Islamic State Now Destroying Palmyra

I guess Monday morning is as good a time as any to report bad news…well…better than a happy Friday.  The radical Islamic State organization (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in Syria-Iraq is now in the process of destroying the ancient oasis city of Palmyra. They took over this famous Roman archaeological site (with extensive aboveground architectural ruins) several months ago and executed the well-known regional archaeologist who was most closely associated with this site. Then it seemed as if weeks and weeks were passing without hearing much new about the takeover of Palmyra. It seemed as if the Islamic State people were being slower than usual about laying waste to the site.  If you are really into destroying tangible manifestations of ancient, infectious, nonIslamic culture and you have a reputation for taking it out pretty quickly at other archaeological sites, why be so slow at Palmyra?  Answer:  Looting!!!  Looting!!!  Looting!!!

Taking a break from some of their more fun and exciting activities such as religious genocide, mass killings of captured soldiers, rigging children with body bombs, and setting live people on fire, someone inside the Islamic State organization concluded that monetarily valuable artifacts that could be sold for badly needed cash might still lie underground in and around the ancient city of Palmyra.  Being as how explosive-rigged buildings, tall Corinthian columns, or stone walls might fall on the exact spot of some valuable artifact cache, they thought it prudent to check the soil for artifacts and dig the possible treasures out first—then destroy the ruins. Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, this miscreant behavior reminds us of the old vulgar aphorism: “Once a dipshit—always a dipshit.”  Apparently, acting out the worst in human nature on the world stage requires an appropriate level of funding, and what better source than stolen artifacts sold on the international artifact exchange?

You can read about what has been going on at Palmyra since May 2015 in the following on-line news articles:

How is this related to Tennessee archaeology?  Several decades ago, I took an undergraduate course in the Department of Classics at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK).  The title of the course was “Roman Art & Archaeology,” and it was well-taught by Dr. Geraldine Gesell, now Professor Emerita of classical archaeology at UTK. I thought it would be fun to take an archaeology course that was not the usual Paleo-Indian through Historic-era fare.  The course was fast-paced, but it was also fun and interesting. The programs in North American archaeology and classical archaeology at UTK, although still in different academic departments, are quite a bit closer, more cooperative, and more interactive today than they were in the 1970s. Roman, Greek, and Mediterranean archaeology in general are in a very real way part of the overall archaeology pie in East Tennessee, and this is bolstered by the regular meetings of the local chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America, which are held regularly in the auditorium at the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on the UTK campus.  Therefore, even if our primary concern is Tennessee archaeology, we Tennessee archaeologists have good and well-rooted reasons to be just as concerned about what is happening at Palmyra right now.

Duck River Cache Swords, Hook-Shaped Artifacts, and Maize

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog offers this brief photo essay as its contribution to the Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month festivities for 2015. The photo essay is followed by a number of related remarks.

Einstein Poster

Figure 1.     Quote by Albert Einstein


Figure 2.     Duck River Cache

Picture 2

Figure 3.     Hightower Shell Gorget (Mortal Combat Theme)

A Mississippian culture Hightower style Birdman themed shell gorget from Mound C at the Etowah Indian Mounds site in Georgia.

Figure 4.     Hightower Shell Gorget (Headsman Theme)

Tribes That Slumber

Figure 5.     Cover of Tribes that Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region

Ear of Zea Mays

Figure 6.     Partially Shucked Ear of Maize

Duck River Style Sword

Figure 7.     Mississippian Lithic Sword with Nipple-Like Elongation

(180-Degree Photograph Rotation Required for Comparison with Figure 6)

Hooked Artifacts

Figure 8.     Two Hook-Shaped Artifacts in the Duck River Cache

Corn Knife

Figure 9.  Historical-era Euroamerican Knife Designed to Harvest Maize

German Physicist Albert Einstein believed that imagination is an important factor in the conduct of scientific research (Figure 1). Imagination can be used to formulate hypotheses pertinent to elucidating prehistoric human behavior. This brief photo essay and the accompanying text are used to demonstrate how imagination can be used to formulate three specific hypotheses about the nature and use of two well-known types of prehistoric lithic artifacts found on Mississippian period archaeological sites in Tennessee and other southeastern states. Both types of artifacts are present in the famous Duck River Cache.

The Duck River Cache (Figure 2) is a large collection of spectacular flaked chert artifacts (n = 46) that were accompanied at slightly greater depth by two statues (one male and one female) made of quartzite sandstone or siltstone (Seever 1897:141; Smith and Miller 2009: Appendix A). Prehistoric Native Americans had intentionally buried these artifacts on a large archaeological site dating to the Mississippian period (A.D. 1000-1400) [Bass 1985]. These cached artifacts were first encountered by a local farm worker while plowing a field on his employer’s land. In the late 19th century, the precise spot where they were buried was located on the farm of Mr. Banks Link (the previously mentioned employer) [Seever 1897:141], and the site later became known in the Tennessee archaeological literature as the Link Farm site (40HS6).  Site 40HS6 is located on the north bank of the Duck River near its confluence with the Tennessee River. It is in Humphreys County, Tennessee, which is on the far western edge of Middle Tennessee. Numerous Mississippian stone box burials were encountered during 19th century plowing on 40HS6 (Seever 1897:141).

