An Urban Legend in Tennessee Archaeology

by Tracy C. Brown

This article on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog was inspired by a small educational institution in Norris Dam State Park, which is located near Norris, Tennessee.  This institution is referred to officially as the Lenoir Museum/Historical Complex. It consists of a museum building with some really nice archaeological and historical collections on display, an operating 19th century grist mill, and a large 19th century threshing barn.  If you are ever interested in a weekend getaway or just a nice day trip, it would be worth your effort to go.  You may read more about it here:

Their collection of prehistoric Native American artifacts has always been small but rather interesting.  Recently, my 11-year-old son and I took at trip down to the Lenoir Museum.  As now displayed, this collection contains a number of unequivocally fake artifacts that would trouble anyone with a strong background in American archaeology.  Some of them are eccentric chert artifacts such as the infamous flint fishhook and the chert spread eagle.  As far as fake artifacts go, those are just run of the mill in nature.

The ones that always catch my eye are the small projectile points/knives (PP/K) that appear to have been knapped from crystal clear bottle glass. This is not to say that an ancient Native American could not have made an occasional PP/K from a perfectly transparent prismatic quartz crystal traded in from Arkansas, but several of the ones in the Lenoir Museum display cases looked fake as a $3.00 bill to me. Whatever the case might be with regard to the authenticity of such artifacts, the overall subject of clear glass artifacts brought to mind a bit of Tennessee archaeological folklore that might now be classifiable as an authentic urban legend.

Urban legends are usually transmitted orally through time, and the story often changes in its details as it is passed on from one person to another. One never really knows if the legend is rooted in some measure of truth or just so much fiction. This legend was passed on to me orally by an archaeology graduate student in Knoxville, Tennessee, sometime in the 1970s. Admittedly, some of the details have dimmed in my memory over the years. Therefore, in passing this legend on to you, I may very well be inadvertently embellishing it with some new elements that will again change this interesting piece of folklore.  Here is the urban legend as I can best recall it:

Once upon a time in Tennessee history, an archaeologist became concerned about several important Mississippian period archaeological sites that were being visited on the sly by artifact collectors. At first, it appeared that the collectors were only doing surface collecting at these sites, but there was a real concern that this somewhat benign activity had already evolved into context-destroying excavation with shovels, picks, and grapefruit knives.

The archaeologist knew a large number of artifact collectors in this particular region of the state through the Tennessee Archaeological Society and various other social contexts. In fact, in the past, many of these artifact collectors had asked the archaeologist over to their houses or to an artifact show to see their collections and newest finds. Unfortunately, the archaeologist did not know which artifact collectors were visiting the archaeological sites of concern. How might this be determined?  Then a light bulb “clicked on” in the mind of this archaeologist.

The archaeologist probed around the house and came up with a bunch of old Mason jars, the kind that had the cursive word “Mason” emblazoned in raised ridges across the exterior face of the jar. Being gifted at chert knapping, the archaeologist proceeded to break the jars into glass sherds and set about using the knapping tools to craft some of the nicest looking Hamilton and Madison points ever made. The archaeologist made many such transparent glass points—perhaps 100 or more. When all of the points had been knapped, the archaeologist took them out to the freshly plowed fields where the archaeological sites of concern were located and liberally scattered the glass points on the ground surface like a 19th century farmer would hand-scatter seeds from a waist bag.  Then the waiting game began.

Pretty soon, the archaeologist started getting telephone calls from several area collectors who had just begun finding the most fantastic prehistoric arrow points made from really-for-real, honest-to-goodness, six-sided prismatic quartz crystals. Of course, the archaeologist was happy to head over to their houses and look at these great new artifacts. Just one look and the archaeologist immediately recognized her/his own crystalline children. The archaeologist finally knew the identities of the collectors who were visiting the sites and was able to take appropriate action to protect the sites.

Not too long afterwards, assorted artifact experts opined to the collectors that their glass points had most likely been replicated by someone. It was pointed out to them that some of the points had unmistakable remnants of the word “Mason” still on them, but the collectors refused to recognize it or believe it because:

“Doggone it!!!  These are real Indian relics because I found them myself—right out there in the dirt on that archaeological site!!!”

If you know any urban legends, possibly true stories, or fantastic true stories about Tennessee archaeology or archaeology in your region of the United States, please share them with us by leaving a comment on this article. Such stories are sometimes instructive and always fun.

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