Tag Archives: Tennessee Archaeology

Dr. Carl Kuttruff, our Tennessee Archaeology Friend, Has Passed Away

Carl Kuttruff

Tennessee Archaeologists Having a Technical Discussion in the Woods Long Ago

Left to Right: Carl Kuttruff, John Broster, and Brian Butler

Our Tennessee archaeology legend and friend, Dr. Carl Kuttruff, passed away on July 23, 2017, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Many people in Tennessee archaeology knew Carl much better than I did. However, I had several fond encounters with him. Carl worked for a number of years at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee, and I first encountered Carl while he was leading the Vanderbilt University field school at Mound Bottom circa 1974.

My next encounter with Carl came in 1976 when I visited his massive excavations at the Fort Loudoun site in Monroe County, Tennessee.  That was one really hot summer with no air conditioning and little shade. Carl and his field crew were occupying the old Carson House, a white, 19th century Victorian farmhouse located just off Highway 72S in Vonore, Tennessee. At the same time, our University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), Tellico Archaeology crew was occupying an old church camp a short walk down that highway from the Carson house. Members of both field crews visited with each other often that summer. During off hours, Carl and his crew set up a volleyball net at the Carson House, and members of the two field crews had some lively volleyball matches that summer. How they had enough energy to play so much volleyball after long, sweltering summer days in the field was a monument to the enthusiasm of young archaeologists—–and no doubt to the socially lubricating powers of tequila.

Carl’s work at Fort Loudoun resulted in his now famous book entitled Fort Loudoun in Tennessee: 1756-1760, a comprehensive, thick, and quite heavy hard cover volume covering the history of the British colonial fort, its archaeology, replications, exhibits, and interpretations.  A very small amount of human skeletal remains was found during Carl’s excavations at Fort Loudoun.  He was kind enough to ask me to analyze them for him, and the results were included in this book.

My fondest remembrances of Carl go back to 1976-1977, or thereabouts, when Carl would make visits to UTK to give talks or conduct research. He often came on winter nights when it was frigid cold outside. Rather than spend a night at an expensive hotel, he would bring his backpack and sleeping bag with him. Dave McMahan and I were sharing a small dormitory room in Reese Hall (Presidential Court Complex) on campus at UTK. Carl would come by for a visit and ask if he could spend the night with us and sleep on the floor of our dormitory room.  We were always glad to see Carl and welcome him into our room for some conversation and a good night’s rest after a long day.

An obituary for Carl was published recently in The Advocate, a local newspaper in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, the last few words of his obituary were not published. We are not sure why. It may have been an editorial mistake or a decision forced by limited publication space. Whatever the case might be, you may read Carl’s obituary by clicking on the following safe link, and when you get there, please notice a clickable button that allows you to leave a personal message of condolence to the members of Carl’s family:

Obituary for Carl Kuttruff

Carl was a nice person who I found to be kind, friendly, and easy to get along with.  We will all miss Carl very much.

Photograph Credit: Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology

State Archaeological Permits: They Are Not Like Fishing and Hunting Licenses

Looter Holes

Thousands of Random Digging Holes in a Middle Eastern Archaeological Site

Most professional archaeologists do not keep track of the various “goings on” in the avocational archaeology and artifact collector communities. I do to a certain extent and so does my friend Doug Rocks MacQueen in the United Kingdom, as well as a few other professional archaeologists I know. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when I was growing up in the Nashville area, there were no professional archaeologists. If a kid wanted to learn something about American archaeology or Tennessee archaeology, local libraries were of little help. The only way to learn anything at all about prehistoric Native Americans was to get in touch with a local avocational archaeologist, such as Buddy Brehm or John Dowd, or call on various local artifact collectors. That being the case, I became familiar with those folks, felt at home with them, and enjoyed interacting with them—and still do with the ones who are friendly and receptive. I suppose this is why, every once in a while, I take a break from whatever else I am doing with American archaeology and tune in to what is happening in those communities. I am writing this blog post because of one particular issue that I have encountered several times on visits to various on-line artifact collector venues over the past few years, so this post is kindly directed to the many folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector communities.

