An Unusual Circumstance in the History of Tennessee Archaeology

by Tracy C. Brown

Brown and Chapman II

(Left) Graduate Student Tracy Brown and (Right) Dr. Jefferson Chapman at 40MR23 in the Summer of 1977

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog presents this reminiscent blog article and the accompanying photograph as its official contribution to Tennessee Archaeology Awareness Month for September 2019.

Do you have one or more favorite subjects in Tennessee archaeology or American archaeology? I sure do. The history of Tennessee archaeology is one of my favorite subjects. To be quite honest, I never expected to have any sort of appreciable, front-and-center recognition for my small role in that history. However, on that count,  a strange circumstance and fickle fate caught me by total surprise one day between 10 and 15 years ago.

On that particular day, I was in the midst of performing archaeological research here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and it suddenly became necessary for me to examine some items on file in the archaeology laboratory at the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture on the main campus of The University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK). When I arrived at the museum, the laboratory double-doors were locked, as they always are, even when multiple people are working inside. Therefore, elsewhere in the building, it was necessary to find a museum employee who already knew me to gain quick entrance into the laboratory.

I proceeded into the laboratory, face moving forward, and continued on my business of finding and examining files. After being there quite a while, I happened to turn my head back toward the entrance doors and—much to my surprise—there it was! Someone at the museum had used a plot printer to print out a huge (4-ft X 2-ft), poster-size version of the above photograph showing Dr. Jefferson Chapman and me examining a large sherd of prehistoric pottery. This photograph was tacked to the back side of one of the laboratory entrance doors, and it remained there for many years. Dr. Chapman soon entered the laboratory that day, and I just had to ask the obvious question. Out of the thousands of 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s photographs taken during the Tellico Archaeological Project, why did the museum feel compelled to pick out that one photograph, blow it up to poster size, and tack it to a laboratory entrance door?

According to Dr. Chapman’s response, they were looking through the old Tellico Archaeological Project photographs for some university public relations event, and they suddenly noticed something important—and even a bit shocking. The field photographs for the Tellico Archaeological Project contained no clear, outward visual indication that UTK archaeologists or UTK student archaeologists were wearing or wielding anything clearly showing that UTK personnel were part of the Tellico Archaeological Project. For example, no UTK archaeologist or UTK student archaeologist appeared to have been photographed wearing a UTK tee-shirt or sweat shirt while doing archaeological fieldwork on the project. After looking through all of those old Tellico archaeology photographs, I was the only person who just happened—quite by fickle fate—to be wearing a University of Tennessee tee-shirt when doing Tellico archaeological fieldwork—and at the exact same moment when an official visitor to the site needed to take an archaeological photograph.

Solely for the history of Tennessee archaeology, let us take a closer look at the above photograph and its contents. This photograph was taken in June 1977, during the Tellico Archaeological Project. The Department of Anthropology at UTK was conducting excavations for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that summer. Our first excavations of the season were conducted (as shown in the photograph) in the Middle Woodland component at the Icehouse Bottom site (40MR23) near Vonore, Tennessee. Dr. Chapman was the Principal Investigator that summer, and Ms. Patricia Cridlebaugh was his Field Director.

The main channel of the Little Tennessee River was located approximately 31 meters to the right of the location where Dr. Chapman is standing in this photograph, and our waterscreens were operating only a few meters to the right of where Dr. Chapman is standing. I was working at the waterscreens in the late morning when an official photographer (probably from TVA, the National Park Service, or National Geographic Society) arrived at 40MR23 and wanted to photograph what we were finding. Because I was working close by, Dr. Chapman quickly asked me to come over and be part of the shot. In the photograph, Dr. Chapman and I are holding a large ceramic sherd from one of the 5-foot excavation squares in the background. It was most likely a sherd of sand-tempered Connestee series pottery dating to the Middle Woodland period. (In the old days, southeastern archaeologists used the English system of measurement rather than the metric system, and the standard southeastern excavation square measured 5 feet X 5 feet).

Now, we take a close look at the objects and people in the background of this old photograph. Please take a look at the instrument with the white legs? That was our analog transit, which was used to take horizontal and vertical measurements on our site and to maintain 3-dimentional spatial controls on our excavation work and what we were finding. The digital Total Station most archaeologists use today either did not exist in 1977, or it existed only as a very early version that was far too expensive for UTK to purchase. (Personally, I suspect Total Stations did not even exist at that time.) One of the quirks of the old analog transits involved summer heat. The instrument would get so hot under a blazing sun that it required manual recalibration several times per day to maintain the consistency and accuracy of the field measurements taken with it.

