Chiefdom on the Cumberland: The History and Evolution
of Middle Tennessee Archaeology
Book Author: Donald B. Ball
Mr. Ball’s book was a most enjoyable read and chocked full of useful information. It was highly interesting, informative, and—quite frankly—a fun experience. The multiple chapter presentation on the history of Middle Tennessee archaeology in the 19th and 20th centuries was particularly worth the read. In addition to being an excellent read, this volume doubles as an outstanding reference source to be kept handy on the bookshelves of Tennessee historians, professional archaeologists, and avocational archaeologists.
This book is a product of both in-depth historical research and archaeological research relevant to the Middle Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee. Most professional archaeologists in the United States are experts in anthropology and archaeology. The author of this book was uniquely qualified to write this particular volume because he has university degrees in both history and anthropology/archaeology—and he was once a citizen of Middle Tennessee. He is also a Registered Professional Archaeologist (REP) who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky.
The first six chapters delve deeply into the long but rarely broached history of things archaeological in Middle Tennessee. Professional archaeology in the truly modern sense did not arrive in the Middle Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee until 1972. Prior to that time, matters of archaeology consisted almost entirely of work by 19th century antiquarians and 20th century artifact collectors—and perhaps just as importantly—numerous regular folks who accidentally plowed up or dug up large numbers of fantastic ancient artifacts on their farms. In turn, this work and these finds gave rise to highly entertaining interpretive mythologies about races of pygmies and giants who once lived and battled across the Middle Cumberland landscape. Mr. Ball has lice-combed numerous old newspapers, highly obscure reference sources, and many other sources to assemble a detailed, delightful, and fun scholarly look at the history of archaeology in Middle Tennessee from its beginnings to the present day—all meticulously undergirded by numerous detailed footnotes and an extensive list of reference sources at the back end of the book.
For three centuries, most of the archaeological activities and research in Middle Tennessee were focused primarily on the Mississippian period (1000 – 1475 A.D.) inhabitants of the Middle Cumberland region, which Mr. Ball has renamed Cumberlandia. Most of the Mississippian peoples of the Southeast are believed to have lived under what cultural anthropologist Dr. Elman R. Service, and many others since, have called a chiefdom level of social organization. Simply put, chiefdoms are ranked societies based on lineage social relations. Mr. Ball argues that most of the Mississippian period research in the Cumberlandia region from the earliest times to the present day has been piecemeal in nature—often driven by individual interest in particular sites, construction-related salvage archaeology, and CRM archaeology.
Until 2015, Mr. Ball rightly argues that no one had ever attempted to pull together all of the disparate, but key, published information on local Mississippian archaeology to formally assess whether a chiefdom level polity, in the true modern anthropological sense, actually ever existed in the Cumberlandia region. In Chapters VII – IX of this book, Mr. Ball makes the first archaeological attempt at actually doing this formal synthetic analysis. His detailed archaeological analysis results in the positing of a paramount chiefdom that for a while (1050 – 1250 A.D.) held significant socioeconomic and sociopolitical sway over the entire Cumberlandia region. His results indicate that the center of authority for this paramount chiefdom was the ranked lineage elite who lived at the large and quite famous Mound Bottom site (40CH8) in Cheatham County, Tennessee. Whether you agree with his analysis and its results or disagree with them, they are important in the annals of Middle Tennessee archaeology for being the first formal, unified, published attempt at such an analysis.
Mr. Ball completes his book with an appended collection of interesting papers and lists on various archaeological subjects relating to the main body of the text. This book has 12 interesting appendices ranging from ancient human remains preserved in Copperas Cave to a long list of ancient mineral springs in Cumberlandia, which could have been used for Mississippian salt procurement. One particularly interesting paper deals with Mississippian period animal effigy tetrapodal ceramic vessels, primarily crafted in the shape of domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). This is a must read paper with many photographs of such vessels. Archaeologists doing research on ancient dogs in North America will no doubt enjoy reading this paper.
Tracy C. Brown