I cannot recall what the specific on-line venue was because it was about three years ago, but an artifact collector in one of the 50 states had written in to ask if it was legal for a person to dig for artifacts on private property in that state. He was told that it was legal to dig for artifacts on private property as long as he got written permission from the property owner and a written state permit from the official state archaeological authorities. His response was something along the lines of the following:

Well, that is good news!!!  I know a farmer in my state that has an archaeological site on his land, and I feel certain he will give me permission to dig in it.  So, I will just apply for a state permit, pay them a few bucks for the permit, and start digging.

Some states actually require a written state permit to perform any kind of excavations for artifacts and/or archaeological information on privately owned land. One good example of this is the State of Oregon.

Here in Tennessee (and in most other states), it is only legal to perform archaeological excavations on state-owned or state-managed property if a person gets a written permit to do so from the appropriate state agency. Here in Tennessee that agency is the Tennessee Division of Archaeology in Nashville, Tennessee.

So, if you are an artifact collector, it is easy as pie. You just ask a private landowner or state official for permission to dig, pay a few quick bucks to the state like you do for your fishing or hunting license, grab the nearest shovel, and you are on your way. Right?  Wrong!!!!

Face Palm. No. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it does not work that way here in Tennessee or in any other state I know about—including Oregon. State permits to perform archaeological excavations are not anything like fishing licenses or hunting licenses. They are far more serious business and far more difficult to obtain. Here is a list of a few typical specifics that will explain what you would have to do to get one of these state permits to excavate on an archaeological site:

(1)  You would have to be a professional archaeologist with an M.A. or Ph.D. degree in archaeology (or a related field) and meet the minimum professional standards and years of supervisory and excavation experience specified by your state. Truthfully, in most states, they will prefer far more than just the minimum qualifications.

(2) You would have to fill out a standard state application for a permit. This application usually asks for a lot of detail and attachments (e.g., a map of the proposed excavation area).

(3) You would have to write and submit to the state a formal proposal to do archaeological research. In this proposal, you would need to set forth the specific archaeological problems to be addressed by your excavations; show how you are going to address them (formal research design); justify the proposed work; and demonstrate that you have sufficient qualified personnel, funding, equipment, laboratory space, artifact curation plans, and levels of funding. You would also have to present a formal schedule for successfully completing your proposed work. This research proposal is not a quick-and-dirty, one-page deal in most cases. It takes multiple pages, and you have to do serious, high-quality scientific writing; know how to use professional archaeological terminology; and exhibit a deep understanding of archaeological science, archaeological field methods, laboratory procedures, and archaeological logistics.

(4) You would submit yourself to the official supervision of state archaeological personnel through occasional or regular announced and unannounced visits to your archaeological field operations and/or laboratory operations. You would also be required to submit weekly or monthly progress reports to the state and the sources of your funding. In other words, a professional state archaeologist would be breathing down your neck a big part of the time to make sure you are doing the work responsibly.

(5)  When your fieldwork and laboratory work are completed, you would be required to write and submit a formal, highly detailed, written archaeological report on your work, including reports on site background, historical context of the site, lithic analyses; ceramic analyses; zooarchaeological analyses; analyses of paleoethnobotanical remains; palynological analyses; human osteological analyses, if human burials were excavated; and radiocarbon dating and other dating methods that were used, etc. A typical report with interpretations of the site remains could run several hundred typed, single-spaced pages, including numerous figures, tables, and appendices.

(6) Arrange for boxing, accurate provenience labeling, and permanent curation of human remains and artifacts in a safe facility approved by the state and in compliance with any state statutes or regulations applicable to curation.

(7)  Unlike fishing and hunting licenses, these are not general permits that are issued only one time—and afterwards a person can excavate anywhere in the state on any private property, state property, or state-managed property they like. Normally, each new site-level excavation project requires a new permit specific to the work proposed for a particular archaeological site. However, exceptions that include multiple site research can be made, depending on the nature of the proposed work.

(8) Now. Pay close attention here. If you do not personally dig random holes into archaeological sites and never plan to do so, I am not talking to you here. So relax. However, if you do put random digging holes into archaeological sites, you may not like this, but I have to be honest with you here.

There is a very long American history of some artifact collectors (not all) [without formal archaeological training] putting random, spatially uncontrolled digging holes into archaeological sites. Digging without grid squares in this random, three-dimensionally uncontrolled manner destroys the ancient archaeological story written in the soil on archaeological sites. You can see what this random, massive destruction looks like in the sad photograph at the beginning of this blog post (above).

