right: Pine Tree Corner Notched biface, St. Albans biface, unifacial endscraper/graver.

One of the most interesting finds of the summer was a flaked hematite biface from the early Holocene levels (Figure 4). We recovered a flaked hematite adze in 2015 (Figure 5). What makes the hematite biface find so interesting is that it makes two flaked hematite artifacts recovered from the early Holocene levels and we identified the source of the material this year: the back wall of the shelter (Figure 6).

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Figure 4. Flaked hematite biface recovered in July 2017.

While it is not uncommon to find pieces of hematite in the sandstone bedrock (and iron-rich sandstone conglomerates), it may be uncommon to find blocks that have silicified well enough to knap. We have also recovered pieces of the hematite flaking debris in the early levels. These silicified deposits are not visible in the shelter walls today because they are buried but were almost certainly 10-11,000+ years ago when the shelter floor was 2 meters lower than today. We think these pioneering foragers opportunistically knocked these blocks from the wall and fashioned them into stone tools. The flaked hematite artifacts may have been used for wood working. Maureen Hays at the College of Charleston will examine these artifacts for microscopic use wear later this year.

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Figure 5. Flaked hematite adze recovered in January 2015.

In sum, Rock Creek Mortar Shelter is yielding evidence of and information about the region’s earliest inhabitants familiarizing themselves with a new environment and raw material availability and distribution on the landscape. In our ongoing lithic analyses, we also hypothesize that these first foragers separated from late Pleistocene populations while prismatic blade tool manufacture was somewhat common in the southeast. This may, in part, help to explain why early Holocene peoples on the UCP were still making and using prismatic blade technology. We can also see that it did not last long. Once these early folks realized the abundance of high quality chert resources in the region (there are at least a dozen raw material sources within a day’s walking distance of the shelter), they moved away from prismatic blade tool technology and simply began making blade-like blanks. Calculated preparation and curation of prismatic blade cores thus became unnecessary, and lithic technology became more expedient.

We will continue excavations at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter in 2018. Next summer we will target deposits underneath the lowest ledge in the shelter. These deposits may extend back under the ledge as much as 4 meters.


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Figure 6. Silicified conglomeritic hematite block from back wall of shelter.


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.

John Broster’s Legacy and Influence on Tennessee Archaeology

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 20

Jesse W. Tune
Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College

Shane Miller
Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University

When John B. Broster retired from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in 2013, he completed a career in archaeology that spanned almost five decades, multiple countries, hundreds of sites, and literally thousands of Paleoindian points. His influence on Tennessee archaeology and Paleoindian studies cannot be overstated, and we wanted to take this opportunity to acknowledge his good work.

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John poses with his Professional Career Achievement award from the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology on the cover of Tennessee Archaeology Volume 8, Issues 1-2.

Beginning in 1966 John worked on archaeological sites throughout Europe, Mexico, the American Southwest, Southern Plains, and most notably in Tennessee. He received a B.A. degree in Anthropology from Vanderbilt University in 1968, and a M.A. degree in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1971. From 1973 to 1975 John worked at the newly created Tennessee Division of Archaeology (TDOA), and then became the Project Director at the Office of Contract Archaeology at the University of New Mexico. The Bureau of Indian Affairs hired John in 1977 where he worked as Field Director before being promoted to Archaeological Program Director. John received two Achievement Awards while working for the BIA. In 1985 John returned to work for the TDOA, where he worked until his retirement in May 2013.

John’s discussions of lithic technologies and colorful anecdotes of fieldwork have sparked the interest and curiosity of many younger archaeologists – ourselves included. He has served on thesis and dissertation committees, as well as provided constructive advice on many students’ research. He has spent many long days standing beside graduate students in the field giving his thoughts and advice on their projects. John’s successful career and influence has paved the way for much of the current and future Southeastern Paleoindian research.

John’s illustrious career was honored recently at the Recent Research and Future Directions in Southeastern Paleoindian Archaeology symposium during the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in Tampa, Florida in 2013. The papers presented during that conference were the result of research inspired by John. In turn, those papers were showcased in a special double issue of Tennessee Archaeology.

For that publication we were able to assemble a broad array of contributors that reflect the impact that John has had at a state, regional, and national level in regards to Paleoindian period archaeology. It is our hope that these contributions display our gratitude for the way in which John conducted research, collaborated with colleagues, and helped dozens of students get their research off the ground. Moreover, over the course of John’s career he helped address some of the “Big Questions” in Paleoindian archaeology. We would argue that his ability to connect the archaeology of the Midsouth to broader research questions come from a lifetime of conducting fieldwork in a variety of contexts – from Oaxaca to Santa Fe to Pinson Mounds.