Brehm (1984) has pulled together and published an excellent collection of short journal articles, papers, close-up photographs, and items of correspondence that collectively summarize the archaeology and history of the Duck River Cache.  A similarly excellent synopsis of information and data on the Duck River Cache and the two stone statues is provided in Smith and Miller (2009:82-89 and Appendix A).

The longest Dover chert objects in the famous Duck River Cache are often referred to in the archaeological literature as swords (Figure 2).  This is a historical Euroamerican name that was pinned on them long ago, and it has persisted in the archaeological literature for lack of a better term.  They are too delicate to have been used as any sort of combat sword per se, and they have no edge wear or breakage patterns that would credibly indicate such a use. The fact of the matter is that no one knows for certain what these objects were called in ancient times or what they represented in the cultural context of the Mississippian period peoples inhabiting Middle Tennessee and other parts of the ancient Southeast.

Our best clue to their past use comes from two subtypes of Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets that depict human-like figures who are shown holding these swords high in their left hands. One shell gorget subtype (Figure 3) exhibits what has been termed the mortal combat theme wherein two mirror-image figures are confronting each other in either a combat or dance-like stance. Each individual holds a sword in their left hand and a hook-shaped object in their right hand at neck level, as if to cut off the head of its opponent. The other shell gorget subtype (Figure 4) exhibits the headsman theme wherein a single individual holds a sword in his left hand and a human trophy head in his right hand. In terms of Mississippian iconography, the anthropomorphic figures on the shell gorgets are birdmen (a.k.a. the single mythological narrative character known as Red Horn, Morning Star, or He Who Wears Human Heads as Earrings) infused with Lepidopteran (mothra) elements and motifs (Knight and Franke 2007; Reilly and Garber 2011). Trophy heads on the headsman-themed shell gorgets also exhibit mothra elements and motifs. The iconography on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets suggests that the delicate Duck River Cache swords from Middle Tennessee were sacred objects used only for special ceremonial purposes (Marceaux and Dye 2007:168-175).

In their book entitled Tribes That Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region, Thomas M. N. Lewis and Madeline Kneberg (1958) suggested that these ceremonial objects were used by dancers (Figure 5) in a prehistoric version of the Green Corn Ceremony (Busk), which was practiced by various historical-era Native American tribes living primarily east of the Mississippi River. The Creek Indian tribe of northern Georgia was one of those groups here in the American Southeast. This ceremony was conducted at the beginning of harvest time each year and was oriented toward ensuring a sufficient harvest of high-sugar dent corn (Zea mays).

If you ever take a close look at the many chert artifacts in the Duck River Cache, you will quickly realize that a number of these items appear to be chert effigies of various kinds (animal bodies, raptor talons, sun disks, human heads in profile as monolithic axes and maces, and the possible bronchi of deer lungs) [Figure 2]. For a few years, off and on and quite casually, I have imaginatively entertained the notion that the so-called swords in the Duck River Cache might also be effigy objects representing something tangible in the earthly realm.

What kind of effigy object? Well, one would intuitively suspect an effigy of some common and very important element in the daily life of Mississippian period peoples. The overall shape of the artifact and the morphological attributes that contribute to that shape are key, so one would have to ask: “What important aspect of Mississippian lifeways might have had a similar morphology in ancient times?” How about stylized unshucked or partially shucked ears of ripe maize at harvest time? Maize was the most important staple crop at all Mississippian sites, and the lives of the people depended upon it.  From a subsistence perspective, the health and abundance of the annual maize crop was most certainly a life and death matter, and one would expect it to be closely tied to the ideological realm and ceremonial rituals of the people at a Mississippian period site.

The overall morphology of the chert swords and an ear of ripe maize are very similar, as may be seen in Figures 6 and 7. One end of the Duck River Cache swords exhibits a tapered, nipple-like elongation, and it is always located on only one end of each sword. This elongation may represent the peduncle that occurs only on the proximal end of every ear of ripe maize. Beyond this elongation, the two edges of the swords are wide apart at the bottom, and they taper gradually to the other ends of the swords in exactly the same way an ear of maize tapers to the tuft of silk on its distal end.

Hypothesis 1:  The Dover chert swords in the Duck River Cache are effigies of ripe maize ears at harvest time.

