Happy Thanksgiving

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is taking this special opportunity to wish all of its American readers a happy, joyful, and fun-filled Thanksgiving with your family and friends.  For any of our international readers who might not already know, we Americans are taking a special four-day holiday weekend that includes a Thursday holiday called Thanksgiving, which was established by Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War (1861-1865).  It is a time when most Americans reflect upon the many blessings and otherwise good things that have happened in their lives throughout the past year.

For those of you who may be interested, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) is airing a really well done—meaning Ken Burns quality—historical documentary on The Pilgrims. It will be shown in the Knoxville area today (Tuesday, November 24, 2015) at 8:00 p.m. EST on the local PBS station.  It will be shown today in other areas too, and it will be shown on Wednesday or Thursday night in some areas of the nation.  Be sure to check your local TV listings for the day and time in your area.

It is our understanding that this documentary takes a close look at the lives and struggles of the pilgrims in 17th century England; their voyage to the New World on the sailing ship Mayflower; their settlement on the coast of New England; and the many trials and tribulations they went through trying to adapt to the natural and cultural environments of their new home.  This is the true, rare, realistic, gritty, and no-nonsense historical version of the pilgrim story rather than the fantasy-filled pablum many of us were served by our 5th grade teachers when we were growing up, If your childhood view of the pilgrims and Thanksgiving are a soap bubble, prepare to have it popped.

The day following Thanksgiving Day is called Black Friday because it is the first day of the Christmas shopping season when American retailers hope to begin putting their accounting books for the year into the black rather than the red. Here at the blog, we are worried about this Black Friday—and with good reason.  The radical Islamic elements that have launched the recent terrorist attacks in Egypt, Turkey, France, and Mali have thus far left their primary American enemy alone, which we think is really strange.  We have noted that the masterminds behind these attacks appear to have some sort of curious fascination with a bizarre poetic justice and the choice of culturally meaningful days to inflict it. For example, Al Qaeda chose September 11, 2001, to attack the World Trade Center buildings in New York City because of the American 911 emergency call number.  The recent ISIS attacks on Paris were selected for Friday the 13th, a traditional bad luck day in western civilization.  Following this pattern, we here at the blog feel that Black Friday is a poetic justice day too flavorful for the Islamist masterminds to pass up.  Black Friday may be the day when we Americans get hit to round out the recent spate of attacks.  It is the one day out of the year when Americans crowd together in public places in the highest numbers—meaning millions of crowds to attack.

We have chosen to avoid crowds on this Black Friday.  This day is never much fun for our family anyway, so nothing valuable is lost.  Whatever your choice might be, please be on the alert all around you and be ready to duck for cover if needed. Immediately report anything that looks strange or unusual to the police or other security authorities.  Pray that no terrorist attacks will come to our American lands on this Black Friday.

Pros and Cons of Professional Archaeologists Consulting and Collaborating with Artifact Collectors

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to kindly and respectfully call to your attention the just issued November 2015 edition of the The SAA Archaeological Record, which is a bimonthly magazine publication of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA). For our many readers who are not professional archaeologists and might not know, the SAA is the primary membership organization for professional archaeologists working in the western hemisphere, which of course includes the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and South America. This month’s edition of The SAA Archaeological Record contains a series of articles organized and edited by my colleagues and friends Dr. Bonnie Pitblado in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, and Dr. Michael Shott in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Akron in Akron, Ohio.  All three of us share a research interest in the potential for increasing future consultations and collaborations between professional archaeologists and responsible artifact collectors. The overall set of eight different articles by various authors is entitled Pros and Cons of Consulting Collectors.  You may read these excellent articles, including one by our very own and dearly beloved Dr. Robert Connolly at the University of Memphis, in the following PDF file:

The SAA Archaeological Record Nov 2015

Pages 37 and 38 in the concluding article by Bonnie and Mike are devoted to a section entitled Where Can (Should) We Go from Here.  It ends with six bulleted items describing actions that can be taken by a future SAA Interest Group or by any individual archaeologist to further advance ethical relationships between professional archaeologists and artifact collectors.  Bullet 6 reads as follows:

Embrace mechanisms that introduce collectors and professional archaeologists to one another, so they can learn first-hand what each has to offer. Tracy Brown, a private sector archaeologist in the southeastern U.S., recently launched a blog called “Can Artifact Collectors and Archaeologists Find a Way to Get Along and Collaborate More?” with the tagline “Exploring the Chances for Mutual Reconciliation, Peace, and Cooperation” (https://archaeologyreconciliation.wordpress.com). Brown’s blog features sections devoted to topics such as “Collectors Submit Questions to Archaeologists” and vice-versa, and it offers a productive way for nervous professionals and collectors alike to stick a toe in the water and get to know one another.

The indented quote above is our formal and very cordial invitation to all of you professional archaeologists and artifact collectors in Tennessee, the United States, and throughout North America and South America to visit the new blog at the link in bold gray above, get to know each other, respond to the 10 calls for information input to the blog, and discuss whatever thoughts and concerns you might have. We need your participation for this blogging effort, and the word “participation” means we need you artifact collectors and professional archaeologists to actually use your typing fingers to write in your questions and thoughts on the blog pages. When you get to the blog, just click on one or more of the 10 requested information categories in the wide, black band on the Main Page; suspend your fingers above your keyboard; and start writing under the categories.  An example entry is shown under each category to give you a general feel for the kinds of things you might write. Write anything you like. There is no word limitation.  Write a little or write a lot about what concerns you.  It is all up to you.

Finally, for all of you CRM archaeologists, archaeology graduate students, and archaeology undergraduate students out there who are perennially paralyzed with fear that your name might appear on something even remotely associated with the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, you can use a fake name to post responses instead of your real name when posting on the Can Artifact Collectors and Archaeologists Find a Way to Get Along and Collaborate More? blog.  We need your input too because you and what you think are important to us.  Let me repeat that.  You and what you think are important to us.  If the SAA is not afraid of catching our cooties, there is no reason for you to be afraid.  Truth is, despite what your boss might think, we actually do not have any cooties.  We are just genuinely human, very casual, and dedicatedly informal here—admittedly a little fun and somewhat weird at times—and we are not at all afraid to talk about difficult or traditionally forbidden issues in Tennessee archaeology or American archaeology.

Come on over to the new blog and help us out with this national communications and research effort in American archaeology.  The link to the new blog, once again, is as follows:


“The Big One” (The Atlantic) Bites Down Hard on Opaque Academic Writing

Annoyed Reader

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to share with you a new article just published in the popular literary journal The Atlantic. It is our sincere hope that all Tennessee archaeologists, American archaeologists, and others with an anthropological frame of mind will read this new article and take it seriously—dead seriously.  Here is the link:


As some of you already know, I have detested for many years the opaque garbage that passes for sound academic writing, especially in the realms of anthropological method and theory in general and archaeological method and theory in particular. In fact, I have spent whole weekends—whole weekends of my life when I wanted to be doing something fun—in anger and emotional despair from trying to read through certain academic journal articles and book chapters that were impenetrable.  My first inclination was always to accuse myself of being illiterate and just plain stupid in the face of these opaque monoliths, but the Summa Cum Laude at the bottom of my undergraduate degree from a major American university always whispered back, “You don’t really believe that do you?” Then, In the middle 1980s, a Princeton University alumnus who had majored in English and had been pursuing a career as a professional writer opened my eyes and dried my tears with a brilliant article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. As it turned out, he was equally outraged at the poor quality and impenetrable nature of the academic writing he was encountering during the course of his own research and writing.  His article took bad academic writing to task in a scathing assault that left nothing but a wasteland in its wake—scorch and burn—and he used specific examples of impenetrable academic writing to illustrate it.  After reading his article and pondering all of my lost weekends, my feelings of anger and despair were finally vindicated.  In a move that I especially appreciated, he identified academic writing in the social sciences as the overall worst offender in all of American academia.