Many thousands of American archaeological sites (and many sites right here in Tennessee) have been destroyed in this same manner by such random, spatially uncontrolled, and unrecorded digging. Archaeological information that would fill whole libraries has been lost forever as a direct result of such digging. Consequently, I and most other professional archaeologists get really nervous at the idea of letting an artifact collector loose with a shovel and grapefruit knife on any archaeological site with intact cultural deposits. As a direct result of this long history of artifact collectors and artifact dealer minions destroying sites, most state archaeological authorities will never—I repeat—never issue one of these state permits to an artifact collector. As an artifact collector, your chances of obtaining one of these state permits—in any of the 50 states and U.S. territories—are about the same as your chances for personally resurrecting George Washington from the dead. I know that sounds provocative and harsh.  It was not meant to hurt your feelings. It was said that way to emphasize the baseline truth of the matter so you will not forget it.

I hope this article has cleared up most of the confusion that exists among some folks in the American and Tennessee artifact collector communities, particularly for novice artifact collectors, about state permits to excavate archaeological sites on private property, state property, or state-managed property. Obtaining one of these permits to excavate is not anything like paying a few quick bucks to the state for a fishing or hunting license. Getting one of these written permits to excavate requires a lot of professional archaeological expertise, a lot of professional experience, and a damned lot of deep thought and hard work.

Artifact collectors and professional archaeologists in many different states, and a lot of foreign countries, read the various articles on the Archaeology in Tennessee blog. If you have specific questions about obtaining one of these state permits, please consult with the office of the State Archaeologist in the particular state you have in mind to do archaeological excavation work. The many specific requirements for obtaining a written state permit can vary some from one state to another.  Please click on the following safe link to get the contact information for the Office of the State Archaeologist in all 50 states and U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico:

Contact Information for State Archaeologists

New Book Available: Chiefdom on the Cumberland

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog is proud to announce the publication of a new book on Middle Tennessee archaeology.  After many years of dedicated research and writing, Mr. Donald B. Ball has just completed a book presenting the history and evolution of archaeology in Middle Tennessee and focusing on the Mississippian archaeology of the Middle Cumberland region. The title of the new book is Chiefdom on the Cumberland.  This hardcover book contains 408 pages, including the main text, copious annotations, 12 appendices, more than 65 pages of references, and an extensive index.  The publisher is Borgo Publishing, a full-service, independent publishing company headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  This is the same excellent company that published Mr. Ball’s recent, 2-volume editorial work entitled Stone Age Man in the Middle South.

Cumberland Chiefdom

You may read more about Chiefdom on the Cumberland and Stone Age Man in the Middle South in the following flyer from the Borgo Publishing Company:

Borgo Publishing Flyer

We believe Chiefdom on the Cumberland and Stone Age Man in the Middle South are must own books for anyone interested in the Mississippian archaeology of the Middle Cumberland region of Tennessee, Middle Mississippi Valley, and Southeastern United States. The Archaeology in Tennessee blog highly recommends both books to you. You may purchase the new book right now at Amazon.com or the Seattle Book Company for the price of just $55.  Stone Age Man in the Middle South is also available from Amazon.com.  Please click on one or the other of the following links to make your purchase of the new book:



Donald B. Ball has a B.S. degree in history from Middle Tennessee State University (1970) and an M.A. degree in anthropology/archaeology (1977) from The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. Upon completion of his graduate studies, Don accepted a job offer for an archaeologist position with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Louisville District, in Louisville, Kentucky. He managed cultural resources for USACE until his retirement in 2004. Throughout his long career, Don has maintained an unusually wide range of professional interests that include (but are not limited to) prehistoric archaeology, historical archaeology, the history of American archaeology, history of Tennessee and the United States, Southern Appalachian folk culture, grist mills, historic cemeteries, and firearms artifacts. His list of excellent professional publications is both long and formidable. For a number of years, Don was the editor of the Proceedings of the Symposium for Historic and Urban Archaeology. Currently, he serves as the editor of two regional journals, Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology and The Millstone: Journal of the Kentucky Old Mill Association. In addition to being a member of several professional organizations and archaeological societies, Don is a Registered Professional Archaeologist in Kentucky.