Why are the swords in the Duck River Cache of different lengths? The various lengths of the swords in the Duck River Cache could represent varying expressions of ceremonially sought after levels of maize production, with the longest sword representing a maximum possible level of harvest and the shortest sword representing the minimally acceptable level of harvest needed to sustain a particular group of people and meet their social rank obligations. If so, this would further suggest that the high-ranking members of a Mississippian chiefdom and/or its religious practitioners had to be very cautious in negotiating a harvest request with entities residing in the spiritual realm.  In other words, to avoid upsetting these entities, the annual ceremonial maize production request was required to be free of both greed and sloth, and it had to accurately reflect the actual projected subsistence needs and social obligations of the group for a given year. The various lengths of the swords may have been established to allow a highly ranked individual or religious practitioner to select just the right length of sword to use in harvest ceremonies in order to appropriately and symbolically communicate with the spiritual realm the sought after harvest level that would actually meet the projected level of subsistence needs and social rank obligations. One of the key factors affecting the selection of a certain length of sword for ceremonies and the concomitant annual level of need for maize may have been not just the amount needed for local subsistence—but also the amount of maize a local, highly ranked individual owed as tribute to higher ranking individuals at other Mississippian sites and mound centers—and this too might have varied from one year to another. Specifically, this is what is meant by the above term social rank obligation.

Hypothesis 2: Variations in the lengths of the Duck River Cache swords indicate different annual levels of maize harvest sought after by appeal to the spiritual realm via the human ceremonies in which the swords were used.

The hook-shaped objects in the right hands of the two anthropomorphic birdman figures in the Hightower shell gorgets displaying the mortal combat theme look very much like the hooked objects in the Duck River Cache, particularly the two shown in the bottom center of Figure 2. Based on their morphology, archaeologists often assume that these lithic artifacts must surely be effigies of raptor talons.  This may very well be true, but there is another possibility.  One has to ask a key question here.  If the birdman figures on the shell gorgets already have razor sharp talons on both of their feet, why do they need a huge chert talon in their right hands?

It is a fact that morphology and function are closely related, and certain human tools can be independently invented by different cultures that are separated by time and/or geographic distance, simply because the same task in both cultures requires a tool with a particular morphology that is ideally suited to efficiently performing that task. If the chert swords in the Duck River Cache are effigies of maize ears, then the hook-shaped chert objects in the Duck River Cache (Figure 8) could be effigies of Mississippian period corn knives rather than effigies of raptor talons. It is interesting to note that one common type of historical-era corn knife (Figure 9) has a very similar hook-shaped morphology that is ideally suited to harvesting ears of maize. If the objects shown in the hands of the anthropomorphic figures on the Hightower mortal-combat-themed shell gorgets are symbols relating to maize and the harvesting of maize, then the depicted combat stances may instead be ceremonial dancing related to maize harvest ceremonies—like the Green Corn Ceremony posited long ago for this type of shell gorget by Lewis and Kneberg.

Hypothesis 3: The hook-shaped artifacts in the Duck River Cache are ceremonial effigies of Mississippian knives used to harvest maize.

Yes, I know these three hypotheses look somewhat dubious and left field at best—and are very much open to question.  I too can come up with a number of really good reasons why these hypotheses could be far off base. For example, why does the birdman figure on the headsman-themed Hightower shell gorgets have a sword representing an ear of corn in his left hand and a severed head in his right hand?  Ears of maize are not well-suited to the task of severing human heads!  In addition, one could ask why the craftsmen in the Hightower shell gorget shop(s) did not just incise an obviously beautiful and detailed ear of maize onto the gorgets rather than something that looks like a sword weapon. It should also be pointed out that the three above hypotheses are predicated on a major, unstated, and untested presupposition—probably a fatal one. They may be keyed to the Green Corn Ceremony as known from the ethnographic record, but they presuppose that the activities shown on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets depict only fertility and harvest ceremonies conducted on the surface of the earth by mortal human beings.

The reader needs to understand that my main point here is not so much proper interpretation of the Duck River Cache swords and hook-shaped artifacts per se, but rather to simply demonstrate that hypotheses in American archaeology can be obtained from any source—even an imaginative one—if it seems to plausibly fit the known information and data sets to one degree or another. However, the really important thing here is that all hypotheses in American archaeology, regardless of their sources, are subject to testing when the means to do so become available. Then the hypotheses, no matter how good looking, how dubious looking, or how much infused with pitfalls, either sink or swim under the close scrutiny of objective, appropriate, and effective testing.

