This is another one of my folksy but true stories about good old times in Tennessee archaeology. It involves a trip I made to Mound Bottom in 1973. Mound Bottom is a large Mississippian Period site located on the Harpeth River in Cheatham County, Tennessee. It is now preserved within Harpeth River State Park. If you need some detailed background information on this site, you may read about it by clicking on the following two safe hyperlinks:
I was an undergraduate geology student at Austin Peay State University in 1973. One of my best friends, who lived on my floor in the Ellington Hall dormitory, was Paul Pitt. At that time Paul’s older brother and sister were graduate students on campus, and he introduced me to them. The Pitt family home was in Ashland City, Cheatham County, Tennessee.
One of the many things I admired about the Pitt family was their deep interest in and firm dedication to the preservation of natural and cultural resources in Tennessee. Their operative mantra was to “take only pictures and leave only footprints.” Because we were all friends, the Pitt family invited me to accompany them on a Saturday excursion to Mound Bottom. In particular, they wanted to ascend to the top of May’s Mace Bluff and show me the large petroglyph of a Mississippian Period ceremonial mace that the ancient inhabitants of Mound Bottom had incised into a rock at the top of the trail. My eyes had viewed this famous petroglyph in photographs, books, and conservation magazines, but I had never actually seen the real thing up close. Naturally, I accepted this kind invitation from the Pitt family.
May’s Mace Bluff is a high stone cliff located on the other side of the Harpeth River and immediately north of Mound Bottom. Cedar Hill Road occupies the narrow space between the river and the base of the bluff. In 1973, a trailhead was present along the edge of the road at the base of the bluff.
We began our hike in the early afternoon at the trailhead, and all of us were soon huffing and puffing our way up the steep trail to the top of the bluff. When we arrived, the ancient mace petroglyph was waiting for us on the face of a huge limestone rock. Figure 1 is an image of this rock and the petroglyph incised into it. Under normal conditions at this location, the mace petroglyph is the same color as the background rock, but red coloration was added to this photograph to highlight the mace and the two iconographic motifs (possibly feathers) dangling from it.
Figure 1. Mace Petroglyph on May’s Mace Bluff
I stopped at the mace, examined it closely, and found myself drawn into deep thoughts about how it was incised, why it was there (and not somewhere else), and how it might have been integrated with the ancient Mississippian ceremonies and rituals at Mound Bottom. All of a sudden, I popped out of my intellectual trance and noticed something a little frightening. My hiking companions were nowhere in sight. Not knowing where they had gone or what to do, I yelled out:
Where are you guys!!!?
A close-by voice, seemingly from out of nowhere, replied:
Tracy, we’re down here!!!
Down here? What down here? We’re on the top edge of a rock cliff 46 m above Cedar Hill Road!
Most of us have a few Halloween bugaboos living within us, and one of mine is a fear of heights. That voice was coming from somewhere just a few steps away, and it sounded as if it came from the cliff edge. I bit my lower lip and carefully moved my feet toward the high edge of the bluff. The edge of May’s Mace Bluff was crenulated with narrow crevices that ran roughly perpendicular to the edge of the bluff, crevices just barely wide enough to accommodate a slim human body. Through one of these crevices, I spied something that looked like a secure, traversable dirt and rock floor. I yelled out:
Are you guys down there on this floor-looking thing?
A voice replied:
Yes, watch your step and climb carefully down through the crevice.
Well, for some odd reason that escapes me, I was feeling really brave that day and slipped through that crevice into a truly amazing place. It was a long rock and dirt shelf that was inset into the high top wall of May’s Mace Bluff——basically forming a high rockshelter.
Memories dim with time, and 1973 was a long time ago. To the best of my recollection, this rockshelter was approximately 3 m deep (front to back), 12 m wide, and 2.5 m high. Having an archaeological frame of mind, my first inclination was to visually scan the dry floor of this shelter for signs of ancient human activity. No artifacts were apparent, not even one flake of chert debitage. A perusal of the rock walls and ceiling revealed no evidence of ancient paintings or petroglyphs. However, because I was a junior-level geology student, one truly striking natural feature in this rockshelter caught and held my attention.