Oukonunaka – Set Your Atlatl Darts on Stun

For the past three years, the Archaeology in Tennessee blog has published numerous posts aimed at audiences that were presumed to already have significant knowledge of Tennessee archaeology and American archaeology. These target audiences were professional archaeologists, museum professionals, avocational archaeologists, and artifact collectors. One of our goals for 2015 is to reach out even further with posts designed to inform the average Tennessee citizen about assorted matters (both small and great) in Tennessee archaeology. This post starts out small by examining a bifacial lithic tool that sometimes arises in casual conversations among citizens in Tennessee.

Some Star Trek fans are familiar with the smallest language details written into the scripts for the early television episodes and later movies. One such detail is when Captain Kirk orders Spock and other members of an Enterprise away team to “set your phasers on stun.” At some unknown point in Tennessee history, someone introduced the average Tennessee citizen to the notion that ancient Native Americans in our state could set their projectile weapons on stun.

It was 1960, and I was just 8 years old. At about that time, a relative of mine who collected Native American artifacts took me with him to a plowed field near Portland, Tennessee. I was told we would be spending our afternoon eyeballing the ground surface for something called Indian rocks. This broad term subsumed the term arrowhead, which I already knew about from watching sagebrush sagas on television.

The average man on a Tennessee street in the 1960s knew about as much about Tennessee archaeology as he does now―almost nothing. Raw material for flaked lithic tools was called flint in those days. If a flint artifact had an acute point on its distal end, two sharp blade edges, and an area on the proximal end for hafting it to a wooden or cane shaft, it was called an arrowhead. In reality, most of the so-called arrowheads that people found in plowed fields dated to the Archaic Period (8,000 – 700 B.C.) and were never used on arrows. Instead, they were used as knives or as dart tips for an ancient American dart-throwing device known as the atlatl. This unusual term was derived from the Nahuatl language, which was spoken by the ancient Aztecs in Mexico. Anthropological linguists later classified it as a member of the Uto-Aztecan language family. In Tennessee, use of the atlatl was common throughout the Archaic Period, but its use declined during the later Woodland Period (700 B.C. – A.D. 900), eventually giving way exclusively to the bow and arrow. However, the Aztecs in Mexico were still using the atlatl when Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes and his men arrived on their lands in A.D. 1519.

Our plowed field near Portland exhibited a very high density of prehistoric artifacts dating primarily to the Archaic Period. Even as a child, I knew what prehistoric dart points looked like and found a number of them at various locations as we walked the corn rows. Every once in a while, I was surprised to encounter a dart point that looked as if its tip had been broken off―and the broken area had been finely flaked into an excurvate edge all the way across while also creating a steep, angular profile on the newly flaked edge. Figures 1 and 2 show examples of this commonly found lithic artifact.

Hafted Endscraper I

Figure 1.  Highly Excurvate Putative Stunner

Hafted Endscraper II

Figure 2.  Projectile Point/Knife Flanked by Four Putative Stunners

I asked my uncle why the ancient Native Americans did this reshaping of dart points, and he did not know for sure at that time. Throughout the rest of my childhood, I sometimes wondered why ancient Native Americans did this lithic reworking on the distal ends of broken dart points. There were no Tennessee archaeologists in the Nashville area to consult about the matter, and the poorly stocked Sumner County Memorial Library had no reference books to clear it up.

During my teenage years, a local man and his colloquial wisdom briefly entered my life. To this day, I cannot recall who he was, but he is most likely dead by now. The subject of these rounded-off dart points came up in a conversation with this guy, and the old man’s wisdom flowed forth something like the following:

Why boy!!! I know what them thangs are. Them’uns is stunners. The Indians used normal arrowheads with sharp points to kill their game, but sometimes they just wanted to stun their prey rather than kill it. They would take a broken arrowhead, round off the end, put it on an arrow, and let the flying force of the arrow stun the game when it hit.

I did what most teenagers do―look upon such adult wisdom with skepticism. Why would an ancient Native American want to stun an animal when he could just kill it with a single shot? Stun an animal so he could kill it later? Either way, it was going into the boiling bag, so why not just kill the beast outright? Did he want to start a small Native American petting zoo? Considering the frequent and widespread occurrence of this artifact type throughout the Nashville area, that would have been a whole bunch of Archaic Period petting zoos, which seemed a bit left field at best. It also seemed unlikely that the force of a rounded-off point on an atlatl dart or arrow would stun a large animal like a white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginanus). In short, the old man’s explanation made no sense to me.