Summer of 1977 was my happiest, ever before and ever after, site excavation work in Tennessee archaeology—with one very important exception. The excavation units at 40MR23 had poison ivy growing at the ground surface on top of them. Its roots extended straight down into the soil about 46 to 71 cm. Apparently, I was the only person on the site who was allergic to poison ivy, and as a  direct result of troweling down squares, I was soon taking steroid injections and prescription pills to deal with a major-league breakout from skin contact with the poison ivy roots. All of those poison ivy block chemicals young archaeologists slather on today to prevent breakouts did not exist way back in 1977. Neither did many of the modern UV-ray blockers, which protect skin from sunburn and skin cancer.

Those thick, gray and yellow, parallel lines far in the background of this photograph are limestone rip-rap and hay-covered soil to prevent soil erosion. They are associated with Fort Loudoun, which was under archaeological excavation by Dr. Karl Kuttruff and his large field crew. Fort Loudoun was a British colonial fort built and occupied by colonial militia from South Carolina in the middle 18th century.

The one thing that rendered these 1977 Tellico excavations so much fun was the unique collection of people on our field crew. We all got along fabulously with each other, and as Patricia Cridlebaugh noted in the Acknowledgements section of her final written report on our Middle Woodland excavations at 40MR23:

My deepest appreciation goes to my field crew who daily performed professionally; often gave more than required, and worked, lived, and played together in unity and good harmony despite an oppressively hot, dry summer. To always have a crew comprised of Bob Asreen, Tracy Brown, Mona Butler, Judy Canonico, David Denny, Leslie Hickerson, Vera Mefford, S. H. Roderick, and Kathy Sarten would be the ideal. Each crew member possessed at least one skill at which he [or she] excelled; however, since a crew runs on its stomach, Sarten’s excellent culinary skills deserve special mention. Also, a very special thanks goes to Judy Canonico who worked harder than the rest of us even though she did so for room and board only.

The people (left to right) in the background of this old photograph are Vera Mefford (a UTK archaeology student wearing her authentic pith helmet), David Denny (a tall UTK archaeology graduate student who had a wonderful sense of humor), Judy Canonico (with her signature white head bandana and navy blue overalls), and probably Bob Asreen (standing next to Judy on her right and slightly behind my shirt sleeve). Patricia Cridlebaugh, Leslie Hickerson, and Mona Butler are working in excavation units somewhere farther to the right and behind me in the photograph.

Ms. Sarten and Mr. Roderick were stationed at our archaeology field camp and its archaeology field laboratory, located far away by road from 40MR23, on Highway 72S, right next to the Carson Island Baptist Church. It was an Evangelical church camp with individual wooden cabins. Each cabin (and its interior overhead wasp nests) could sleep eight archaeologists in bunk beds. The camp also had a separate, wooden kitchen building with a large, screened-in dining area and another large, separate wooden building that served as our archaeological field laboratory. Our camp also had two widely separated concrete block restroom/shower buildings, each associated with the all-male and all-female cabins. The male cabins were distributed in a straight linear pattern along an old fence line on the north side of the camp. All but one of the female cabins were distributed in a long arc behind the kitchen/dining building. The camp cook occupied a more isolated cabin right next to the kitchen/dining building.

With the possible exception of a tiny office in the field laboratory building, our Tellico field camp facilities had no air conditioning. During one week of the 1977 field season, the temperatures (not the heat index) climbed to 100 degrees F. or more—and stayed there for several consecutive days. On one day, which was a regular fieldwork day for us, we had a recorded temperature of 107 degrees F. That was the summer Elvis Presley died. At the end of that long, hot day in the field, we sat around the tables in the dining area—baking in the late afternoon heat—eyes glazed over—staring blankly into the distance—and listening to the latest radio news reports on the death of The King of Rock and Roll. (Think archaeological zombies and The Walking Dead.)

Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology students need to know something important. On some of your worst days, I know many of you quietly mumble the following question beneath your breath like so many other college archaeology students have done in the past:

Is there some sort of worthwhile life out there for me after being an archaeology student?

The members of our 1977 Tellico archaeology field crew pretty much proved that there is, but you have to be smart, focus down, and work hard to make it come true. Our Tellico camp cook (Ms. Kathy Sarten) and I got married (for 40 years now), and we both had long and successful environmental science careers in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Judy Canonico went on to earn a B.S. degree in nursing and worked successfully in the healthcare field. Together, Vera Mefford and her husband (David Mefford—now deceased) started their own corporate consulting company and successfully provided values-based management and employee evaluation/improvement training to major corporations and small businesses. Mona Butler went off to The University of Texas at Austin (UTA) to get an M.A. degree in anthropology—but soon switched over to the law school at UTA. After earning her J.D. degree, she went on to become a highly successful attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Langley, Virginia. David Denny moved back to his native Virginia and became a successful businessman.