This natural feature was a long layer of rock in the back wall of the rockshelter. It was situated at about human eye level and was approximately 0.6 m thick. This layer was composed of numerous smaller layers that appeared to be about 6.5 cm thick, and these smaller layers had numerous vertical fractures in them. The overall color of these layers, as they appeared that day, might best be described as a dusty, dark indigo. Many of the observed surfaces were flat, and they exhibited a natural patina from many years of weathering. The observed rock was extremely finegrained and dense, looking as if a quick tap from a rock hammer would yield a conchoidal fracture, and it was nothing like the layers of bedrock immediately above and below it. After staring at it for a moment, I said:
My gosh guys! This layer of rock looks very much like the descriptions of bedded tabular chert I have read about in geology textbooks and reference sources. I bet this is a seam of Fort Payne chert.
Until that moment, I had never seen a bed of native tabular chert in the field. As I stood there looking at that seam of chert, the pot simmering on the back burner of my mind held the following words:
Will I be able to slip back through that crevice and get out of this rockshelter alive?
Two other things were boiling on the front burners:
1) Because this layer of dusty indigo material was about at eye level, fractured into good-sized chunks, and easily susceptible to simple removal by hand, I wondered if the inhabitants of Mound Bottom had occasionally quarried tabular Fort Payne chert at this location. Unfortunately, at that point in time, I had never taken an archaeology course and did not know the tell-tale signs of ancient chert quarrying activities. No signs of initial lithic reduction activities were observed in this high rockshelter. The Mound Bottom site was only a few meters from the base of the bluff, so lithic reduction activities on the rockshelter floor might not have been necessary in ancient times―just pull out a few tabular chunks of chert with the hands and take them home in a fiber-mesh bag―very simple.
2) The mace petroglyph was located only a few human steps away from the vertical crevice that provided access to this high rockshelter on May’s Mace Bluff. This petroglyph was obviously linked to Mississippian ideology, social structure, and ritual at the Mound Bottom site. Its specific location was clearly no random occurrence. Perhaps the mace petroglyph and this unusual rockshelter were functionally and ritually related? What might the nature of such a relationship have been?
Dr. Albert Einstein was in love with the utility of imagination in the conduct of scientific inquiry. Consider the following statements (GQ 2013:1-3) by this famous physicist:
1) The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.
2) Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.
3) Your Imagination is your preview of life’s coming attractions.
If it is not allowed to flow too rapidly or go too wild, causing it to outrun its evidential headlight beams, imagination can be quite useful for formulating testable hypotheses in American archaeology.
With regard to Mississippian ideology and cosmology, Carol Diaz-Granados (2011:92) has noted that:
…the bilobed arrow and mace, being two of the major attributes of the Hawk Being (or “Birdman”), belong primarily to the Upper World realm of the cosmos.
According to Reilly and Garber (2007:5), most scholars of Mississippian iconography have come to recognize that the mace motif and the often accompanying severed head motif link the mythological Birdman with warfare.
The presence of the mace petroglyph on the high rim of May’s Mace Bluff was probably locative in nature, identifying the high points along the bluff rim as part of the actual Upper World or as a symbolic manifestation of that Upper World at Mound Bottom. If the mace petroglyph and close-by rockshelter on this high bluff were functionally related, the rockshelter may have been used as a theater stage (for lack of better terminology) where ritual activities and mythological narratives about the Upper World were reenacted for the benefit of people assembled below on the Mound Bottom site. Indeed, much like the story board sequence for a modern motion picture, these high-theater-stage activities may have been logistically coordinated to carefully fit in with and/or punctuate ritual activities underway in parallel on the large plaza below at Mound Bottom.
While poised high on May’s Mace Bluff in 1973, it occurred to me that the ancient vegetation distribution in Mound Bottom was probably very different from what we see today. Because of on-site firewood and construction imperatives, the Mound Bottom site and its immediate environs were most likely devoid or nearly devoid of tall trees. This means the site would have been more open in nature than it is today, and human visual lines of sight would not have been disrupted by curtains of trees, including trees along the banks of the Harpeth River and at the base of May’s Mace Bluff.
Given the overriding importance of Mississippian ideology and ritual in the daily lives of the ancient people at Mound Bottom, it is at least possible that unwanted vegetation growth on the face of May’s Mace Bluff was selectively (and very dangerously) pruned to support ritual activities of life and death importance to the Mound Bottom population—if some of those rituals did indeed require a clear visual line of sight from the Mound Bottom floor to the top of the bluff. If May’s Mace Bluff did have ritual significance, maintenance of this clear visual field would have been absolutely necessary to assure completion of the ritual experience for the Native American people on the valley floor. It should be noted that May’s Mace Bluff is located almost due north of the large plaza area at Mound Bottom, and it was potentially visible from this plaza; the main mound to its immediate west; and the smaller mounds surrounding it to the north, east, and south (O’Brien and Kuttruff 2011: 71-72).
It is now both possible and practical to begin testing this hypothesis in the laboratory and in the field. The techniques and technical approaches necessary to initiate testing are commonly used in the preparation of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). During preparation of an EIS, the potential impacts of a proposed action and its alternatives on the visual environment are assessed. This is often done in the laboratory where Geographic Information Systems (GIS) techniques and other approaches are used to support line-of-sight studies. These studies are used to determine whether a proposed action (e.g., construction and operation of a new federal industrial facility) and its alternatives would adversely affect the visual environment in areas of potential effect.
These same GIS techniques and technological approaches could be used to assess the visibility of ritual and narrative re-enactments in the high rockshelter to ancient people standing on the ground surface at Mound Bottom. Such studies would have to account for average human eye level on the ground at Mound Bottom, how eight centuries of sedimentation in this tight bend of the Harpeth River may have elevated eye level at various locations, the visibility of the rockshelter from the mound tops, and its visibility from various other locations on the Mound Bottom site. If one were to select enough line-of-sight points on the ground surface, these techniques and approaches could be used to define spatial zones on the Mound Bottom site where ritual and narrative activities in the high rockshelter would have been visible, obscured, or invisible.
Somewhat similarly, noise measurement and assessment techniques could be combined with GIS techniques to assess the relative audibility of various sounds (human voices at various levels, cane pipe music, drum sounds, rattle sounds, etc.) emanating from the high rockshelter activities and traveling various distances to points on the ground surface below at Mound Bottom.
If it turns out that no good lines of sight existed between rockshelter activities and the floor of Mound Bottom during ancient times, the hypothesis would be negated. Sound-related results would be a little more problematic to the extent that sound might not have been an important aspect of any ritual or narrative activities conducted on the hypothetical rockshelter stage. However, if certain kinds of ancient sounds emanating from the rockshelter were clearly audible at certain areas on the ground surface and those areas coincided within positive on-site locations defined by the visibility data, it would lend credence to the hypothesis that the rockshelter functioned as a viable theater stage for reenacting activities of ritual and narrative importance that reflected the nature of the Upper World.
The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to end this post with a warning to artifact dealer minions and looters. This rockshelter at the top of May’s Mace Bluff is on state property. Unpermitted digging for artifacts on state property is illegal and punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment under Tennessee law. Violation of Tennessee archaeological resource protection statutes that prohibit illegal artifact collecting will get you into simultaneous trouble under the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 (ARPA). Can you say double-barreled shotgun? As clearly noted in the text above, no ancient Native American artifacts of any kind were visible anywhere in this rockshelter during my visit in 1973——not even a single flake of chert debitage.
I would also add that navigating the tight crevice we slipped through to enter this high-precipice rockshelter was very dangerous. I am a fairly nice professional archaeologist who wishes you no physical harm and knows that your wife, son, and daughter would love to see you arrive home safely every night. That being the case, my best advice to you is to stay away from these dangerous crevices at the top of May’s Mace Bluff.
Diaz-Grenados, Carol, 2011, Early Manifestations of Mississippian Iconography in Middle Mississippi Valley Rock-Art. In Visualizing the Sacred: Cosmic Visions, Regionalism, and the Art of the Mississippian World, edited by George E. Lankford, F. Kent Reilly III, and James F. Garber, 64-95. University of Texas Press, Austin.
Great-Quotes (GQ) 2013, “Quotes by Albert Einstein.” Great-Quotes.com, pp. 1-3. Accessed at: http://www.great-quotes.com/quotes/author/Albert/Einstein, October 13, 2014.
O’Brien, Michael J. and Carl Kuttruff, 2011, “The 1974 Excavations at Mound Bottom, A Palisaded Mississippian Center in Cheatham County, Tennessee.” Southeastern Archaeology 30: 70-86.
Reilly, F. Kent III and James F. Garber, 2007, “Introduction.” In Ancient Objects and Sacred Realms: Interpretations of Mississippian Iconography, edited by F. Kent Reilly III and James F. Garber, 1-7. University of Texas Press, Austin.