By Jeff Keeling
Editor’s note: This story revisits a series from the spring on the Cane Notch archaeological dig along the Nolichucky River in Washington County. A winter dig yielded rich material from a Cherokee town that once existed there.
Nathan Shreve points to a spot where largish stones protrude from the bottom of a ten-foot-high, neatly planed wall of Nolichucky River bank. The stones, or cobbles, reveal the ancient riverbed of the Nolichucky.
“In that cobble area we found stone tools that are indicative of a 10,000 to 11,000-year range,” says Shreve, who first discovered a large trove of potsherds in this bank area about four years ago. His discovery eventually led to development of the dig at Cane Notch, the Cherokee town that began to be unearthed at an ETSU winter field school in January led by East Tennessee State University archaeologist Dr. Jay Franklin (see related story, page 9).
Shreve, who is completing his masters thesis on Cane Notch at the University of Mississippi, says the 12 acres of bottomland above the bank kept Franklin’s team plenty busy in the winter. Spring was filled with lab work, where countless potsherds and other artifacts were catalogued, studied and mended. Franklin, Shreve and Dr. Eileen Ernenwein of ETSU’s geosciences department also presented a paper at a national conference in Orlando, as Cane Notch’s reputation quickly spread. Its rich yield of materials from the late 1500s hold promise for answering important questions about a time and place that remains a “black hole” in the archaeological record.
“I think this area holds so much importance to the early development of the Cherokee,” Shreve says. “It’s spectacular in terms of how important I think this area is to events that happened later in time.”
All through that exciting winter and spring, though, the trio of Franklin, Shreve and local avocational archaeologist S.D. Dean knew they wanted to get back to the bank where it had all begun and complete what is known as a “bank profile.”
In late May, they did. “One objective was to learn how the geological and cultural processes played out to create these massive sorts of flood plains (like the 12-acre bottomland just above the bank) down here in the Nolichucky,” Shreve says. “We wanted to get a sense of how the landform here had built up, and how and when people occupied it. By cutting that profile into the bank, we can get a sense of that.”
They found about what they expected. With some help from ETSU geosciences professor Dr. Mick Whitelaw, the group learned the river had been much wider, and shallower, about 10,000 years ago. As hillsides and mountains that had been locked up in permafrost began thawing, runoff from those began to see the landforms we see today, Shreve says.
Terraces at various depths had built up on the riverbottom, depending on weather and other conditions. A massive buildup occurred about 3,000 years ago, Shreve says, with rapid buildups following that.
“We weren’t really expecting to find any cultural material,” he adds. So the blade they discovered was a bonus find. “You’re looking at blocks of occupation that run a really long time period, from 10,000 years ago up to around 1650.”
The trio also found about eight new vessels, near the site where Shreve first noticed what he calls the “bank assemblage” four years ago. One in particular has become a favorite of Shreve’s. It’s a hominy vessel estimated to be from the 1600s, complete with “gunk lines” resulting from its usage.
People in the area would boil the ash from hardwood trees with corn, then transfer it to a storage vessel and let it soak overnight.
“Boiling the corn with lye (ash) separates the hull of the shell,” Shreve says. “That gives you hominy and releases a chemical that basically makes the corn five times more nutritious.”
The 10,000-year-old stone tool and the nearly 400-year-old hominy vessel represent just two more visible and interesting artifacts from an archaeological site that is growing in reputation and importance. Shreve’s main hope at this point is that his thesis work advances all of that.
“I just want to do it right, because I think once it’s released it’s going to sort of synthesize an area that’s really not well-known archaeologically.”