When you hear the anecdotes and personal stories about John, it sounds as if his life was pulled from the pages of an Ernest Hemingway novel, and that he, like “Santiago” from The Old Man and the Sea, is a larger-than-life character who didn’t back down from an even larger challenge. However, in John’s case, his challenge wasn’t reeling in a 20-foot-long Marlin by hand. Instead, John went toe-to-toe with the Pleistocene and Early Holocene record of the Midsouth for a substantial portion of his career.

One of the lasting contributions from John’s prolific career is that he set the tone for how Paleoindian research should be conducted in Tennessee. First, John (and his colleagues at the TDOA) have worked extensively with the public to examine private collections. This work led to a revitalization of the Tennessee Fluted Point Survey (TFPS) in the late 1980s, and has since expanded to include nearly 5,500 artifacts. As a result of this public engagement and the lasting relationships built with private collectors across the state, John brought several now-famous sites to the attention of the archaeological community, including Carson- Conn-Short, Widemeier, Sinclair, and Puckett.

By disseminating information on these sites and isolated finds through numerous journal articles and the TFPS, John provided avenues through which Tennessee’s rich Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeological record could be available to a broader audience. The significance of this effort cannot be overstated, as it has facilitated research and collaborative partnerships across North America. Furthermore, under John’s guidance, the success of the TFPS stands as an example of the importance of collaboration between professional archaeologists and the avocational community.

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Jesse Tune, John Broster, and Shane Miller at the 2013 SEAC symposium in Tampa, Florida.

It’s largely because of John’s efforts that we now know that Middle Tennessee has one of the richest Late Pleistocene and Early Holocene archaeological records in North America, both in terms of density and diversity. John influence on Paleoindian archaeology also extends beyond Tennessee. Researchers in other parts of North America frequently use the record from Tennessee as an important baseline for comparison.

Unlike Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea, John did not return to port empty-handed. Instead, he had a long and fruitful career as a larger-than-life figure in the archaeology of Tennessee, whose influence will continue for years to come.

 Editor’s note: For a more detailed discussion of the significance and impact of the Tennessee Fluted Point Survey, see Jesse Tune’s post from September 3rd.


Archaeology and Environmental Change at the End of the Ice Age

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 11

Jesse W. Tune
Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College

Environmental change –this term appears everywhere these days. It shows up in news media, social media, political debates, bill boards, TV and radio commercials, and even in archaeology. Terminology matters, and particularly for archaeology it’s important to talk about “environmental change” rather than “climate change.” This reflects the fact that it archaeologists are not just interested in past climates, but rather in understanding entire past environments (climate, plants, animals, rivers, landscapes, etc.), and how changes in the environment impacted the lives of past peoples. To address these questions we study environmental shifts over very long periods of time – centuries or even millennia. Much of my own research deals with environmental changes and subsequent human responses at the end of the last Ice Age (or Pleistocene).

The end of the Pleistocene was arguably the most dramatic period of environmental change that humans have ever experienced. Environmental records like ice and sediment cores reveal that this was a very chaotic time, as much of the Northern Hemisphere underwent the death throes of the last Ice Age. The climate began to warm up sometime around 18,000-16,000 years ago. Then about 12,900 years ago the world experienced the Younger Dryas (YD), an extreme and abrupt cold period that lasted some 1,300 years. The extent to which the YD affected humans is unclear. Undoubtedly, changes to human behaviors were directly related to the local severity of the YD. To understand how this chaotic period during the YD effected people living in Tennessee, we need to look at what people were doing before, during, and after the YD began.

One way to understand at how people lived in the past is to look at how tools (projectile points in this case) were being used. While there are a number of things that can complicate this type of analysis, comparing the length and width of points gives us a general idea of what was going on. When this length-to-width correlation is analyzed for points used before, during, and after the YD, a surprising pattern emerges.

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Comparison of length-to-width for Clovis, Cumberland, and Dalton points.

The length-to-width of Clovis points (used before the YD) and Cumberland points (used during the beginning of the YD) is very similar. This suggests that they were used and resharpened in very similar ways. However, the length-to-width of Dalton points (used at the end of the YD) is significantly different, and suggests that they were used and resharpened in very different ways.

 We can also learn about changes in behavior by examining how and when points were discarded. That is, did people discard them when they broke, or did they continually resharpen points until there was basically nothing left? Again, Clovis and Cumberland are nearly identical, while Dalton points are very different. Broken and resharpened Clovis and Cumberland points were discarded in about the same frequencies. Dalton points were discarded after being resharpened nearly eight times more frequently than when they were broken. This tells us that people using Clovis and Cumberland points made new points when they broke, while people using Dalton points held on to them and continued to resharpen them until there was basically nothing left.

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Frequencies of discard broke versus resharpened Clovis, Cumberland, and Dalton points.

Another way to understand how environmental change may have influenced changes in human behaviors is to look at what resources were used and where those resources were coming from. In this case, we can study the actual stone used to make projectile points. Much of Tennessee and the Midsouth is characterized by an abundance of chert (flint) suitable for making stone tools. The main chert types in Tennessee are Fort Payne and St. Louis, and their distributions essentially create an oval surrounding Nashville and Murfreesboro.

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Distribution of Fort Payne and St. Louis cherts in Tennessee.

Prior to the YD, Clovis points were being made in exactly the same frequencies from both chert types. During the beginning of the YD, two-thirds of Cumberland points were being made from Fort Payne chert, while only approximately one-third were being made from St. Louis. By the end of the YD, almost three-fourths of Dalton points were made from St. Louis, and only about one-fourth were made from Fort Payne.


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Comparison of chert types used for Clovis, Cumberland, and Dalton points.

At first glance it looks like this is a simple pattern to interpret. People making Clovis points had no preference for chert types, while Cumberland point makers preferred Fort Payne and Dalton makers preferred St. Louis. However, it may be more complicated (and interesting) than that…

If we consider where these two chert types are predominately found, then we can start to understand how people may have been using the landscape around them. Clovis and Cumberland points are found in similar distributions throughout the state, yet the types of chert used to make them are different. This may indicate that people making Clovis point were relatively unfamiliar with where certain types of chert occur, and were content using either raw material type. Later, people making Cumberland points would have been slightly more familiar with were certain chert types occur, and preferred to make their points from St. Louis material. Something different, however, appears to have been going on by Dalton times at the end of the YD. The distribution of Dalton points is much more limited that Clovis or Cumberland. In fact, in Tennessee, Dalton points are most frequently found in the same area where St. Louis chert is most prevalent. So rather than preferring to make Dalton points from St. Louis chert, people were simply using local stone resources to make points.

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Distributions of Clovis, Cumberland, and Dalton points in Tennessee.

So what does all of this tell us about the relationship between human behavior and environmental changes at the end of the last Ice Age? Basically, environmental changes at the beginning of the YD do not appear to have led to major changes in human behaviors in Tennessee – this may not be the case in other areas. Rather, it appears that significant changes occurred near the end of the YD when the climate began to warm up. Projectile point technologies trend toward being resharpened more extensively and used longer before being discarded. The territories where points were discarded appear to become smaller from Clovis-to-Cumberland-to-Dalton, while technologies became more focused on locally available resources.

Editor’s note: for a more in-depth discussion of this topic, see the recent journal article article “The Clovis-Cumberland-Dalton Succession: Settling into the Midsouth United States during the Pleistocene-to-Holocene Transition.”

The Paleoindian and Early Archaic Record in Tennessee

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 3

Jesse W. Tune
Department of Anthropology, Fort Lewis College

The Tennessee Fluted Point Survey (TFPS) is one of the most comprehensive statewide archaeological surveys in North America. Not only does this survey differentiate between Paleoindian point types, but it also includes Early Archaic point types. To say that Tennessee possesses some of the densest concentrations of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts in North America is somewhat of an understatement. To hopefully get this point across and try to provide a general summary of what it might mean, I’m going to throw a lot of numbers around and share some maps of where artifacts have been found. Then I’ll try to explain why Tennessee appears to be a unique place for Paleoindian and Early Archaic archaeology.

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Image from: Morse, Dan, Phyllis Morse, and John Waggonee 1964, Fluted Points from Smith County, Tennessee. Tennessee Archaeologist 20:1(17).

First, a little background about Paleoindian and Early Archaic research in Tennessee. While there are exceptional numbers of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts recorded across the state, nearly all have been recovered from plowed fields and eroded shorelines of lakes and streams. Artifacts recovered in these types of settings are typically not in their original location, and any datable materials that were buried with them are now long gone. Consequently, while individual counties in Tennessee having more Clovis points than Arizona and New Mexico combined (where Clovis research began), the majority of Paleoindian and Early Archaic research has been focused on other regions with more datable sites.