One other and perhaps more plausible interpretation of the swords and hooked artifacts in the Duck River Cache and on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets has been presented in recent years. Based on recent advancements in the study of Mississippian iconography, Marceaux and Dye (2007:165-184) have expressed the opinion that the activities shown on the Hightower anthropomorphic-style marine shell gorgets occur in the celestial realm, rather than on the surface of the Earth, and they reflect the activities of ancient, well-known mythological characters in Mississippian oral narratives. In this particular case, the celestial characters on the shell gorgets are most likely engaged in some form of mortal combat in the celestial realm and perhaps a dance of celebration after taking a trophy head in that combat. As such, the Duck River Cache swords and hook-shaped artifacts shown on the Hightower shell gorgets are special types of combat weapons native only to the celestial realm and functional for combat without breakage only in that realm. The delicate chert swords and hook-shaped artifacts found in archaeological context on Mississippian period sites are man-made ceremonial versions of these celestial weapons. These man-made chert swords and hook-shaped artifacts, along with other ritual paraphernalia, were used as part of earthly ceremonies in which high-ranking Mississippian individuals recapitulated the celestial combat in their ancient mythological narratives. Regularly putting on this ceremonial display for all of the people living on a Mississippian site directly and symbolically tied these high-ranking individuals (and the rank groups they represented) to these famous narrative characters and the great power of the celestial realm in which they lived and operated. This ceremonial tying together of the earthly to the celestial helped to further legitimate and cement the on-site social ranks and the authority highly ranked individuals and groups held over the general population of a Mississippian mound site and/or chiefdom.

Thank you for reading this post to the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. We sincerely hope this special post for Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month will spike your imagination and create more public interest in the archaeology of Tennessee.


Bass, Quentin R., II 1985.  Sociopolitical and Economic Aspects of the Mississippian Occupation in the Lower Tennessee River Valley.  Manuscript on File, Middle Cumberland Mississippian Survey Project, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Brehm, H.C. 1984.  Duck River Cache: Tennessee’s Greatest Archaeological Find.  Mini-Histories, Nashville, Tennessee.

Knight, Vernon James and Judith A. Franke 2007.  Identification of a Moth/Butterfly Supernatural in Mississippian Art. In Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography (Chapter 6).  Edited by F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber, University of Texas Press, Austin Texas.

Lewis, Thomas M.N.  and Madeline Kneberg 1958. Tribes That Slumber: Indians of the Tennessee Region, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Marceaux, Shawn and David H. Dye 2007. Hightower Anthropometric Marine Shell Gorgets and Duck River Sword-Form Flint Bifaces: Middle Mississippian Ritual Regalia in the Southern Appalachians. In Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Chronology, Content, Context. Edited by Adam King. The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Reilly, F. Kent III and James F. Garber 2011.  Dancing in the Other World: The Human Figural Art of the Hightower Style Revisited.  In Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World (Chapter 13).  Edited by George E. Lankford, F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber.  University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas.

Seever, William J. 1897.  A Cache of Idols and Chipped Flint Instruments in Tennessee.  The Antiquarian 1(6): 141-145.

Smith, Kevin E. and James V. Miller 2009.  Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region.  The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month

Today is September 1, 2015.  This is kickoff day for the Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month throughout Tennessee from Bristol to Memphis and Mitchelville to Ardmore.  As is usually the case, the charge this year is being led by the fine folks at the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (TCPA).  You can check out the scope of the planned festivities at the following two links:

The festivities this year include the 2.0 version of the Tennessee Archaeology Blogfest (formally titled 30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology). Last year’s blogfest was enormously interesting and informative, gaining Southeastern Archaeological Conference attention, and my personal intuition strongly suspects that the 2015 blogfest will be even better than the one last year. Tennessee archaeologists put a lot of energy and care into writing these daily blog posts and illustrating them, so be sure and check for a new blog post on Tennessee archaeology each day throughout September.

If you prefer to sample Tennessee archaeology firsthand in the real world rather than in cyberspace, a list of archaeological events in a Tennessee town near yours has been developed for your inspection.  Please take a look at the list of scheduled events at the second TCPA link above, identify one that fires your imagination, gather up the family, hop in your vehicle, and head on over for a fun and interesting day of archaeological activities, sights, and sounds.

I would like to end by saying that American archaeology and Tennessee archaeology, for all practical purposes, were predominantly “male only” clubs in the 19th century and throughout most of the 20th century.  In spite of Jimmy Griffin and his recommendation against hiring a woman, our own Madeline Kneberg became one of the first women to begin flipping over that all-male apple cart here in Tennessee.  Many other women archaeologists, such as my close friend Dr. Patricia Cridlebaugh and our very own Dr. Lynne Sullivan, have followed in her footsteps throughout Tennessee over the past 46 years. Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, we are strong supporters of feminist archaeology and the many women who are active in Tennessee archaeology today.  As the 2015 Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month proceeds, I hope each of you will stop and take special notice of the many women who are making excellent contributions to the archaeology of the Volunteer State.  In doing so, I also hope the many girls in Tennessee public and private schools (K-12) will be inspired by their work and know that they too can have their own place at the table one day in Tennessee archaeology and be both welcomed and appreciated for the work they do.  Times will continue changing, and the future is yours girls.  You are an agent of change simply by being YOU.  Go for it!!!

