By Jeff Keeling
(Second in a series of the Cane Notch archaeological site and subsequent studies. The site is located in 12 acres of Washington County bottomland along the Nolichucky River. Its first field school and dig occurred in December 2015 and January 2016. What is anticipated to be years of research is just commencing. This article traces the three-plus-year timeline from initial discovery to first dig.)
If Nathan Shreve had known how high recent torrential rains had raised the Nolichucky River one day in mid-2012, he probably wouldn’t have taken his dad, David, out on David’s first-ever (and to date only) kayaking trip. Playing it safe, as it turns out, would have been archaeology’s loss.
Nearly four years later, Nathan Shreve stood on the riverbank where he and his father beached their kayak – and where a bounty of Native American pottery had been exposed in the eroding soil.
“We came over to that set of rapids over there,” Shreve said, pointing toward the middle of the river. “The water was just pouring in our boat, and so we had to get out to bail. When we did, I looked over and on the bank just at my feet was like 40 partial vessels (of pottery). We would later find out there would be something on the order of 60.”
The sight literally would change Shreve’s life. He’s now completing his master’s degree in archaeology at the University of Mississippi. It also would lead, after several years of research, communication with landowners and tenant farmers, grant proposals, and talks with Cherokee Nation leaders, to the recent field school.
The field school, which included excavation of two pits on opposing ends of the bottomland, yielded material giving every indication the site housed a significant Cherokee town circa 1550-1650, according to East Tennessee State University professor Dr. Jay Franklin.
Had Shreve and his father’s amateur interest in native history not been piqued by the find, Cane Notch might have remained untouched by archaeological science, Franklin said. And had not they taken that fateful trip that caused them to have to paddle ashore shortly after putting in, they would never have seen the centuries-old pottery.
“Some of the best discoveries, some of the most promising sites have crazy stories like that of how they were found,” Franklin said. “From an historical perspective and being able to piece together a chapter of Cherokee history and a time period that we don’t really know a lot about, what a fortuitous thing.”
In 2013, after Franklin had learned of the potential at the site and begun communicating regularly with Shreve, he, Shreve and a third colleague presented related papers at the Cherokee Archaeology Symposium. That’s also when he received the first luminescence dates on pottery from the site. Those showed times as far back as the late 1400s or early 1500s, which is more than a century earlier than Franklin’s initial hypothesis based upon the admittedly scant information available about Cherokee settlements in what is now Northeast Tennessee.
“We were like, ‘wow,’ and that’s when we really started putting together grant proposals, talking to the Eastern Band, talking to other friends,” Franklin said.
Concurrently, they were making trips to the site, meeting the people who farmed the bottomland, and “surface collecting” there, which provided confirmation of more material. Franklin wrote an unsuccessful National Geographic grant application in early 2014. Later that year, fellow ETSU professor Dr. Eileen Ernenwein, a geoscientist, began conducting some geophysical scans of the surface that would lead to further evidence of significant habitation.
“I think that’s when we knew maybe there were at least five or six houses based on the magnetometer, and we just kind of built from there,” Franklin said.
“Building from there” didn’t just include seeking grants (the Eastern Band of the Cherokee are applying a $20,000 grant to the project) and gaining the interest of the wider archaeological community, from academics to amateurs. It also encompassed the delicate task of working with people who may not know a 400-year-old hide scraper when they see one, but knew that patch of earth better than even Franklin.
“It’s a terribly complicated thing,” he said of working with landowners and other existing users, “but I think it’s just a matter of staying in constant contact and trying to do the best job of informing them of what was there and what we wanted to do.
“We also wanted to reassure them that this was going to have positive outcomes, and wasn’t going to negatively impact them.”
There was one hiccup, when a field school scheduled for summer 2015 was postponed because the farmers opted to plant tomatoes instead of corn, which could have been worked around. In the end, though, it all worked out.
“We’re very grateful for them figuring out a way to work around us and let us do what we wanted to do,” said Franklin, who will reseed in winter wheat the small part of the field that the school disturbed. “What we’re doing certainly isn’t any more important than their livelihood, and that’s their land.”
It’s also become Shreve’s livelihood, and Franklin said it’s fairly rare these days for a person who comes across a find like that in the riverbank to choose to research it from a scholar’s perspective. Shreve’s parents, meanwhile, allowed traveling field school participants to stay in their Southwest Virginia home, and David Shreve visited the site several times. He hasn’t gotten off the riverbank, though he is animated in his retelling of the voyage.
“I started to hear some roaring like I’d never heard before. Nathan said, ‘no worries,’ but I knew there was,” Shreve said with a grin. “We rounded the bend and I saw those rapids ahead, and I just knew we were hurting.”
Thankfully, it all turned out to be for the advancement of knowledge.
Our next installment will introduce readers to the avocational participants in the field school – from longtime buffs like local S.D. Dean, to traveling novices like Illinois small business owner Sean Kelly and Massachusetts musician Max Wareham.