New Archaeological Excavations in Downtown Knoxville

Some interesting new archaeological excavations are occurring in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, this summer.  These excavations are sponsored by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the archaeological fieldwork is being conducted by Tennessee Valley Archaeological Research (TVAR), a cultural resource management (CRM) firm headquartered in Huntsville, Alabama.  A news story about these excavations was published today in the Knoxville News-Sentinel.  You may read the story and watch some video about these excavations at the following URLs:

http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2013/jul/10/archaeologists-unearth-downtown-knoxville/

http://www.knoxnews.com/photos/galleries/2013/jul/10/archaeologists-uncover-knoxvilles-past/

http://www.knoxnews.com/videos/detail/tva-mandated-dig-unearths-knoxville-history/

Some of you may remember the massive demolition of 19th century buildings and houses that took place (ca. 1980-1981) to make way for the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville.  At that time, my wife and I lived in an upstairs apartment on 11th Street, which was right across from the great L&N railroad gulch that separated downtown Knoxville and the Fort Sanders residential neighborhood.  My friend and fellow graduate student in archaeology (Dave McMahan) lived in a basement apartment just around the corner from us.  As a result of our unique residential locations, we were among the first to notice the extraordinary numbers of subsurface features and artifacts that were being uncovered by the demolition and earthmoving operations on the site.  Nearly every place one looked in this vast sea of disturbed soil, distinctly visible archaeological features were present.  These included a large number of household cisterns that had been abandoned and filled to the rim with coal ashes and household refuse.  Numerous pit features were also present in the back yards of lots where old houses had once stood, and these pits were filled with patent medicine bottles, whisky flasks, wine bottles, brown snuff jars, and numerous other 1800s artifacts. 

This extensive razing and earthmoving occurred at just about exactly the time when Dr. Charles H. Faulkner at the University of Tennessee was beginning to have a strong turning away of research interest from prehistoric archaeology to historical archaeology in the Knoxville area.  Dave McMahan and I, along with a few other graduate students, soon alerted Charlie to the archaeological remains being uncovered in such profusion on the 1982 World’s Fair Site.  To the extent possible at that time and with essentially no funding, Charlie and some of us graduate students volunteered on weekends to walk over the site, record whatever archaeological information we could, and salvage artifacts.  This was by no means a formally organized and full-blown archaeological project—just a handful of caring and committed people doing whatever we could before bulldozers completely destroyed the archaeological record at this site.

Looking back on it with 20/20 hindsight and across a gulf of 31 years, all of us probably expected something of archaeological interest to turn up when earthmoving began on the 1982 World’s Fair Site.  However, I suspect that we did not anticipate the extraordinary numbers of 19th century features and artifacts that actually presented themselves when heavy equipment operations got underway.  I further suspect that we all learned something very important as a result of this experience.  Much like the cases in Rome, London, and Prague, the current-day city of Knoxville overlies the buried archaeological remains of earlier times in Knoxville—even in densely urban downtown Knoxville.  Furthermore, those remains may be much more numerous per unit area of ground surface and far more extensive than one might think initially.  Past construction of the numerous buildings and complex networks of infrastructure that we see today did not totally obliterate the archaeological remains of an earlier city, and archaeological excavations on proposed construction sites can still offer an interesting and satisfying glimpse of the older “Knox Patch” beneath the current one.  Indeed, one of the great legacies of the 1982 World’s Fair was the fact that it alerted us to the wonderful archaeological record that underlies Knoxville and ensured that we would henceforth take it into full consideration during the early planning phases of new urban construction projects.  Although required to do so by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and 36 CFR 800, the Tennessee Valley Authority and its in-house CRM staff still deserve enormous credit for their due diligence with the proposed downtown construction site highlighted in the above news story.

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