This time we will walk together down memory lane in Tennessee archaeology. One of my most interesting and vivid personal memories involves excavation of the Cherokee townhouse at the Tomotley site (40MR5) during the Tellico Archaeological Project. Sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority and National Park Service, the Tellico Archaeological Project was conducted in the lower portion of the Little Tennessee River basin near Vonore, Tennessee. This was the location of the historic Overhill Cherokee towns in the 18th century. The third largest of these towns was called Tomotley, and it was excavated by the Department of Anthropology at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville) in 1976. The Field Director that summer was Dr. Gerald F. Schroedl, and his Field Assistant was the very capable Mr. Robert Newman. The summer of 1976 was blazing hot with no shade from the sun. In that respect it was a truly miserable field season, but it was also a field season spent with many new friends and acquaintances.
The townhouse was a large, public building that functioned as the meeting hall and central ceremonial center for an Overhill Cherokee town. This facility was very interesting at Tomotley because it consisted of two key parts. One was a large, circular building with eight central support posts that were well over 1 foot in diameter and went down into the subsoil about 4-5 feet. This townhouse had a circular central hearth made of hard-fired clay, and the outer rim of the interior space was lined with sitting benches mounted on wooden posts in the ground. The other key part of the townhouse was a long, rectangular, open-sided structure to accommodate sheltered outdoor proceedings. This structure was situated right next to the large circular structure. For those of you who might not be familiar with it, this structural tandem appeared to be a traditional descendant of the ancient, paired winter and summer houses that date as early as the Middle Woodland period in the eastern Highland Rim area of Middle Tennessee. The round structure was the rough equivalent of the winter house, and the rectangular structure was the rough equivalent of the summer house.
Within the circular townhouse at Tomotley, we excavated the large, deep postmolds all the way to their bottoms, and I was working on the ground surface in close proximity to them. All of a sudden one day, this thing that looked like a small bird flew into the area where a few of us were working and plopped itself straight down into one of those eight large, deep central postholes. Then another came. Then another came. Then another came. Then another came. Then another came. And the procession continued for several days. Some of us were getting seriously concerned as to what these things might be. They were the size of birds, but they were clearly not birds. Finally, one of the crew members threw a trowel at one of these odd creatures and hit it in mid-air before it could enter a posthole. After it fell to the ground, we went over to examine it closely. In the ensuing days, after we had figured out what they were, several others were killed for the bodily protection of field crew members working near the townhouse postholes.
Now, before we proceed any further with this story, please allow me to provide you with some accurate scientific and observational perspective because my memory is clear as a bell on this—and unless done—I doubt that you will believe what I am about to tell you. Dealing with small details and accurate measurements is part and parcel of what I do for a living. In fact, over many years, I have become very good at accurately sensing the measurements of objects by simply looking at them.
The flying creatures being swatted at the Tomotley townhouse postholes turned out to be eastern cicada-killer wasps (Sphecius speciosis). They looked like birds because they were carrying dead adult cicadas with them, specifically to drop them into the deep Tomotley townhouse postholes. By excavating those postholes, we had apparently created some sort of ideal environmental/habitat circumstance for this species of insect and its reproductive behavior. Wikipedia indicates that the maximum length of the cicada-killer wasp in the eastern United States is 2 inches, which is itself probably fairly rare. The ones our crew members swatted were easily 3 inches long (without the attached cicada). I had never seen wasps that large. One of the swatted cicada-killer wasps had a protruding stinger—a really long one (about 0.5 inches), and its diameter was the size of a four-penny finish nail. I repeat that—a four-penny finish nail. This is why we were so scared of them and felt the need to swat them. Being stung by an average, run-of-the-mill wasp is bad enough. We wanted no part of that giant spike at the end of the cicada-killer wasp abdomen.
When I was growing up in Middle Tennessee, I never saw a cicada-killer wasp, not even a smallish one. I have lived here in East Tennessee for 39 years and have done a lot of outdoor activities. Since the summer of 1976 at Tomotley, I have never seen another cicada-killer wasp as large as those at the townhouse. The few that I have seen since 1976 were only a little longer than 1 inch. This leads me to believe that what we were witnessing with these insects was something rare and seldom seen.
We members of the United Methodist Church are not given to flights of spiritual fancy, but a round spot on the back burner of my mind kind of wonders whether our archaeological “meddling” with the long-abandoned civic and spiritual center of an Overhill Cherokee town in the dead heat of summer opened some sort of brief portal or Twilight Zone-like window into some rare, unusual, and often hidden corner of the natural-spiritual world that played itself out inside that townhouse circle for several days. Looking back on it, it was downright amazing and more than a little unsettling.