The old man was indeed wrong. This type of lithic artifact is not a stunner. No such thing as a lithic stunner exists anywhere in Tennessee archaeology today, and it never has at anytime in the past. It is pure mythology. However, this piece of archaeological mythology was not just confined to one old man in the 1960s. Today this stunner mythology still circulates across Tennessee and anywhere else in the United States where this type of lithic artifact is found. It even circulates among people who have at least some knowledge about Native American artifacts―but should know better. If you are ever inclined to visit the many websites where ancient artifacts are bought, sold, and traded, it is not at all unusual to see the words “Stunners for Sale.”

The original source of stunner mythology is apparently unknown. An on-line search using several different keyword queries was conducted in hopes of finding some reliable historical information about who originated this “stunning” notion, where it began, and how it spread. One would think that at least some information about it would be floating around in cyberspace, but this inquiry turned out to be fruitless. On a related and amusing note, in an item published in the 20th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1896), Gerard Fowke notes that Charles Colcock Jones, Jr., the famous 19th century Georgia historian and antiquarian, believed Native Americans in the southeast designed this artifact as a special projectile tip for shooting off the heads of birds. Why would ancient Native Americans want to shoot off a bird’s head rather than shoot some other part of its body? You can travel back through time and ask C.C. Jones that one.

In archaeological reality, what is this odd lithic artifact? Archaeologists who specialize in prehistoric lithic analysis refer to it as a hafted endscraper or endscraper reworked on a projectile point/knife. The latter is most accurate because other kinds of unifacial and bifacial endscrapers could also be hafted. Most of these endscrapers are made from the proximal ends of accidentally or intentionally broken atlatl dart points or knives―or versions of these artifacts that got resharpened nearly to nubs and cried out for one last alternative use. Archaeologists believe they were hafted to short handles (about 20 cm long). They were used for scraping animal hides and other soft materials such as wood. The steep, angular bit end of this tool is generally considered to have been the ideal geometry for scraping tasks, although some of these ancient endscrapers exhibit sharp, straight edges rather than excurvate, steeply beveled ones. As previously noted, these artifacts are most often found on archaeological sites that date to the Archaic Period in Tennessee, particularly the Middle Archaic Period (6,000 – 2,500 B.C.) and the Late Archaic Period (2,500 – 1,200 B.C.). However, they are not exclusive to such sites, meaning they can also show up in archaeological sites and components dating to later time periods, perhaps sometimes as redeposited artifacts, as curated artifacts that were found and used, or as old projectile points/knives that were found and reshaped for scraping.

Photographs – Mr. Peter A. Bostrom at the Lithic Casting Lab in Troy, Illinois, kindly gave us permission to use his two photographs of endscrapers reworked on projectile points/knives.

Beans, Beans…on Southeastern Archaeological Sites

The Archaeology in Tennessee blog would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture on its newly initiated research effort aimed at developing a prehistoric bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) database for the Southeast. This database will support a study of the emergence and distribution of beans during the late prehistoric era—and a dating program for certain selected beans recovered in paleoethnobotanical samples. Curator Dr. Tim Baumann at the museum can no doubt fill you in on the details of the research design, and we were told by one of our Facebook friends that Tim has posted a brief story about this research on the Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology (bless their little pea pickin’ hearts) Facebook page—so everyone be sure and head on over to that excellent on-line location (https://www.facebook.com/Tennessee.Archaeology) in the coming hours and days to read more details about this research effort.

We were also very pleased to learn that Bush Brothers & Company of Knoxville, Tennessee (the world famous bean processor and canner) has contributed funds to finance this project.  We had no idea they were interested in southeastern archaeology, but we are very glad they are.  In our honest opinion here at the blog, the fine folks at Bush Brothers make the very best and tastiest canned bean products on the market.  We love the baked bean products at our house—and If you can find them on your grocery shelf—their speckled butter beans are to die for—really.  Therefore, we recommend the full line of Bush bean products to all of our readers.  So, go buy some beans from the Bush Brothers right now and contribute to archaeological research in Tennessee and the American Southeast.

