Dave McMahan: Tennessee Archaeologist and Alaska Archaeologist

by Tracy C. Brown

An ancient verse of scripture says “…there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)  For the past 41 years, I have been lucky enough to have such a friend.  Although we do not get to see each other that often because of the vast geographic distance between us, the feelings are nonetheless there.  His name is Joe David McMahan (Figure 1), better known to my two children as Uncle Dave because he occasionally helps them with their homework across a gulf of 4,122 miles.  Among those of us who know him really well, I would hazard to say that Dave is not only a close friend——–but actually something of a living archaeological legend.


Figure 1.  Dave McMahan on Okhon Island in Lake Baikal (Russian Federation)

Late last year, Dave mentioned to me that he was giving some consideration to retiring from his job as Head State Archaeologist and Deputy SHPO in Alaska. In spring 2013, he turned in his resignation and did indeed retire. Dave is now the owner and head of his own archaeological consulting firm. This firm is called McMahan Consulting.  Some of you who were close to Dave a long time ago but lost touch with him over the years can catch up on his illustrious archaeology and forensic anthropology career by reading the latest version of his curriculum vitae and viewing the website for his new firm. Just click on the following safe links:

Dave McMahan Curriculum Vitae


Dave McMahan has deep family roots in Tennessee and deep roots in Tennessee archaeology.  He is a native Tennessean who grew up in Ashland City, Tennessee, which is a small town near Nashville.  Back in his teenage days (late 1960s and early 1970s), Dave, members of his nuclear family, and some of his many friends were active in the old Cheatham County Chapter of the Tennessee Archaeological Society. He was also an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.  His membership in these two organizations sparked his interest in becoming a professional archaeologist.  I was first introduced to Dave on a warm summer evening in 1973 when he and a couple of his friends attended a local archaeological society meeting at The Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.  The speaker that evening was Tennessee archaeologist Joe Benthall.

The next time I saw Dave was in the summer of 1974. Vanderbilt University was conducting its archaeological field school at Mound Bottom.  H.C. “Buddy” Brehm was going over to the bottom one morning to take a look at the excavation work, and he asked me if I would like to tag along with him.  When we arrived, Dave was doing excavation work as an undergraduate student in the field school.  Dr. Carl Kuttruff and Michael J. “Mike” O’Brien, now in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Missouri (Columbia), were the leaders of the field school that summer.  It was a short day for the field crew, and Buddy had to leave early.  I stayed at Mound Bottom for a while longer, and Dave gave me a ride back to the archaeology laboratory at Vanderbilt University, which was in an old house at that time.  Several of us were really hungry, and Mike O’Brien took us over to Ireland’s Restaurant on 21st Avenue South for a really nice lunch.  We must have spent a couple of hours that afternoon chatting and laughing about assorted archaeological adventures and other subjects.  It was a really fun time for all of us.

I went off to study archaeology as an undergraduate at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville) [UTK] in winter 1974.  Later that year, while walking across the interior courtyard at the huge Presidential Court dormitory complex, my eye caught a familiar figure.  It was Dave.  He too had shown up to study archaeology.  I had a dormitory room in Reese Hall but no roommate, and Dave was looking for a new place to live on campus.  So Dave and I roomed together in Reese Hall during our undergraduate years, and we eventually moved with a couple of our buddies over to Andy Holt Apartments during our early graduate school days. Dave and I grew really close during our student years and had assorted archaeological and recreational adventures together, including the time Dave accompanied our family on a long vacation trip to Edisto Beach in South Carolina.

Dave worked on the archaeological field crew at Fort Loudoun in 1976 and was later a very active participant in the upland archaeological survey work on the Tellico Archaeological Project during the early 1980s. He became deeply interested in paleoethnobotany and eventually wrote his M.A. thesis on the paleoethnobotany of the Late Woodland Mason phase for the Normandy Archaeological Project.

In 1980-1981, Dave and I wrestled with some unusual paintings of ancient bison and human figures on the walls and ceiling of the Cave of the Medallions near Smyrna, Tennessee.  The two bison were painted in profile with a combination of black and reddish brown pigments. We suspected the paintings were fakes because the depicted even-toed ungulates were not American buffalo (Bison bison) but rather a species of bison dating to the Late Pleistocene epoch in Europe.  Nonetheless, we decided to do a little deeper research after Dave collected a sample of the black paint, took it back to the paleoethnobotany laboratory at UTK, and quickly discovered that it contained ground up eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) charcoal.

