Recent Archaeology in Oliver Springs, Tennessee

20170722_164657Figure 1.  Left to Right: Leah C. Brown, Tracy C. Brown, and Aaron W. Brown

The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI) has spent several days researching, exploring, and recording a previously uninvestigated archaeological site in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. This site has a prehistoric component and a late Historic period component. Yesterday was our last day of work at the site—mostly a day to tie up a few lose ends.  Because the heat was brutal and our tasks were few, we had planned to wrap up our loose ends in about one hour. However, an unexpected but welcome opportunity to obtain even more information and data on the site presented itself in the form of a very nice man in a white pickup truck who drove onto the site and parked next to the ORARI archaeology van.  We struck up a conversation with him, and he was able to fill in some significant historical information gaps we were concerned might go unfilled.  Consequently, we ended up spending an extra hour sweltering in the afternoon sun, asking questions, and taking copious field notes. We were grateful for the opportunity.

No small or large archaeological project ends without taking a crew picture (Figure 1).  The old guy in the center is me—the Field Director.  The other two folks served as my Field Technicians at the site.  They also happen to be my fine and beloved children.

The archaeological site consists of two discrete areas. One is the former location of a small school that was constructed in 1916 to serve Grades 1 through 8.  This school was operated until 1967. Soon afterwards, the abandoned school building was turned into a neighborhood community center.  Unfortunately, this originally square, two-story, brick school building burned down on Saturday, August 30, 1975.  The burned remains were razed, and a new neighborhood community center was built in the late 1970s.  In fact, it was built right on top of the location once occupied by the old school building.  All that remains of the old school today are a set of exterior concrete stairs set into a soil embankment along the street in front of the school, a walkway to the front of the building, and a portion of a fragmented sidewalk that paralleled the front of the building.

The other discrete area of the site is a small, sandstone rockshelter located in the general vicinity of the school, but also historically related to the school in an unusual way.  This rockshelter is approximately 20 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 18 feet deep (front to back).  The floor is primarily soil that contains some chunks of breakdown rock—but no boulders that are evident at the soil surface.  The soil floor is dusty like coal ash in some places and somewhat damp and compact in other places. Over the years, this rockshelter has been visited frequently by those local citizens who are aware of its presence, and this has resulted in a large, unattractive accumulation of bottles, cans, and other disposables in the rockshelter.

Sometime in the late 19th century or early 20th century, a few local citizens found evidence of a prehistoric occupation in this rockshelter, primarily in the form of lithic artifacts.  Word of it eventually filtered down to the students who attended the nearby school.  According to Snyder E. Roberts, the 20th century historian of Oliver Springs, some of the students at the old school would often be found absent from school in the morning or absent from class later in the day. When a teacher discovered these absences, she would initiate a search for the missing children—only to discover that they had quietly sneaked down to the rockshelter to dig for projectile points/knives and other prehistoric artifacts.  Apparently, this happened quite often.

Eventually, this rockshelter became more widely known among local citizens, and it attracted teenage/adult artifact collectors bent on digging. In fact, during our visit to the rockshelter, a small “digger hole” of recent origin was observed and photographed in the floor of the rockshelter (Figure 2).


Figure 2.  Digger Hole in Rockshelter Floor

The irregular floor surface in the rockshelter today suggests quite a lot of other past digging has occurred, the floor undulations reflecting a combination of long-abandoned, small, open holes and associated backdirt piles.

It should be noted that ORARI makes a deliberate and concerted effort to avoid disturbance of intact or disturbed archaeological deposits whenever possible because our orientation is decidedly toward site preservation rather than site excavation.  The ORARI crew did not perform any sort of excavations in this rockshelter or on the site of the old school. Our effort at this archaeological site was restricted to deep background archival research, informant interviews, making field observations on the school grounds and in the rockshelter, taking measurements of various surface features, taking field photographs, collecting information/data via extensive field notes, and writing it all up, along with some interpretations, in our daily electronic field manual entries. In other words, good archaeology does not always entail a shovel or trowel in the ground—nor should it.

Now that our on-site work has been completed, we have plans to identify and interview any local individuals who may still own artifacts they found while digging in the rockshelter floor or on the steep soil embankment just outside of it.  We will take a close look at the artifacts, photograph them, and identify temporally diagnostic pp/k’s and ceramics to help us determine how many prehistoric components are present in the rockshelter and determine the date ranges when the site was occupied during prehistoric times.  The results from our archival research, fieldwork, and interpretations will be recorded on a standard electronic Archaeological Site Survey Record form for permanent filing in the Tennessee Register of Archaeological Sites  (Tennessee Site Survey Files) housed at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.  In addition, we plan to write a report on this work and similar work we are doing at other archaeological sites in the vicinity of Oliver Springs.