Maize has been and will continue to be an important focus of paleoethnobotanical studies in the Southeast.  However, what our culture sometimes refers to as the “lowly bean” was a potentially important player in the prehistoric diet because of its high protein and supplementary amino acid content.  So, we here at the blog say, “Maize shmaize y’all!!!  Turn in your beans for the database!!!”

Beans are happy-making things too!!!  It has been our experience that American archaeologists in general love “classic” bean humor.  This was certainly the case on Tennessee archaeological sites in the 1970s and 1980s—been there—seen that.  Fifteen people would be busily troweling down 5-ft squares, and some young man would be telling everyone about the great Fourth of July cookout he had just attended and how the Boston baked beans were especially good.  All of a sudden, a Project Director or Crew Chief would call out (audible across the entire site), “Beans, beans…!!!”  This cue would soon be followed by a deluge of some of the most creative and funny impromptu short poems one could possibly imagine:

Beans, beans!!

They’ll never fail ya.

Eat too many

And they’ll really nail ya!!

Maybe this is one reason why the exact role of beans in the late prehistoric southeastern diet has been a little more fuzzy and hard to pin down than the clearly overwhelming role of maize.  Perhaps ancient Native Americans knew what Mel Brooks knows about chuckwagons, beans, and cowboy campfires?

Yes, we know beans in the right quantity would have added extra protein, important amino acids, and other nutrients to the diet that could have ameliorated the malnutrition side effects from the eating-too-much-maize problem during the Mississippian Period. However, if your teeth were massively decaying from maize sugars and the population of your village was already in compromised health from eating way too much maize, would you have really wanted to add the bean’s potential for severe intestinal cramps and diarrhea to that mix on a daily basis? Sometimes, if you already have a compromised health condition, the compromised state itself can make you more susceptible to negative physical symptoms you might not otherwise have from something so simple as the common bean. We know this is really bad archaeological interpretation and even worse paleoepidemiology—but it is something to think about—if only briefly.

PBS Antiques Roadshow Appraises Duck River Cache and The Ancestor

by Tracy C. Brown

Note: For many decades, the male statue in Figure 1 (below) was referred to casually by the nickname “Sandy” in discussions among professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists, and artifact collectors in Tennessee. It is my understanding that the Native American community in Tennessee was not pleased with the nickname “Sandy” and thought it to be disrespectful. In response to this concern, the name of this male statue has been changed to “The Ancestor.” This change in name refers to the current archaeological interpretation that male statues like this represent the original founding male ancestor of the chiefly hereditary lineage that governed the Mississippian period Sellars Mound site near Lebanon, Tennessee.  Therefore, we have changed the name to The Ancestor in the main blog article below.

This was an interesting and surprising evening! While the rest of my family was at a concert, I prepared some food in the kitchen at home, plopped my bottom into a den chair, munched on dinner, and watched some television. After Erin Burnett had regaled me with assorted Ebola horrors on CNN, I did some quick channel surfing and landed on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) channel where The Antiques Roadshow was already underway―from Knoxville, Tennessee. After watching a few minutes, the camera suddenly cut away to a program emcee standing in front of the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. The primary subject of concern was the museum’s permanent exhibit called Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee.

Once inside the museum, the emcee was accompanied by a professional art appraiser with knowledge of Native American artifacts and their monetary values. The focus was on the The Ancestor statue (Figure 1), a famous Mississippian period artifact from the Sellars Mound site near Lebanon, Tennessee, and the equally famous Duck River Cache (Figure 2) of Dover chert ceremonial objects from the Link Farm site in West Tennessee. Somewhat less interest was placed on a crudely executed female Mississippian statue that sits near The Ancestor in the exhibit.


Figure 1.  The Ancestor

 Duck River Cash

Figure 2.  Duck River Cache (Seever 1897:143)

The art appraiser examined The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache,  and he offered an appraised dollar value for each of them. As a matter of ethics, we professional archaeologists normally refrain from offering such appraisals to private individuals because they could contribute to commercial trafficking in artifacts, which has the ultimate effect of encouraging looting at archaeological sites. I would also say that most of us professional archaeologists do not keep up with current monetary valuations on artifacts because we do not need to know such things in the course of our daily work. No doubt being aware of this fact, the professional art appraiser was very careful to note that his appraisals for The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache were recommended valuations for insurance purposes only.

