Recent Archaeology in Oliver Springs, Tennessee

The Oak Ridge Archaeological Research Institute (ORARI) has spent several days researching, exploring, and recording a previously uninvestigated archaeological site in Oliver Springs, Tennessee. Yesterday was our last day of work at the site—mostly a day to tie up a few loose ends. Because the heat was brutal and our tasks were few, we had planned to tie up our loose ends in about one hour. However, an unexpected but welcome opportunity to obtain even more information and data on the site presented itself in the form of a very nice man in a white pickup truck who drove onto the site and parked next to the ORARI archaeology van. We struck up a conversation with him and quickly learned that he had been a student (1947-1955) at a former school building that once occupied a portion of the site. He was able to fill in some significant historical and architectural information gaps we were concerned might go unfilled. Consequently, we ended up spending an extra hour sweltering in the afternoon sun, asking detailed questions, and taking copious field notes.  We were grateful for the opportunity!

No small or large archaeological project ends without taking a crew picture (Figure 1). The old guy with the “chrome dome” in the center is me—the Field Director.  The other two folks served as my volunteer Field Technicians at the site.  They also happen to be my fine and beloved children.


Figure 1.  Left to Right: Leah C. Brown, Tracy C. Brown, and Aaron W. Brown

The archaeological site consists of two discrete areas. One is the former location of a small school that was constructed in 1916 to serve Grades 1 through 8.  This school was operated until 1967. Soon afterwards, the abandoned school building was turned into a neighborhood community center.  Unfortunately, this originally square, two-story, brick school building burned down on Saturday, August 30, 1975.  The burned remains were razed, and a new neighborhood community center was built in the late 1970s. In fact, it was built right on top of the location once occupied by the old school building.  All that remains of the old school today are a set of exterior concrete stairs embedded in a soil embankment along the street in front of the school, a walkway from these stairs to the front of the former building, and a portion of a fragmented sidewalk that paralleled the front of the school building.

The other discrete area of the site is a small, sandstone rockshelter located in the general vicinity of the school, but also historically related to the school in an unusual way.  This rockshelter is approximately 20 feet wide, 5 feet high, and 18 feet deep (front to back).  The floor is primarily soil that contains some chunks of breakdown rock—but no boulders that are evident at the soil surface.  The soil floor is dusty like wood ashes in some places and somewhat damp and compact in other places. Over the years, this rockshelter has been visited frequently by those local citizens who are aware of its presence, and this has resulted in a large, unattractive accumulation of modern bottles, cans, and other disposables on the soil surface inside the rockshelter.

Sometime in the 19th century or early 20th century, a local citizen found evidence of a prehistoric occupation in this rockshelter, primarily in the form of lithic artifacts. Word of it eventually filtered down to the students who attended the nearby school. According to Snyder E. Roberts, the 20th century historian of Oliver Springs, some of the students at the old school were found to be absent from school in the morning or absent from class later in the day on various days throughout any given school year. Whenever a teacher discovered these absences, she would initiate a search for the missing children—only to find that they had quietly sneaked off the school grounds and over to the rockshelter to dig for projectile points/knives and other prehistoric artifacts. Apparently, this happened quite often over the years, establishing a clear and persistent historical and cultural connection between the school and the rockshelter.

Eventually, this rockshelter became more widely known among local citizens, and it attracted teenage/adult artifact collectors bent on digging. In fact, during our visit to the rockshelter, a small but shallow “looter hole” of very recent origin was observed and photographed in the floor of the rockshelter (Figure 2).


Figure 2.  Recent Looter Hole in the Floor of the Rockshelter

The irregular floor surface in the rockshelter today suggests quite a lot of other past digging has occurred, the floor undulations reflecting a combination of long-abandoned, small, shallow, open holes and associated backdirt piles.

It should be noted that ORARI makes a deliberate and concerted effort to avoid disturbance of intact or disturbed archaeological deposits whenever possible because our orientation is decidedly toward site recordation and preservation rather than site excavation.  The ORARI crew did not perform any sort of excavations in this rockshelter or on the site of the old school—and we did not collect any artifacts. Our effort at this archaeological site was restricted to deep background archival research, informant interviews, making field observations on the school grounds and in the rockshelter, taking tape measurements of various surface features, recording the current community center (almost 50 years old); taking field photographs, collecting information/data via extensive field notes, and writing it all up, along with some interpretations, in our daily electronic field manual entries. In other words, good field archaeology does not always entail a shovel or trowel in the ground—nor should it.

Now that our on-site work has been essentially completed, we have plans to identify and interview any local individuals who may still own artifacts they found while digging in the rockshelter floor or on the steep soil embankment just outside of it. We will take a close look at the artifacts, photograph them, and identify temporally and culturally diagnostic pp/k’s and ceramics to help us determine how many prehistoric components are present in the rockshelter and determine the date ranges when the site was occupied during prehistoric and historic times. The results from our archival research, fieldwork, and interpretations will be recorded on a standard electronic Archaeological Site Survey Record form for permanent filing in the Tennessee Register of Archaeological Sites (Tennessee Site Survey Files) housed at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.  In addition, we plan to write a report on this work and similar work we are doing at several other archaeological sites in Oliver Springs and its vicinity.

Finally, just in case this site is of interest to anyone doing rockshelter research in other parts of Tennessee, this particular rockshelter is located barely inside the Cumberland Mountains and very close to the boundary line between the Cumberland Plateau physiographic province and the Ridge and Valley physiographic province—where limestone and dolomite meet  sandstone.  This is also arguably a site right on a major ecotone boundary line between two significant biomes and in a small area with a very high concentration of natural mineral springs and freshwater springs. Depending on how disturbed the archaeological deposits are (or are not) at depth in this Oliver Springs rockshelter, it might pose a future opportunity for Tennessee archaeologists to compare and contrast rockshelter occupations in a similar environmental setting along the western escarpment of the Cumberland Plateau to an occupational regime at a rockshelter site on its eastern escarpment at a location much farther south than in upper East Tennessee.

Because of some rather severe safety constraints, we were unable to closely examine this Oliver Springs rockshelter for prehistoric rock art or historically interesting graffiti. However, we may be able to do this at some future date.

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