This was during the early years of Charlie Faulkner’s ground-breaking work on mud and rock art in Tennessee caves, and he came along with us on one of our trips to the cave. Dave and I excavated a small test unit beneath the first bison painting (on the cave ceiling near the main entrance) and found no evidence of prehistoric or recent human activity.  No evidence of ancient human activity was apparent at other locations within this short, narrow cave. My later background research on recorded and unrecorded speleological visits to the cave indicated rather clearly that the paintings were indeed fakes.  They had been applied to the interior surfaces of the cave between 1955 and 1962. Someone had taken significant time, energy, and care in recreating an ancient European ritual atmosphere in this cave. Unfortunately, early personal attempts to definitively identify the contemporary artists who executed the paintings proved futile, but our friend H.C. “Buddy” Brehm later took up the search with some eventual success.

One other memorable archaeological adventure came in 1982 when Dave and I performed Phase II archaeological testing at the Marshall site, which was located on Terrace 1 (floodplain) of the French Broad River near Morristown, Tennessee.  It was in the dead of winter—a very cold and wet winter with a lot of wind out on the river flats and a fluctuating high water table.  We would excavate a 5-ft square down to a depth of about 2 ft, come back a couple of days later (after the water table had risen), and find that our square was filled with water.  It rained or snowed every other day. Bailing out test units and fighting against the rising groundwater became a day-in and day-out affair. We were always cold, wet, and covered in mud.

Somewhere in the testing process, I came down with a really nasty sinus infection and sore throat, one of the worst infections ever for me.  It persisted for weeks on end, and my doctor threw tons of medication at it to no avail.  Finally, I had to just go home, crawl into bed, and wait it out. We finished the fieldwork successfully by early spring, but the very thought of doing winter field archaeology in upper East Tennessee is still not a pleasant one for me. In the formal preface to Dave’s site report, Charlie Faulkner included a cautionary note to the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) about the not-so-good wisdom of doing future Phase II testing in this sort of floodplain environment during upper East Tennessee winters. Clearly, Dave was more rugged and adaptable to such difficult field circumstances than me and my immune system.

The first indication Dave might exit Tennessee archaeology came in 1977 and 1978 when he took summer seasonal jobs with the U.S. National Park Service to do archaeological survey work on the Arctic Slope in Northern Alaska. He brought back numerous color slides of these adventures, and this was the first time I had ever seen survey archaeologists with heads wrapped completely in mosquito netting——held in place by choke cords around their necks.  How bad are mosquitoes on the Arctic Slope in summer weather?  Let me put it this way.  Have you ever ventured into a coastal wildlife refuge in South Carolina or Southern Florida in a T-shirt and shorts before a summer sunrise? Thousands of no-see-ums, mosquitoes, and other flying insects envelop your body in a swarm and eat you alive. You can multiply that swarming experience by at least a factor of five on the Arctic Slope.  The swarming lasts all day long and consists almost entirely of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.

While I was still an archaeology graduate student, my girlfriend and I got married.  Dave was our wedding photographer, and Wayne D. Roberts (recently retired Chief Archaeologist at the South Carolina DOT) was my best man. Five years later, Dave got married, and I had the honor of being the best man at his wedding. It was a grand outdoor wedding at Big Ridge State Park here in East Tennessee, and it was my job to pay the clergyman after the service.  Sorry to say, just after the service, I got rather excited by a reconstructed prehistoric structure on the ground surface about 1,000 ft from the wedding site and immediately took off on foot to take a closer look. After a few moments of gazing at a circle of posts planted in the ground, I happened to look over my shoulder and saw Charlie Faulkner coming towards me in haste with a big smile on his face, “Hey!!!  Did you forget something??!!”  Yes, I forgot to pay the preacher that day.  He did eventually get paid.