Lady Gaga’s new song, Artpop, says that she is in the entertainment business for the music and not the “bling” (flashy possessions). Similarly, we professional archaeologists are in our business for archaeological information and data——not the bling. Nonetheless, it was interesting and a bit fun to find out how valuable these artifacts are in crass monetary terms.

For insurance purposes, the Duck River Cache was formally appraised at $600,000 to $800,000. Considering the fact that the State of Tennessee bought these chipped stone artifacts from the University of Missouri for only $2,500 in 1947 (Peacock 1984:26), that is not a bad return on our state’s long-term investment in professional archaeology.

I thought the Duck River Cache would certainly be valued higher than The Ancestor, but you have to remember that The Ancestor has become a national celebrity since his appearance on a U.S. postage stamp. This star quality and his new status as an official state artifact has no doubt increased his value. For insurance purposes, The Ancestor was appraised at $800,000 to $1,200,000, which in my mind further raises the ancient Sellars artist to bonafide master sculptor status.

Now that PBS has brought The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache to the attention of both national and international television audiences via regular television transmissions, cable connections, and satellite hookups—and placed a very high monetary value on these artifacts—we all trust that Dr. Jefferson Chapman (Museum Director) and his fine staff at the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture have implemented security measures sufficient to protect these famous artifacts from theft—–both now and in the years to come.

Update on 2/16/19: Male statues like The Ancestor often have  a female mate statue. As it turned out, a prominent Tennessee local historian and avocational archaeologist (Mr. John Waggoner of Carthage, Tennessee) owned the female mate statue to The Ancestor. This female statue was found long ago on the same archaeological site (Sellars Mound site) as The Ancestor and was without doubt carved by the same ancient sculptor who created The Ancestor. A couple of years ago, the owner of the female statue kindly offered the McClung Museum of  Natural  History and Culture a golden opportunity to purchase the female statue for a reasonable price. With donations of money from various folks, the museum was able to acquire this female statue.

Today The Ancestor and his female mate sit together at the museum just as they did at the Sellars Mound site in ancient times. I would guess that the current insured value of the female statue is probably $1,000,000 or more, especially now that she is together with The Ancestor.

If you are ever on vacation or business travel to Knoxville, Tennessee (or you are just passing through Knoxville), please stop and visit the McClung Museum of  Natural  History and Culture. The Ancestor and his female mate are on permanent display for the public to see. The famous Duck River Cache is also on permanent display for the public to view. In addition, the museum has a massive and highly educational display of other rare Native American artifacts. Parking and admission to the museum are free, but if you want to do so, you may make a small or large donation in the plexiglass donation box near the front doors of the museum (no pressure). However, after the wonderful Native American archaeology exhibit “blows your socks off,” I suspect your heart will be moved to donate at least some amount.


Peacock, Charles K., Duck River Cache: Tennessee’s Greatest Archaeological Find. Reprinted and updated by H.C. Brehm and Quentin R. Bass II in the Mini-Histories Series, 1984.

Seever, William J.,  “A Cache of Idols and Chipped Flint Instruments In Tennessee,” The Antiquarian, Volume 1, Part 6, June 1897.

Old Stone Fort Archaeological Society Meeting (November 2013)

Mark Norton at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology has just issued the formal meeting announcement for the November 2013 meeting of the Old Stone Fort Archaeological Society.  You may read the meeting announcement in the following PDF file:

Old Stone Fort Meeting Announcement

The subject of this meeting is the 2013 Paleoamerican Odyssey Conference, which was held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from October 16-19, 2013.  For those of you who may not be aware of this conference, it is not an annual event.  It is held only once per decade or thereabouts, and it is a true magnet conference.  I use the term “magnet conference” because it is one of the few national archaeology conferences that attracts large numbers of professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists, artifact collectors, and just ordinary citizens who are interested in the archaeology of the most ancient Americans.  The most recent conference website, including a complete list of the professional papers given at the 2013 conference, may be accessed at the following URL:


One of the major sponsors of this conference is the Center for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University.  A number of archaeologists with Tennessee archaeology roots are active participants in the ongoing research programs of the center, including Dr. David G. Anderson at the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) and Texas A&M graduate student Jesse W. Tune.

Please be sure and clear your evening schedule so you can attend this Old Stone Fort Archaeological Society meeting.  It promises to be a good one, and the latest Paleo-Indian research here in Tennessee is bound to find its way into the meeting discussions.

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).