Finally. just in case this is of interest to anyone doing rockshelter research in Tennessee, this particular rockshelter is located just barely inside the Cumberland Mountains and very close to the boundary line between the Cumberland Plateau physiographic province and the Ridge and Valley physiographic province—where limestone/dolomite meet  sandstone.  This is also arguably a site on a major ecotone boundary line between two significant biomes. Depending on how disturbed the archaeological deposits are at depth in this Oliver Springs rockshelter, it might pose an opportunity to compare and contrast rockshelter occupations along the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau to occupations at a rockshelter site on the eastern escarpment at a location much farther south than upper East Tennessee.

Because of some rather severe safety constraints, we were unable to closely examine the Oliver Springs rockshelter for prehistoric rock art or historically interesting graffiti.  We may be able to do so at some later date.

A Moving Native American Musical Performance

Alexandro Querevalu

I thought you might enjoy listening to a Native American musical performance, which is done using handmade musical instruments constructed mostly from natural materials that would have been available on the American landscape to ancient Native Americans. The Native American musician is Alexandro Querevalu, a native of Lima, Peru, and the music is the haunting theme to the motion picture The Last of the Mohicans, which was based on the early 19th century novel of the same name by American writer James Fenimore Cooper. This unique performance is very moving, and it shows a brief glimpse of our ancient Native American past that has been lost forever.  In your minds, if you can block out the festival tourists and masonry floor surrounding this musician, you can easily imagine such an ancient musician offering up a somewhat similar performance with different musical notes in a ceremonial context. Imagine him kneeling and playing his instruments on the great plaza at Mound Bottom, the Mississippian period mound ceremonial center in Cheatham County, Tennessee.  The year is 1153 A.D.

Yes.  I know.  Yours truly is a hopeless Euroamerican romantic, but I do like this musical performance and hope you will too.  Just turn up the volume some on your computer speakers or headphones and click on the following safe link:

Musical Theme to “The Last of the Mohicans” (Reed Flute and Rattles)

Photograph Credit: Gudrun Giese


Mississippian Period Statues from Sellars Farm

Oak Ridge High School lets their students go home at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesdays.  It was my job to pick up my son after school today. He had a haircut scheduled for 3:00 p.m., so we had some time to kill before his appointment. We both agreed to go across the street to the Oak Ridge Public Library, use the restroom, and watch the clock. On entering the library, I bolted for the magazine and journal section to look at the latest edition of The Tennessee Conservationist (TTC), a general environmental periodical put out six times per year by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).  Way back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I really looked forward to seeing each new edition of TTC because it usually contained at least one article related to Tennessee archaeology. True. I did not formally chart the tables of contents from one edition to the next across those many past years, but it appeared to me that someone at TDEC, in the 1990s, decided to make Tennessee archaeology a low priority for general TTC magazine articles and focus instead on many more articles about environmental management, zoology, and ecology. Although environmental management is one of my fields of expertise, along with southeastern archaeology, I quit reading the TTC when it became clear to me that Tennessee archaeology was no longer a high priority for articles. When I picked up the latest edition of the TTC at the public library this afternoon, I was amazed to see a new and richly illustrated article on the four famous Mississippian period statues found at the mound site on the Sellars Farm, which is located in Wilson County near Lebanon, Tennessee.  Two of these statues are shown in Figure 1.

Sellars Statues

Figure 1.  Two of the Ancestors at the Sellars Mound Site

The title of this new article is “Ancient Faces: Native American Stone Sculptures from Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area in Wilson County.”  Dr. Kevin E. Smith, Professor of Anthropology at Middle Tennessee State University, is the author.  This article is on pages 20–25 in the March/April 2017 edition of TTC.  It is a really good, well-written article, and the accompanying photographs are excellent. I encourage you to read it.  Your local public library may have a subscription to TTC, which means you may read the article there.  Information on how to subscribe to TTC is available at the following safe link:

Subscribe to The Tennessee Conservationist

Dr. Smith and his late friend, James G. Miller, did the comprehensive, seminal research on Mississippian stone statuary in the Tennessee-Middle Cumberland region. The results of their research were published in a 2009 book entitled Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region. This excellent book is available from its publisher, The University of Alabama Press.  In addition, you may obtain this book as a Kindle Edition or as a paperback book from

In the years since the death of Jim Miller, Dr. Smith has continued his research on Mississippian statuary in Tennessee and the southeast region, and he has inspired an interest in related aspects of it by young, up-and-coming Tennessee archaeologists such as Ms. Sierra Bow, a Ph. D. graduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Much to his credit, Dr. Smith has also been instrumental in creating widespread public interest in Mississippian statuary through his well-known commitment to public archaeology. This new article in TTC is part of that continuing and very valuable commitment.

I would like to close this blog post by praising TTC for publishing this recent article on Mississippian statuary and by encouraging TTC to include more general articles related to Tennessee prehistoric archaeology and historical archaeology in its future editions, like you did in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yes. The journal Tennessee Archaeology is published by the Tennessee Division of Archaeology under TDEC, and it is an excellent publication. I relish reading every new edition that comes out because I am a professional archaeologist.  However, it is primarily a technical journal that serves the interests of professional archaeologists and avocational archaeologists.  Most ordinary Tennessee citizens with no deep educational background in Tennessee archaeology or American archaeology would probably get lost in the technicalia of it. In my opinion, which is always open to change, most Tennessee citizens would be more likely to experience a sparked interest in Tennessee archaeology through more basic TTC articles such as this new one about the Mississippian statuary from the Sellars Farm.

Photo Credit: The Lebanon Democrat

A Monkey and His Flakes

Hi everyone.  Here is an interesting article on chipped stone artifacts, their origins, and their implications for the identification of so-called “early man” sites all over the world. In particular, this has implications for the identification of Early Arrival Hypothesis archaeological sites in Central America and South America. As anyone who has ever watched Night at the Museum I can attest, the monkey can be a deceitful and misleading creature.  Here is the safe link to the article:

A Monkey and His Flakes

If you would like to know more about the Capuchin monkey (Cebus capucinus), you may read up on the species here:

The Capuchin Monkey

Tennessee Archaeology, Magnetic Signs, and…Uh-Boy

Some of you are no doubt familiar with the Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI), which I created in 2014 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It is my chosen venue for contributing to professional archaeological research; public archaeology; and advocacy for archaeology and historic preservation.  Geographically, ORARI is focused primarily on Anderson County and the surrounding area. When venturing out to do archaeology, I use my 2007 Honda Odyssey van. About six months ago, a local sign company made two nice-looking magnetic signs for the front doors on my van. These signs exhibit the full ORARI name in logo format, our website address, and contact information. When I am running errands, people often see the signs and stop me to talk about their plans to major in anthropology or how a child of theirs is already doing so. That is always fun. I try to be helpful, be encouraging, and answer any questions they have about Tennessee archaeology. However, something a bit unusual and unexpected is happening to me now, most often in the parking lot at Kroger (of all places). I want to tell you about it, give you a couple of examples,  and make some helpful educational clarifications for Tennessee citizens.

A few weeks ago in the parking lot at Kroger, a nice gentleman saw my van signs and assumed I was an expert who studies geological materials, how they move, and what such movement does to the foundations of buildings. Fortunately, for him at least, I had finished most of an undergraduate major in geology, so I stopped and listened carefully to what this gentleman needed to tell me. Afterwards, it was clear to me that geological materials were indeed moving around in very scary ways at his home—no doubt about it. I referred this gentleman to a friend of mine in Oak Ridge who owns a company that specializes in structural foundation engineering, repair, and stabilization.

Tonight my son and I had to run over to Kroger and buy some milk. When we returned to the van, a nice young man in a snazzy-red sports car called out from behind us and asked: “Found any good geodes lately!!!???”  I nicely told him no—and mentioned that the area around Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, is famous for near-basketball-size geodes. I knew that because a relative of mine had once visited Red Boiling Springs when it was an early-middle 20th century resort town with mineral springs. He brought back a number of huge geodes to my grandmother’s house to line her flower beds.