Several years later, I would begin pursuing a life-long dual career as a professional technical editor and science writer in a small Tennessee town devoted to science. Throughout that career, I would gain a firsthand, in-depth appreciation for just how lousy and opaque a lot of academic writing can be—and it had nothing to do with brilliant academic authors occupying higher planes of thought, reasoning, vocabulary, and terminology that we mere mortals beneath them could never attain. Instead, it had everything to do with disorganized thinking, lack of thinking, equally disorganized writing, saying one thing when the author meant another, and an amazing inability to state easily understandable ideas simply and clearly so the reader could understand what the author was saying—and this was in addition to all of the poor grammar, bad syntax, misused words, incorrect acronyms, omitted words, and so forth.  From my own experience, it became even more clear to me that the Princeton alumnus had been right on the money with his article.

With all of that said, I agree thoroughly with Victoria Clayton and her new article in The Atlantic entitled “The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.”  In my carefully considered opinion, no reasonable excuse exists for producing opaque academic writing aimed at nothing more than impressing a few academic colleagues with an intellectual high-wire act to gain esteem and promotions—and screw the rest of the world if no one else can understand what has been written. This nonsense has to stop in academic anthropology and archaeology, and I can think of one very good way to begin the process of stopping it.

I have paid out an enormous amount of money in federal and state taxes across the course of my life, and now that I am an old guy who will soon be living on a fixed retirement income, I worry about how my American tax dollars are being spent.  Many anthropology and archaeology projects in the United States are funded by my tax dollars, and I would bet good money that the research behind many of these opaque, high-wire acts in journal articles, books, book chapters, and other printed media are financed to some extent by those tax dollars. From now on, rather than sacrificing a weekend in despair and tears trying to read through and understand one of these academic monstrosities, a more productive use of my time might be copying the academic monstrosity and sending a copy of it to the President of the United States, my U.S. Senator,  my U.S. Congressman, and the Governor of my state.  This would afford me an opportunity to complain about the fact that the document is so opaque that a person trained in the discipline cannot even understand it—so how is any other taxpayer going to understand it—and then state in no uncertain terms that I really resent seeing my taxpayer dollars spent on opaque garbage like this—and please pass this formal complaint on to the head of the federal or state funding agency that financed the writing and production of this monstrosity.  If enough American taxpayers were to do this or some version of this over time, we might be amazed at how rapidly some of these weekend-killing anthropology and archaeology documents would begin to show up written in crystal clear English that any person with a good college education can understand—and of course—we mere mortals would gladly help our high school diploma neighbors, friends, and family members to understand them.

Fortunately, as a Tennessee taxpayer and as a professional scientist with a background in anthropology and American archaeology, I am proud to say that over the past 44 years I have never seen a Tennessee anthropologist or archaeologist publish one of these opaque monstrosities.  We do pretty well here in Tennessee.  It is the academicians in the other 49 states that worry me and this old taxpayer’s wallet.

Oh sure, I can hear it now:

How dare you!!!  Why this is an outrage and an impingement on my academic freedom!!!  I must be accorded the opportunity to write and publish unintelligible garbage that no one but me and a few colleagues can understand.  I have no responsibility to anyone else but myself, my colleagues, my university, and my discipline.

My response to that is simple and very straightforward. Your academic freedom to be an irresponsible, incompetent, unintelligible, and noncommunicative academic writer ends where my anthropology and archaeology tax dollars begin.  The American public and its tax dollars deserve much better than what they are getting from many anthropological and archaeological academicians out on the American landscape.  Do not be surprised if a formal inquiry from a U.S. Senator, U.S. Congressman, or State Governor crosses the desk of your department chairperson and your own desk one day in the future. No more lost weekends!!!!  No more!!!

Photograph: The Huffington Post

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:


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 21st 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: