By Jeff Keeling
(This is the fourth in a series on the Cane Notch archaeological site and subsequent studies. The site is located in Washington County in 12 acres of 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 highlights some of what will happen in the nerve center of that research – the archaeology lab at East Tennessee State Valleybrook Campus.)
Dr. Jay Franklin and Lauren Woelkers sit in front of a computer screen and something that looks like it might be a medical instrument. An archaeological artifact sits on a slide atop the machine, which is acting finicky on this particular afternoon.
Eventually Franklin – an archaeologist and ETSU professor who led the recent Cane Notch dig and is now overseeing its research phase – gets the machine working. Woelkers, an ETSU sophomore majoring in anthropology and minoring in archaeology, soaks in pointers on how to operate the pXRF device, which stands for portable x-ray fluorescence.
In recent years, archaeologists have been using pXRF machines to measure the geochemical or elemental composition of artifacts, from potsherds and stone tools to metal and glass objects. The growing databases from such research can be cross-checked and help researchers understand more about the provenance, or origin, of artifacts.
“The thing is just to build these huge databases – I mean huge, like thousands of sherds – before that’s really meaningful,” Franklin says. “We figure if we just build these big databases of thousands and thousands of sherds that we can then get a handle on the geochemical variation. Certain of the trace elements sort of help you figure out source areas for different clays.”
Franklin says his device, purchased with grant money in late 2014, will allow artifacts at ETSU’s lab, including those from Cane Notch, to tie in to the larger databases that help archaeologists answer big questions about time periods and origins. That information further builds both knowledge and theories about how people from the past lived their lives, where their possessions came from, and how and whether they interacted with other people groups.
“This is one of those directions the discipline’s going, particularly with artifact studies,” Franklin says, adding that the materials brought in from the recent Cane Notch dig include a variety of types for the machine to analyze.
“It’s not just pottery; the historic brass artifacts we’ve recovered at Cane Notch and other sites, we’re building a database of those. Glass beads, believe it or not, can be done that way. We can do stone tools. There’s a lot of stuff.”
Aside from the latest technology, Franklin and his students will utilize the standard, labor-intensive processes of cleaning and cataloging what turned out to be an abundance of material removed from the two pits dug at Cane Notch. While that material represents one of the most exciting projects of Franklin’s career, it’s being analyzed in spacious quarters at Valleybrook due in large part to another of Franklin’s projects.
Several years ago, ETSU procured a $100,000 grant, and a subsequent ongoing contract, to curate, long-term, more than 1,000 boxes of materials from Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects. TDOT generates a lot of archaeological materials through its road-building projects, Franklin says, and was running out of space at its standard sites.
The site will take in additional collections from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, and all of it will be conducive to teaching and research.
“It’s allowed us to expand what we do here and involve students in the kinds of archaeology they’re more likely to be doing when they get out in the world, instead of an academic position like mine,” Franklin says. “Maybe 90 percent of the jobs are in that sort of cultural resource management realm, and we’re I think maybe one of the few universities where we have a class in that at the undergraduate level.”
That project and numerous others involving artifacts all around the region are ongoing, but the Nolichucky site has everyone intrigued. The amount of potsherds that are able to be matched up and repaired as partial vessels is extraordinary, which makes a special topics course Franklin is teaching in archaeological ceramics more interesting for students.
“We have such good context that we can cross-mend a lot of these vessels, so it goes beyond type descriptions based on surface treatment and what it was tempered with to vessel form, which can help us sort out relationships,” he said.
Tantalizing questions on the high volume of chert end scrapers found at the site, about the origin of trade beads and other such items are among those awaiting further research. Franklin’s colleague at the College of Charleston, Maureen Hays, performs high-powered “useware” analysis on stone tools and will do so with the scrapers.
“We’re going to try and sample these things for white tail deer DNA. What that will potentially tell us is, do we have some ideas to believe that they were involved in the fur trade.”
Combined with research on the trade items – which include a “non-faceted chevron bead” more commonly found near the Great Lakes – the scraper research could help confirm suspicions that Cane Notch may have once been a rather well-connected, perhaps even wealthy village or town.
“There’s sort of always been these ideas, these undercurrents that the people here in this area, even on the Holston, kind of in late pre-history were sort of wealthy, maybe trader kind of people,” Franklin says. “The Cherokees talk about the Nolichucky towns being their trading towns. We’ve got the marine seashell beads, we’ve got the European glass beads, the brass, the different kinds of pottery. These people are connected, there’s economic things going on in addition to whatever else is going on, political, cultural, and this may be part of it.”
It’s enough to have piqued the interest of numerous colleagues, including professors at the University of Mississippi and University of Arkansas who are overseeing master’s theses from the dig by Nathan Shreve and Leah Morse, respectively. Brett Riggs at Western Carolina University and members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee are dialed in as well.
“Given that this time period from 1600 to 1650 is sort of that black hole in the South anyway, that proto-history, Nate’s professors, and they’re my colleagues, but Maureen (Meyers), Robbie (Ethridge) and Jay Johnson down there, they’re hugely excited about this.
“It’s pretty cool to have colleagues and peers in your field, people that you respect for their work, be interested in what you’re doing. I like that alright.”
Next: Masters students Nathan Shreve and Leah Morse of University of Mississippi and University of Arkansas, how they got into archaeology, and how their Cane Notch-related thesis projects are shaping up.