Patricia Cridlebaugh, who was a very close and dear friend of ours long after 1977 at Tellico, went on to become the first-ever woman to earn a Ph.D. degree in anthropology (archaeology concentration) at UTK. She worked happily in southeastern archaeology for a number of years, but unfortunately, “Pitty Pat” (a nickname Leslie Hickerson loved), died young from colon cancer in the very early 1990s—leaving behind her beloved dachshund named Bentley and our mutual close friends who lived near her in South Carolina—Wayne Roberts and Carol Roberts. Even now, after 30 years have passed, we all have days when we feel a bit hollow inside over losing Patricia—and would do just about anything to see her alive again. Patricia was a very special person, and those of us who knew her loved her.

Dr. Jefferson Chapman moved on to become a Research Associate Professor of anthropology at UTK, and he later became the Director of the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture. Under his long, wise, and dynamic leadership, the museum improved by leaps and bounds and turned into one of our nation’s best university museums. He retired in September 2019. Whoever succeeds him (be it a man or woman) will have some mighty big shoes to fill.

Unfortunately, we lost track of Leslie Hickerson, Bob Asreen, S.H. Roderick, and their accomplishments across several decades, but they were all outstanding folks,  and I feel certain they were successful in whatever they chose to do in life. Mr. Roderick no doubt retained the same placid face and stiff upper lip for which he was so famous among the members of our field crew.

Historical Lessons Learned:

(1) If you are doing archaeological fieldwork for your university, college, museum, or CRM firm and you feel that you will one day need to use fieldwork photographs for historical, marketing, public relations, or other significant purposes, make sure at least one or more members of your field crew are photographed wearing one of your university, college, museum, or corporate T-shirts on site during the excavations. Future historians of Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology will be glad you did, and that tee-shirt may even be a major clue a future archaeological historian can use to solve a problem in their research. Needless to say, it would be better if the people on your field crews are not photographed wearing tee-shirts or other clothing representative of other universities, colleges, museums, or CRM firms.

(2) Students who are new to Tennessee archaeology are sometimes unaware of the fact that they and their actions are actually creating history and creating (or adding to) Historic period archaeological components. We Tellico archaeology folks contributed our own part to the Historic period component at our archaeology field camp. Our old field camp is still completely above the high water line of Tellico Lake, but all of the wooden cabins and other buildings, which in retrospect were so near and dear to us, were torn down decades ago. The field camp soon became enshrouded with massive vegetation growth. In the early 1990s, Kathy and I picked our way through some of that vegetation to see if any archaeological surface features from our old field camp still existed. All we could find was the poured concrete floor of the screened-in dining room. The vegetation was too thick to search for the concrete floors of our laboratory building and the two restroom/shower buildings. Our cabins had wooden floors poised on corner piers of rock or concrete blocks.

The members of our many Tellico archaeology field crews are now old men and women in their middle 60s and 70s—and probably a few in their 80s or dead. A couple of years ago, I kindly asked Dr. Chapman to look through the official Tellico archaeology photographs to see if he had any candid shots of the kitchen/dining building and candid shots of people in our Tellico archaeology field camp. He could not find any.  Apparently, no one ever bothered to create an official historical/archaeological record (with photographs) for our Tellico archaeology field camp. That is not surprising. When we, as young people, were working, living, and playing there, it seemed so very “ho-hum” current and unimportant.

Now that 43 years have passed us by, Tellico archaeology is seen as a major part of the so-called Second Golden Age of Tennessee Archaeology. Our old Tellico archaeology field camp, and even the nearby Carson house, which housed the Toqua field crew at one time and the Fort Loudoun field crew, are now unique and important aspects of the history of Tennessee archaeology.

All Tennessee archaeologists and historians—you and I—and especially our young folks—need to be more cognizant of the fact that we are not just passing through Tennessee history. We and our activities are creating Tennessee history and laying down new archaeological components or new portions of already existing archaeological components. In the present, we should be recording and photographing what we are doing for posterity—like we should have been doing at our Tellico archaeology field camp.

For example, do we have exterior and interior photographs and recorded information on the West End Avenue building (in Nashville) that housed the Tennessee Division of  Archaeology Office in 1972? What do we know about that office building? Was it state-owned or just rented by the state? Does the building still exist? Do we have its floor plan? Do we know which rooms were the offices of Mack Pritchard and John Broster? I know that would have sounded so very unimportant in 1972—and perhaps even now to some. However, I can guarantee you a Tennessee archaeological historian or historical archaeologist in the year 2210 will be willing to give her eye teeth for those simple bits of information.

We who live in the historical and archaeological present need to be more mindful of recording the seemingly unimportant historical and archaeological details of the present as a gift to future Tennesseans. What seems so current, “ho-hum,” and unimportant today will be important to someone in the future.

Photograph Credit: Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture, Tellico Archaeological Project, Tennessee Valley Authority, and whoever else took official photographs for the Tellico Archaeological Project in 1977.

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