Sayre’s Law and Archaeology

This has been a really annoying weekend of enlightened cynicism about anthropology and archaeology for me.  The truth of the matter is that I have always had a love-hate relationship with anthropology and archaeology in the United States. I love the subject matter of anthropology and archaeology, but I hate the people environment.  Yes, it could be “just me,” but other people inside the discipline and outside of it have expressed the same thing to me over the years with regard to the anthropologists and archaeologists they have known. One such person who resided outside the discipline once expressed to me the feeling that most anthropologists and archaeologists are the way they are because they are “Godless idolaters who have never seen the inside of a church.” (LOL)

I think the standard anthropological and archaeological response to my previous statement (and theirs), after the “screw you” part, would be that the people environment is like this in all academic and professional disciplines, so it is not just anthropology and archaeology.  Based on my own personal experience from working in other disciplines for the past 32 years, I honestly have to say that this is not true. The interpersonal pettiness and drama that I (and many others) have observed in American anthropology and archaeology for the past 41 years is almost completely absent in the environmental science, industrial training development, technical editing, technical writing, and engineering fields.  Put that in your ancient elbow pipes and smoke it!!!

My cynical and rather depressing weekend brought to mind a famous law that is somewhat like Murphy’s Law.  It is called Sayre’s Law. The version of Sayre’s Law stated below (with a bracketed item of my own included within it) is my favorite version, which is always accompanied in my mind with a choral item to underline it:

“Academic politics [in anthropology and archaeology] is the most vicious and bitter form of politics because the stakes are so low.”

You can read more about Sayre’s Law and other historical versions of it at the following link:’s_law

The key question in my mind has always been: “Why is it this way?”  Is it because stress levels are high and the stakes really are so low?  Do American anthropology and archaeology naturally attract curmudgeonly people who find it hard to get along with other people? Is there something about anthropology and archaeology that just naturally brings out the worst in people? Is it because working conditions are so bad and resources are so small that people become overly competitive and territorial—and end up devouring each other?  Do anthropology and archaeology people tend to have hypersensitive personalities?  Are most anthropologists and archaeologists Godless idolaters with small hearts and little conventional moral fiber? During my years at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville), I knew only one archaeology graduate student who ever darkened the door of a church with their shadow.  You know:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Maybe that outsider I mentioned earlier was right?  Because of the subject matter they deal with, do anthropologists and archaeologists view their fellow human beings as mere animals with whom they are locked in a deadly Darwinian struggle to survive—so anything goes and may only the strongest survive?  An anthropology professor once remarked to a friend of mine that “…the primary purpose of graduate school in anthropology is not to educate students.  Its primary purpose is instead to “weed out the weak.” (Note to Self:  Stay as far away from that person as possible…oh wait…I already did.)  Personally, I think that sort of thinking is reprehensible, and it deserves several new Hell levels below Dante’s lowest one. If I were an academic professor with students, I would make them work hard, but I would also love them, encourage them, uplift them, and interact with them as if they were members of my own family.  Weed out the weak indeed. What a crock of bullshit!!!

Sure.  You may disagree.  I understand that.  Nonetheless, I know that I am right about this. I have just seen too much strange and tragic stuff over the years—not stuff happening to me—lest you think this has something to do with personal sour grapes—but happening to other people I have known and loved in anthropology and archaeology.  I am out of hypotheses, so I will ask you? What is the damned deal with anthropologists and archaeologists: their coldness, their social distance, their irritableness, their personal conceit, their selfishness, their intense territoriality, their uncommunicativeness, their uncooperativeness, their pettiness, their temperamental natures, their viciousness, their inability to get along with others, their inability to offer apologies or accept them, their heartless behaviors, their poor treatment of women, and their tendency to hold grudges that last for decades?  And yes, being caught up in archaeology and anthropology, I too have sometimes been that way myself—but I also know that it was just plain wrong for me to be that way.

I know ahead of time that no one will respond to this post.  Why?  Most rank and file people in American anthropology and archaeology would be too frightened to respond with anything approaching honesty because they know that what I have said above is true—and they would suffer the consequences in lost jobs, not being hired for jobs, loss of grant funding, loss of promotions, etc.  But I still have to ask the question.  If there is almost none of this sort of behavior in environmental science where I work, in engineering (I work regularly with engineers), and some other fields and professions where I have worked, why must it be like this in anthropology and archaeology?  Why do anthropologists and archaeologists choose to create, live, and work under a cloud of fear—and why do they tolerate its existence?  Any really smart person like John Adams, Samuel Adams, or John Hancock would kick it in the ass and get rid of the oppression because that is no way for any human being to live or work day-in and day-out. Someone needs to break free and lead a revolution.  I am too old and tired to do it—but I do sincerely hope some young person or a large group of young people in American anthropology and archaeology will one day say “enough is enough” and lead that revolution. The nation and the world need a kinder, gentler, and more reasonable American anthropology and archaeology in the 21si century—one that is willing and able to look honestly at its own warts and do something about them.  I am preaching to myself here too.  In American anthropology and archaeology in the 21st century—against the grain should be a way of life—from this moment forward.  Listen to the song:

