By Jeff Keeling
(This is the third 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 the involvement on non-professional “avocational” volunteers in the dig.)
A pale winter sun threw sharp shadows on the rectangular pit as S.D. Dean, shovel in hand, meticulously sliced through mere centimeters of soil. Small walls rose smooth and at perfect angles as a centuries-old Cherokee house was unearthed, with the dirt soon to be troweled and sifted for treasures.
When professional archaeologist Dr. Jay Franklin wants a pit’s excavation to be top-notch, he’s apt to turn to an amateur. Dean, though, is not just any amateur.
“He’s just hands down the finest excavator I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been doing archaeology for 25 years,” Franklin said Sunday of Dean, two weeks after the initial Cane Notch field school wrapped up. “It’s just not really close.”
Dean, a lifelong Tri-Citian, joined numerous other amateur volunteers – of varying levels of experience – on the Cane Notch dig. He put his excavation and other skills to good use during the experience, and Franklin said the dig results were the better for it.
“Technically, with a trowel, with a shovel, his attention to detail, all are impressive,” Franklin said. “A lot of people who are meticulous don’t move a lot of dirt. S.D. Can do both. He can move a lot of dirt and then he doesn’t miss a thing. When he’s done it looks like a sculptor did it.”
Among the avocational set on the dig, Dean was joined by the likes of Alice Salyer, another local but with no previous experience, and Sean Kelly and Max Wareham – an Illinois landscape company owner and a Massachusetts musician, respectively. Along with the undergraduates, grad students and other professional archaeologists, it all made for a merry band, Franklin said.
“When you talk about these different people, they’re coming to it for different reasons, some of them just for the experience, some of them to answer some questions they’re just curious about, and some of them, like Alice, to see, ‘hey, do I like this, is this something I might want to do more of?’”
In the case of the travelers, Franklin said bonds definitely develop.
“You’re not just working with people but you’re sharing a house, or a bunkhouse, you’re sharing meals with them, taking field trips, sitting around having a couple beers solving the world’s problems. You form some bonds there that sometimes I think it’s difficult to relate to people who haven’t had those kinds of experiences.”
Most people who want to take a whirl at helping an archaeological project have a decent chance of doing so, Franklin said. There are societies across the U.S., including some in Tennessee, that help people stay abreast of opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service’s “Passport in Time” program is an example of an ongoing series of such opportunities.
Franklin said he’s had good experience with avocational volunteers in the past, and he knew with this dig occurring during the winter, a crew of them might come in handy.
“I think it worked out extraordinarily well,” he said in summation.
On a sunny day shortly after New Year’s, Salyer would have agreed. She works for a local advertising agency, but with a few days’ 2015 vacation banked, she was spending a week at the dig site.
With the Nolichucky rushing by, Salyer sifted through rich soil on the riverbank where the first traces of the site turned up. She showed a tiny piece of chert, a silica-based rock that the inhabitants of this settlement used for hide scrapers, among other things.
“I didn’t know it was a scraper – I thought it was an arrowhead,” Salyer said, adding that she approached her role by just, “coming in and saying, ‘what can I do today?’
“This is very zen, having an afternoon by the river, especially because I’m usually in front of a computer all day. It’s also really cool to find something that somebody last touched 500 years ago.”
Up in the bottomland at one of the house sites, Max Wareham shared his story. In addition to his musical endeavors, Wareham works on a horse farm. He said he’d become interested in volunteering on an archaeological dig and found this one through a Google search. The area’s rich musical history was a bonus.
Wareham called his experience, “incredible.
“Coming into it, I thought I’d be really lucky if I found any kind of artifact or anything, and on the first day I found about seven shards of pottery. That was just like Christmas day. I was so happy.”
While Wareham, Salyer and Sean Kelly were excited and happy to discuss their newfound interest, Dean downplayed his expertise, saying he was just around to “help out.” Franklin picked up the slack, saying he had learned about Dean from one of his University of Tennessee professors before Franklin even started his job with ETSU in 2004.
“Charles Faulkner said, ‘when you get there you need to look S.D. Dean up.’ I did, and S.D. and I have been walking around and doing surveys and kind of piecing together the culture and history of this region for 10 years.”
In addition to his skills with the trowel, Franklin said Dean creates terrific maps and documents his work exquisitely.
“His notes that he takes when he digs leave little if anything to question. He’s an incredible archaeologist.”
Some people actually move from interest to academics even as adults, Franklin said. Whether that happens with Salyer, Kelly – whom Franklin said asked great questions and, “was just a real pleasure to have” – or any other volunteers, is not the point. The point is that they got into the field, which is something Franklin tries to get his students to do as soon as possible.
“Nobody ever figured out they wanted to be an archaeologist sitting in a classroom. At a certain point you have to do coursework, but even students, I tell them early on, why don’t you come out to do a dig before you get all into your coursework and find out if you like the doing of it.”
Next: What exactly did they find at the Cane Notch winter field school, and what are they going to do with it now?