Many members of the Tennessee public do not understand what professional archaeologists, geologists, or paleontologists do for a living—and how what one professional does is different from what the other two types of professionals do. I am going to address this issue by referring you to three excellent, safe web links that should clear this matter up for you. Just click on the blue links below and do a little reading and video watching. The differences should come into focus for you.  Here are the links:

Archaeologists Do This

Geologists Do This

Paleontologists Do This

Professional archaeologists in Tennessee do not analyze and repair building foundation problems for modern day homes, buildings, and structures. That is a unique specialization in the contract construction industry. Such tasks are performed by professional construction personnel in consultation with experts in civil engineering and geological engineering.  You may read a little about that and watch some related videos at the following safe link:

Foundation Stabilization and Repair Personnel Do This

However, some technical experts who work in the discipline of historic preservation do occasionally work with teams of architects, civil engineers, geologists, archaeologists, and foundation repair specialists to achieve the stabilization and repair of foundations that support ancient and historic-era buildings and structures that need to be preserved for future generations.

And no…the assorted artifacts (e.g. pottery sherds, projectile points, animal bones, etc.) found by archaeologists in American archaeological sites are not fossils. They are just human-influenced stuff like all those items in your kitchen drawer at home. The only difference is this. The stuff in your kitchen drawer at home is recent stuff, and the artifacts in archaeological sites are old stuff that once belonged to a person who is most likely deceased. Fossils are “the remains or traces of prehistoric life preserved in rocks of the Earth’s crust” (Wicander and Monroe 1989:558). Were ancient pottery sherds ever living things?  No. Do American archaeologists find pottery sherds in the form of rock or embedded inside rock? No. Pottery sherds are usually found in soil and sediment deposits at archaeological sites or in stream beds.  They are made of clay that ancient people dug out of the ground; shaped into various kinds of ceramic vessels; and baked at very high temperatures.  When one of these vessels broke into pieces, pottery sherds were born.

There are occasional exceptions to just about every rule, and that is true of artifacts and fossils. Once in a great and rare while, some ancient Native American would find a 400 million-year-old living thing in rock form (like a fossilized segment of a crinoid stem) and say:

This thing is already perfectly round, and it has a round hole in the middle of it. It would be a great centerpiece for the necklace I am making. I’ll just abrade the edge a bit to make it smoother and use it in my necklace.

In that manner an ancient fossil became an artifact because the ancient Native American man viewed it as a raw material, modified it, and used it as an item of material culture.

Now, repeat after me: “Why!!! I didn’t know all that!!!”  Now you do. Congratulations!!!  You are one smart cookie.


Wicander, Reed and James S. Monroe 1989. Historical Geology: Evolution of the Earth and Life Through Time.  New York: West Publishing.

New Archaeology at Cahokia

Just in case you might have missed it elsewhere today, Annalee Newitz at the Ars Technica website has written a long and fascinating article on her recent professional excavation adventures at the Cahokia Mounds site in East St. Louis, Illinois.  This is not your usual archaeology-for-public-consumption babble.  This is new and really great!  You may read this excellent article, view its photographs, and watch its internal video presentations at the following safe link:

Finding North America’s Lost Medieval City

What does this have to do with Tennessee archaeology?  Well, for those of you who are not professional archaeologists, you might think of it like this.  Cahokia was the ancient New York City of the United States. During its time, it was arguably the most important center of Native American culture north of Mexico, and its ancient cultural and social impulses fanned out across Tennessee and most of the American South.  The Mississippian period (1,000 -1475 A.D.) inhabitants of the Middle Cumberland region in Middle Tennessee (the people who built the stone box cemeteries and platform mounds) knew about mighty Cahokia and shared in a large number of the major cultural impulses emanating from it, particularly those involving platform mound  architecture, social organization, religion, and art.

You cannot really, truly, and wholly understand Mississippian prehistory and archaeology in Tennessee without knowing it in the context of influences from Cahokia and other contemporary centers of sociocultural influence in the American Southeast.  These include, but are not limited to, Moundville in Alabama and the late prehistoric Caddoan region sites such as the Spiro Mounds, located immediately west of the Mississippi River in Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma.

Our Favorite Quotation from Steve Jobs

Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, I may occasionally say or do something with regard to Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology that will upset someone’s traditional apple cart. Indeed, some of you may think I am crazy because my words and deeds occasionally clash with what you believe and your understanding of the archaeological world—or your untested fantasies about it that you do not want to honestly face.

This brought to mind my favorite quote from the late Steve Jobs, and I subscribe to it. Indeed, famous anthropologist Margaret Mead once said something very similar. Here is the Steve Jobs quotation:

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.   ~ Steve Jobs (1955-2011)