Important American History Issue: Just in Case You Missed This Elsewhere

My mother, who was born in rural Sumner County, Tennessee, in 1910 and later lived in Gallatin, Tennessee, was very close to the American Civil War. At least one (and I think maybe two) of her uncles had fought as infantrymen on the battlefield for the Confederate States of America (CSA). One sustained a bad head wound, was rendered unconscious by it, fell on the battlefield, and later awoke in situ and very thirsty.  Liquid was flowing past his mouth from uphill, and he assumed that he had fallen at the edge of a small stream. He  began to reach out his tongue to pull some into his mouth only to quickly discover that it was flowing blood from numerous fallen soldiers farther up the hill.  He later survived his head wound, placed my mother on his knee when he was an old man, and told her about this and other battlefield experiences during the war.

I mention this because the American Civil War was still a bitterly remembered experience in Sumner County minds and hearts—even as late as the early 1970s.  In summer 1971, I did some volunteer work for the old southern dowagers (now long dead) who helped maintain The Trousdale Place (home of Clark Chapter 13, United Daughters of the Confederacy) in Gallatin, Tennessee. They too had male family members (like Julius Trousdale) who had directly imparted their CSA soldiering experiences to them.  We conversed quite a bit while I was helping out that summer, and fondly remembering their own childhood talks with their long departed relatives, the old ladies still referred to black Americans as “dawkies,” Dawkie was the word darkey pronounced with a Middle Tennessee Southern drawl. During our conversations, it was always dawkie this and dawkie that—and then do you know what that doggone dawkie did?  Dawkies played a central role in just about every conversation, unconsciously emphasizing the importance of the slavery question in the context of the American Civil War. Being a flower child of the 1960s, all this dawkie stuff (even the word itself) sounded pretty ancient and quite weird to me—even though I was a great lover of American history. Indeed, the American Civil War itself was still referred to by many locals as the War Between the States or the War of Northern Aggression—all to express the shared opinion of the common people that the American South was totally righteous in its warfare against the Union and the Yankee states were totally unrighteous in their pursuit of war against the CSA.

I know. I know. I know. That all sounds so old news to younger folks today in Tennessee, and it seems so yesterday and so inapplicable to present day 2015. Unfortunately, sorry to say, it is actually very current and quite applicable in many parts of the United States today—particularly in Texas.

For most of the past decade, I have supported a grassroots organization in Texas that has been fighting a bitter political war with the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE), which has a majority of Tea Party conservative types (or worse) on it. Unlike here in Tennessee, the Texas SBOE is a state government organization with elected members and enormous power over the curriculum and textbook content in Texas public schools. In fact, Texas public school systems buy so many textbooks that the textbook publishers often print a Texas textbook with Texas SBOE content as a “prototype edition” and then rubber stamp the final edition for sales in the other 49 states.  Were you aware of that?

The Texas SBOE has tried to rewrite the Texas curriculum and the related textbooks so they downplay and question biological evolution.  Charles Darwin is a hated man down Texas way.  The Texas SBOE has tried to make Senator Joseph McCarthy into an American hero like George Washington. Moses of Holy Bible fame is now defined as an American founding father in Texas. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  The Texas SBOE has been highly critical of global warming, the big bang, and other current day scientific issues. It has attempted to strongly downplay the importance of all minority groups in American history. The list goes on and on.  And last, but not least, the Texas SBOE insists that Texas public school students be taught that slavery was not the primary cause of the American Civil War—but rather—only a minor one.  Clearly, historical and scientific revisionism are main courses on the plates of many Texas SBOE members.

Professors at major Texas universities and numerous well-educated Texans, to put it mildly, are furious with these people on the Texas SBOE—and have been at war with them for many years now—because those who are put in charge of Texas public education work constantly at every turn to undermine the education of Texas public school students in the name of educating them.  Public education in Texas has turned into a total zoo that often catches the attention of the national news media.