Not too long after his wedding, Dave bought a surplus truck at a U.S. Department of Energy excess property auction at the K-25 Site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  After helping us move to a new house in 1983,  Dave packed up the used truck with all of his belongings and set out overland on a long one-way trip to Anchorage, Alaska. This was very much an act of faith and courage on Dave’s part because he did not have an archaeology job or any other kind of job lined up in Alaska. However, he was determined and persistent in pursuing archaeology opportunities after he arrived, and a very good archaeology job with the State of Alaska did eventually come. Dave settled in and became a master of doing archaeological fieldwork in the remote Alaska wilderness (where very dangerous brown bears roam) and with scuba diving gear in the frigid underwater wilderness of coastal Alaska. He also mastered deep snow that starts in September, winter days that are essentially night all day long, and an occasional bull moose in his back yard. Dave never came back to Tennessee again except to visit family and old friends.  The rest is now archaeological history in Alaska and Soviet/Russian Siberia.

Dave still lives in Anchorage today.  He is now married to Ms. Patricia Browne, a native of Wisconsin who earned an undergraduate degree in anthropology at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks) and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). Patty also has significant work experience in the anthropology and archaeology of Alaska.  As a result of his marriage to Patty, Dave has two step-children and a fine grandson.  Dave and Patty also have a couple of lovable Great Danes to keep them company on cold winter nights.

Update on May 6, 2019: Today Dave and Patty McMahan no longer live in Alaska. They own a house near Dave’s original hometown of Ashland City, Tennessee. They also own a lake-front home in Wisconsin. Each year they split their time between living in the Ashland City area and living in Wisconsin, as well as sometimes going to Alaska to do archaeological work. Therefore, for all practical purposes, Dave and Patty are in Tennessee and Wisconsin for big portions of every year, and they are both still interested in American archaeology and in doing archaeological projects. If you have some archaeological work that needs to be done in Tennessee, Wisconsin, Alaska, Arctic North America, or Arctic Siberia (Russian Federation), please get in touch with Dave and Patty by using the contact information at the website links (above).

3 thoughts on “Dave McMahan: Tennessee Archaeologist and Alaska Archaeologist

  1. Lonnie

    Where is the cave of the Medallions, Me and GF were looking around for it close to this new housing development in Smyrna. I would love to explore it myself.

    1. dover1952 Post author

      Hi Lonnie. I am not sure how to get there, and I do not have a map that shows its location or a road route to get there. The last time I was there was about 40 years ago. A person forgets an awful lot after that many years. It was in a rural location near Smyrna in 1981, but as fast as the Nashville area has been growing, there is no telling what might be there now—could even be a shopping center—or a housing development like you said.

      In my hometown back in 1972, a construction company destroyed the entrance to a very long cave and sealed it off completely, possibly with dynamite, and certainly with heavy equipment that filled in the cave mouth to where no one could enter it or even find the entrance. I think they later built businesses and residential housing on that land—-probably right on top of where the cave entrance was located. This same thing could have happened to Cave of the Medallions.

      Your local public library in Nashville may have a copy of a book entitled “Caves of Tennessee” by Thomas Barr. Tom was the first person to survey that cave, and he included a description of it in his book. He may have a small map or driving directions to it in that book, if you want to look it up. I do not have a copy of his book here in my office.

      To be honest with you, it is not a cave worthy of exploring—just to be doing recreational cave exploring—because there is not much to it at all. It is a very narrow cave that you can stand up in. However, it consists of one main passage about 150 feet long or thereabouts and a smaller, shorter side passage with a separate outside entrance. The main passage ends with a huge pile of heavy breakdown rock that seals off anything that might exist beyond it. The cave paintings on the walls and ceiling are the only items of any interest in the main passage.. No Native American artifacts are present in the soil of the main passage or side passage. Even the metal medallions that were found in it—a local legend from which the cave gets its name—were probably a hoax. No one has ever seen these medallions that were supposedly found there a long time ago, and that is likely because they never existed in the first place.

      I have no idea who owns the cave today, but my best guess would be that its ownership has changed hands since 1981—maybe several times. I cannot recall his name, but the guy who owned the Cave of the Medallions in 1981 was really old, and he is probably long dead. Before entering the cave, you will need to figure out who the current landowner is and ask for his permission to explore the cave.

      Tennessee law makes it illegal to enter a cave without permission from the landowner, and it is also illegal to dig for artifacts in a cave, take natural souvenirs from the cave, or to destroy, vandalize, or otherwise deface anything in the cave, including any graffiti or the cave paintings.


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