However, there is a long history of Paleoindian and Early Archaic research in Tennessee. This research began in earnest in 1945 with Thomas M. N. Lewis’s study of fluted points in Tennessee. In an attempt to locate fluted points in buried contexts, in 1958 Lewis and Madeline Kneberg investigated the Nuckolls site, along the Lower Tennessee River, where they found an extensive surface collection of Paleoindian and Early Archaic artifacts along the shoreline. In 1964 Dan Morse and colleagues published the first map of the statewide fluted point distribution in Tennessee (see above), which included 278 points. By 1983, Alfred Guthe reported that 389 fluted points had been recovered in Tennessee. Like others before him, Guthe made the prediction that this number represented only a small portion of the fluted points that would eventually be documented from Tennessee. Turns out he was right…

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Distribution of all fluted points recorded in North America. Image from PIDBA (http://pidba.utk.edu/main.htm).

In 1988 John Broster and colleagues at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology began intensively expanding the TFPS. As of the most recent update (2013) a total of 5,497 Paleoindian and Early Archaic points are recorded in the TFPS, which are made accessible through the Paleoindian Database of the Americas. As David Anderson and colleagues discussed in their post yesterday, compiling large-scale datasets and distributions of artifacts is critical to asking and answering the big picture questions that often fascinate archaeologists.


Frequency of points in Tennessee by time period and region.

Paleoindian and Early Archaic points are concentrated toward the center of Tennessee, with an overwhelming majority of all points documented from the Highland Rim, Central Basin, and Coastal Plain. The vast majority of all points occurs in the Highland Rim (63.1%). The Central Basin (14.5%) and Coastal Plain (13.9%) have roughly equal frequencies of points. So points from these three regions alone make up nearly 95% of all Paleoindian and Early Archaic points in the entire state!

Another way to look at this data is to scale the densities of points to account for the different sizes of each physiographic region. The density of all Paleoindian and Early Archaic points throughout the state is 84 points per 1,000 km2.

So what does this really mean in terms of the early prehistory of Tennessee and archaeological research? Why is it such a big deal that there are so many artifacts found in Tennessee?


Densities of point types per 1,000 square km.

Well, basically there are far more Paleoindian and Early Archaic points in Tennessee than in most other states. Also, the distributions of points throughout the state reveal distinct patterns. Regardless of point type (or time period) there are more points toward the center of the state. While this is a complex issue to unwrap, it undoubtedly relates to the distribution of resources, like stone to make tools and riverine resources that would have attracted animals.

More importantly though, studying large-scale distributions of artifacts helps archaeologists interpret how people were using and interacting with their environments on the macroscale. These type of studies allow us to ask questions about settlement strategies, territorial ranges, migration routes, and trade and interaction networks (just to list a few).

Basically, this all tells us something about changes in how people organized themselves across the landscape, and how that organization system may have changed over time. Paleoindian points in Tennessee occur in a larger area than Early Archaic points do. Again, while this is a complex issue to understand, there appears to be a reduction in territories over time. Paleoindian groups were likely more using larger territories than subsequent Early Archaic groups.

You Can Learn a Lot from a Spear Point! Or, Why Archaeologists Will Nerd Out Over Your Box of Arrowheads

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 19

Shane Miller
Mississippi State University

Jesse Tune
Fort Lewis College

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Distribution of all fluted points recorded in North America. Image from: PIDBA (http://pidba.utk.edu/main.htm).

Like most archaeologists in North America, we both have fond memories of walking freshly plowed fields looking for “arrowheads” during our childhood. It’s not a stretch to say that this a common pastime in the southeastern United States, and it’s probably the gateway by which most people were exposed to archaeology prior to the proliferation of documentaries on television and the Internet.

As undergrads, we both took introductory Anthropology courses were fascinated by Ice Age Colonization of North America. The thought of small groups of hunter-gatherers traversing an unknown continent inhabited by mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, and other extinct megafauna species was fascinating. That feeling has never gone away.

Even though we both left Tennessee to pursue our doctorates in Anthropology, and are now professors in different states, we both continue to do research in Tennessee. The reason? Tennessee has a spectacular archaeological record, especially if you’re interested in studying the early colonization of the continent. In fact, the Tennessee River Valley has the highest concentration of early stone points in North America.

This brings us to one of the questions archaeologists frequently get when they ask farmers or collectors to show them the artifacts they’ve found: “Why do you care so much about the arrowheads? Sure, some of them are cool to look at, but what does that tell you about anything?

Exampled of fluted Clovis points from the Southeastern United States.

Examples of fluted Clovis points from the Southeastern United States.

Our usual response is, “Well, a lot!” Most collectors select artifacts based on their appearance or rarity. For us, however, it’s not about the individual artifact, but what we can interpret about its’ entire life history. We want to know how these items are made, used, and discarded, because that gives us all kinds of information about people in prehistory. It’s the archaeological equivalent of studying commodity chains and the stock market to understand world’s economy today.

The distribution of re-fitted artifacts from an excavation block at the Topper Site, South Carolina.

The distribution of re-fitted artifacts from an excavation block at the Topper Site, South Carolina (source).

By studying locations where people made stones tools and piecing together the waste flakes they left behind, archaeologists can deduce the sequence of steps it takes to make particular artifacts. It’s the equivalent of reverse-engineering a recipe or owner’s manual. However, unlike today where such things are written down, in prehistoric North America the knowledge of how to construct a stone point was communicated verbally. At the Topper site in South Carolina, Derek Anderson found evidence for what this process may have looked like by reconstructing the production of a stone tool by refitting all of the individual pieces (i.e., artifacts) back together. He argues that it looks like several people were sitting around a fire (based on the distribution of burnt flakes) and the tool was passed around the fire with more difficult, expert removals happening over and over in the same spot. In other words, less experienced knappers would work on the tool until they reached a point where they couldn’t proceed any further, and then they would hand it to the more experienced knapper. Today, we would call this scaffolded learning.

Early Projectile Points Types for the Southeastern United States

Early Projectile Points Types for the Southeastern United States.

Despite not having “how to” manuals, the shape of points remained fairly stable over time, with some styles lasting several centuries. However, as aesthetic preference or technology changes, so do the size and shape of the points. We see the same thing happening today with clothing, cars, and furniture, although at a much faster rate. Also, sometimes things just change – since the knowledge of making a stone tool is transmitted verbally, it’s prone to the same tendency to make communication errors like the classic telephone game. Yet, all of these factors combined have the effect of making the size and shape fluctuate over time in a predictable manner. If we can find them in good stratigraphic context and/or associated with organic materials that can be radiocarbon dated, we can place these styles in chronological order.

Once we know the time ranges for the specific shapes and sizes of points (i.e. types), we can begin reconstructing how people used them, and get a sense of the economic decisions behind prehistoric hunting. Imagine a modern bow hunter – if they shoot at a deer and miss, do they worry about retrieving that arrow? There is a lot that goes into decision – the number of arrows still in the quiver, the likelihood the arrow broke, the cost of replacement, the time spent searching for it, and the time lost that could be spent hunting. By examining the frequency of resharpening and re-use in a large sample of spear points we get an idea of how prehistoric hunters perceived their chance of success and failure. That perception influenced the size and shape of prehistoric toolkits, and how people decided to organize their technology. This approach is especially powerful if you have faunal data for comparison.

The correlation between length and width for Clovis, Cumberland, Quad, and Dalton point types reported in the Tennessee Fluted Point Survey.

The correlation between length and width for Clovis, Cumberland, Quad, and Dalton point types reported in the Tennessee Fluted Point Survey.

As an example, the Tennessee Fluted Point Survey includes information on over 5,000 of the earliest spear points reported from across the site. By closely examining this dataset, we see a strong relationship between the lengths and widths of the earliest point types (Clovis and Cumberland), whereas later point types (Quad, Beaver Lake, and Dalton) show more variation. Why? From the faunal remains at Dust Cave in northern Alabama, we see that Quad, Beaver Lake, and Dalton points are associated with species that are fast and particularly hard to catch (like birds). This pattern suggests that people making Quad, Beaver Lake, and Dalton points were hunting species that were harder to catch, which likely resulted in more firing attempts and more effort in re-shaping the tip so they could fire it multiple times. These re-sharpening episodes whittle away the length of the point versus the width, which is why we see variations in the data. In other words, their stone-tipped spears were taking a beating. By looking at the points, we can also see that with Clovis and Cumberland show very little re-sharpening. To us, this indicates that Clovis people weren’t putting much emphasis on gathering and re-using spear points they’ve already fired.

The distribution of sites with recorded point types divided by the total Paleoindian and Archaic components from within the physiographic section (column).

The distribution of sites with recorded point types divided by the total Paleoindian and Archaic components from within the physiographic section (column).

Finally, we can use the distribution of points to begin reconstructing where people were (and where they weren’t) in prehistory.  For example, using data for the Duck River, it looks like the earliest recorded groups (Clovis and Cumberland) stayed close to the confluence with the Tennessee River. Later groups appear to have expanded to higher and higher elevations on the Highland Rim and Cumberland Plateau, possibly related to increasing temperatures at the end of the last Ice Age.

So, when a person asks us, “What does that tell you?,” we can honestly respond with “A lot!” and mean it. If we have enough of a sample size, we can tell you how old the points are, how they were made, the structure of prehistoric learning networks, the economic decisions related to hunting, and where people were spending their time (and where they weren’t).