Current and former conservative members on the Texas SBOE have persisted in their strong belief that slavery had almost nothing to do with the American Civil War—and any insistence to the contrary must not be taken seriously because it is obviously manufactured by Jesus-hating liberals who want to defile Texas school children with their lies about American history and thereby destroy our nation. Unfortunately for them, a very forceful video about the role of slavery in starting the American Civil War has recently shown some potential for stopping them dead cold in their tracks because it comes directly from a U.S. Army Colonel who is Department Head and Professor of History at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York—which is far from being a Jesus-hating liberal organization. Just in case you might have missed it elsewhere, I thought you nice folks who read the articles here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog might like to see this short but stunning video presentation. Just click on the URL below to start the presentation:

Some Quick Notes on Tennessee Archaeology

When an average citizen, avocational archaeologist, or artifact collector mentions something new about Tennessee archaeology that you have never heard, do you quickly grab the nearest piece of paper and pen to jot it down for future reference? The Archaeology in Tennessee blog thinks this is a wise and wonderful thing to do. As noted in a recent post to this blog, I have been in my home office sorting through some archaeology files that are 30-40 years old. One of those old files contained some of my Tennessee archaeology notes that were quickly jotted down during a casual conversation with a knowledgeable Nashville area artifact collector 30+ years ago. I have decided to share these notes with you just for fun. However, instead of offering you the jotted notes per se, which are a bit cryptic, I will offer up my best interpretation of what the notes say.

Quick Notation No. 1

Guy Stack, a famous Tennessee artifact collector in the middle 20th century, died while he was still in office as President of the Tennessee Archaeological Society. After he died his enormous artifact collection was sold in two separate portions. Mr. Malcolm Parker, a well-known artifact collector in Nashville, Tennessee, was retained to appraise the Stack collection prior to the sale. However, before he could appraise Portion No. 1, it was suddenly sold to a Mr. Fowler at the Period Furniture Company in Nashville, Tennessee. Mr. Parker appraised Portion No. 2 of the Stack collection, and it was sold to Mr. Porter Womack (now deceased), who lived in Sumner County, operated a large farm, and worked for many years as a high official in county government.

The Stack collection contained a sculpted statue made of either sandstone or steatite. It was a representation of an ancient Native American individual (male or female). This statue consisted of the ancient person’s head, shoulders, and trunk down to the waist level. It was 1 foot in height and about 6 inches wide. However, the most interesting aspect of this statue was its eyes. The pupils of the eyes were represented by imbedded European trade beads. These glass beads were either red or green in color, and they were somewhat cylindrical in shape, looking like an old wooden barrel. The surfaces of these glass beads had a dull, frosted texture. The statue was found in a farmer’s field along Yellow Creek in the Pond Creek community of Cheatham County, Tennessee.

In the early 1980s, I obtained some more information about this statue and followed up on it with a brief article written by the editor at The Ashland City Times newspaper in Ashland City, Cheatham County, Tennessee.

Archaeologist Seeks Local Info

A University of Tennessee archaeologist is asking for information from residents in the Pond Creek community about an ancient statuette once found in that area by a local farmer.

The statuette, a bust carved in the form of a man or woman and containing glass trade beads as eyes, was purchased from a farmer in the Pond Creek community in early 1963 by a collector [Guy Stack], says archaeologist Tracy Charles Brown.

He originally was trying to find more information about the archaeological site that had yielded what was known as the “Pond Creek Stones.”

The collector purchased the statuette after seeing it atop a wellhouse. It was about 1 foot tall and about six inches wide, Brown says. The collector died soon after he purchased the statuette, and it was sold with a large portion of the remainder of his collection. Brown says no one is sure where the statuette is, and no known photos are available.

He’s asking residents who may have seen or heard about the statuette to provide information for research he is doing on ancient objects such as steel knives, glass trade beads, and brass bells that date back to the Mississippian Period (A.D. 800-1600).

Most finds relating to this type of research have been done by families and farmers living in the area.

Brown asks that anyone remembering anything about the object, including when and where it was found and who found it, to contact him via this newspaper.

The archaeologist also is looking for any available photographs or precise descriptions of the artifact. He says even snapshots which accidentally include the statuette are valuable to the research.

And, he is looking for anyone who has found any other possible examples of those prehistoric items such as trade beads or steel knives.

Anyone with information should call The Ashland City Times at 792-4230 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, or write the newspaper at P.O. Box 158, Ashland City, Tenn. 37015. All information will be kept strictly confidential.

Quick Notation No. 2

This little archaeological event occurred in Allen County, Kentucky, in the middle 1930s. Allen County is located just across the state line from Sumner County, Tennessee. It involved a man by the name of Carl Hix. He and another man were pursuing a groundhog that ran for cover under a fairly large rock. The two men moved the rock by hand in hopes of getting the groundhog. A Native American burial was found under the rock. The buried individual was accompanied by a ceramic vessel with strap handles. It also contained a river cane basket that had been mashed flat. Disgusted with the condition of the basket, the men threw it into the Barren River. An iron tomahawk accompanied the ceramic vessel and basket in this human burial.

Quick Notation No. 3

The Haysboro site, which is called the Maddox site today, was a large site occupied during the Mississippian Period. It also has a substantial historical-era component. Fifteen to 20 feet away from something (not sure what?), a container of musket caps was dug out from 3 feet underground. David Parrish found a steel knife on this site.

Despite the fact that professional archaeologists have never found historic-era Euroamerican artifacts in situ in an undisturbed Mississippian Period burial in the Middle Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee, anecdotal stories about historic-era artifacts found in local Mississippian site contexts have persisted for many decades.  Considering the fact that the Mississippian Period was essentially over with and done in the Middle Cumberland region by about A.D. 1450-1475 and the fact that the once large Mississippian population in the region had vacated the land, it is hard to know what to do with these persistent stories.

Why We Write

During World War II, famous Hollywood director Frank Capra made a series of American propaganda movies entitled Why We Fight. This post addresses Why We Write, and more specifically, why I write here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. 

Be the truth known, I was created to work as a professional writer or journalist. My English teacher identified it without question during my freshman year in high school, but Gallatin Senior High School in Gallatin, Tennessee, pushed its students to concentrate their energies on science and mathematics so we could become technological warriors on the front lines of battle against the Soviet Union.  As a result of that, I was set on the road to a career in science, in my case American archaeology and environmental science.  Nonetheless, the impulse to write and write well was always within me, and it has helped me more than you might imagine throughout my scientific career. For example, when I joined the full-time scientific workforce in 1982, my employers quickly tagged me as the “guy in the office who can write really, really, really well and clean up the writing of our other employees.”  It put me in high demand, and companies were willing to pay big bucks for the guy who could do the science, write like Steinbeck, and edit like the people at Alfred A. Knopf.  Consequently, despite the science, the impulse to write has always found expression in my life in one way or another.

A friend of mine in North Carolina, Pastor John Pavlovitz, has a new post about writers and writing on his Christian faith blogI have reblogged it below for my readers because it is on target about my own impulse to write about archaeology and related matters on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog.  If you are interested in that at all, then hang on every word in John’s article.

Thank You for Bleeding: A Letter to Writers


John Pavlovitz

There’s something all writers know, something that those who don’t write will never truly understand:

To write, is to bleed.

The act of regularly opening yourself up in full view of an army of strangers is choosing to be exposed; to consent to have one’s unprotected innards trespassed upon and rooted through. This vulnerability comes at a great personal price, one that is never really ever repaid. The writer is always in the red.

Though the discipline of writing is one that usually begins in solitude, its evolution is quite the opposite. In the quiet places one bravely breaks open the contents of his or her heart and chooses to share them publicly, not knowing the reception they will receive after they leave the safety of secret. Once outside of the protected confines of one’s head, their every syllable is scrutinized and dissected, parsed and poured over.

Most writers tend to be a confounding collection of paradoxes, having enough vanity to believe their words are worth reading, yet wildly insecure in the offering. They fiercely covet silence but find intoxication in the crowd’s embrace. They are at once bodily prophetic and startlingly fragile. They are hopelessly compelled to create, while fully terrified in the process.

Writing itself is a delicate, volatile mix of sweat and magic. At times the creative process is arduous work and at other times it is an effortless dance. Some days the words are hard-won in bloody battle and others they are easily received, gift-wrapped from the heavens.

Yet no matter how many times they craft something beautiful or meaningful or valuable, most writers live with the ever-present fear that this will be the last time it ever happens. They spend their days feeling like an unworthy lover, certain that their beloved Muse will leave them at any moment, never to return. To write, is to hope the best words are still within you, but to feel without a doubt that they have surely passed.

The writer’s medium is a palette of simple words and yet these words are not come by simply. In every waking moment (and often in dreams and in nightmares), the creative soul searches incessantly for language to speak of things and ideas and feelings where words largely fail all of us. And yet with that deck stacked well against them, the writer continues to flail and fret and wrestle, hoping at the end of it all to have something worthy of the fight; something to say that is worth hearing.

My heroes have always been the poets, the ones who find the rhyme and the song in this life. They take the massive, grand, unwieldy things of the world and make them small enough to hold in one’s hand, and yet they unearth in the most intimate, ordinary moments, treasures of stunning grandeur to be revered.

Most writers don’t write because they must have something to say, but because they have something that they must say. To be silent would be to be disobedient. It is not a choice made, but a burden carried, a calling embraced.

To those who write and create, those who labor in the scalding, urgent crucible of the heart and who dare to speak so that others may hear more clearly, thank you.

Thank you for every new battle you fight with a blank page or an empty screen.

Thank you for risking criticism and condemnation and misunderstanding and attack.

Thank you for overcoming the voices from within and without that tell you to stop.

Thank you for the way you narrate the days we walk through so that we are more attentive or grateful or present in them.

Thank you for bringing clarity, for mending wounds, for lighting dark places, for inciting laughter, for inviting justice.

Thank you for sitting in the secret again, and for once more baring yourself so that others might see themselves more fully.

Most of all, thank you for bleeding.