By Jeff Keeling
(This is the seventh in a series on the Cane Notch archaeological site and subsequent studies. The site is located in 12 acres of Washington County bottomland along the Nolichucky River. A winter field school and dig commenced what is anticipated to be years of research. This article highlights the recent receipt of dating information about a house floor that was dug, as well as how the site is gaining exposure in the world of archaeology.)
It’s right there in the hickory and walnut shells: Materials from the house floor unearthed at the Cane Notch archaeological site in January are a good half-century older than had been initially anticipated.
As he and several colleagues prepare to present at a symposium during the April 6-10 Society of American Archaeology’s annual conference, Dr. Jay Franklin is still processing just what the Nolichucky River town’s time frame might mean in the grand scheme of things. Franklin, fellow East Tennessee State University professor Dr. Eileen Ernenwein, archaeology graduate student Nathan Shreve and longtime avocational archaeologist S.D. Dean will present findings from the house floor at the SAA conference.
They’ll do so knowing that the pottery fragments (many of them beautifully mendable), trade beads and other items found at the house – which was located in fertile bottomland a stone’s throw from the river – date from around 1570. Radio carbon dating using Accelerated Mass Spectometry (AMS) had found a 1645 date for a pottery vessel found several years ago along the riverbank, where the site was first discovered.
Franklin provided charred hickory and walnut shells found at the house because their one-year lifespan provides for more accurate dating than other types of wood. “I have a great deal of confidence in our dates,” Franklin said.
The information opens the door for plenty of interesting speculation, first and foremost about whether the people who lived in the house experienced indirect, or even direct, contact with Spanish explorers. A much-studied archaeological site outside Morganton, N.C., Joara, was home to a Native village and a Spanish fort built under the leadership of Spaniard Juan Pardo in 1567-1568.
“We had been thinking the trade items were of English origin,” said Franklin, who added that he had mentioned upon leaving the winter field school at Cane Notch that he “had a sense” the house could be as early as 1570 or so.
In addition to more than a dozen complete or fragmented trade beads, the house yielded that rich trove of pottery, a good bit of which has been “cross-mended” into some impressive pieces, along with brass and copper.
“I think there’s a potential we’ve got a fair amount of stuff here,” Franklin said, referring to the entire 12-acre village. Magnetometry and ground penetrating radar data collected by Ernenwein, a geoscientist, shows the likely presence of a good number of houses. “The brass is obviously European, ultimately. None of that means necessarily that the Spanish were around there.”
Nor, however, does it mean they weren’t. And considering the date, at the very least it appears the trade items likely came from Spanish settlements, which were established on the Florida and South Carolina coasts decades earlier than English ones in Virginia.
Cane Notch making its mark
As Franklin and Dean worked in Franklin’s labs at ETSU Valleybrook Friday, the reverberating significance of Cane Notch was clear. The SAA presentation will be part of an invited symposium on household archaeology in the Mississippian period.
It reprises a similar symposium held 20 years ago, one that produced an edited volume, and with the recent house dig, the symposium’s organizers reached out.
“The timing is right, and we have information from an area and a time period that, in the broader Mississippian tradition, we don’t know anything about,” Franklin said.
That air of mystery had also drawn the interest of Bennie Keel, a retired National Park Service archaeologist who wrote the seminal “Cherokee Archaeology: A Study of the Appalachian Summit,” published in 1976. Keel has been corresponding with Franklin since last fall when Franklin gave a presentation on Cane Notch.
“He may be interested to see how it relates to his 40-plus years of work in Western North Carolina,” Franklin said. “We’ve talked some about it, and I’m just going to show him some of the ceramics and let the conversation go where it will.”
The challenge for the coming symposium and a lot of the work he and colleagues are conducting centers around discovering how to talk about households, community and community identity, Franklin said.
“Can you get at ways that these people in this place constructed their community identity? If you want to take the ceramics as part of that proxy, it’s going to be an interesting challenge.”
Friday’s visit to Valleybrook revealed a couple of interesting facts. Certainly, the date revelation is significant. Shreve’s work at the University of Mississippi, where his masters thesis focuses on the Cane Notch house floor, will surely be impacted.
The variety of stylistic ceramic types found at Cane Notch, the trade items, and now the earlier date, lead Franklin to speculate that “coalescence” of different peoples into new towns and “polities” started prior to European arrival. One of Shreve’s advisors at Ole Miss, Dr. Robbie Ethridge, has written extensively on the impact early European exploration had on that coalescence and its acceleration in so-called “shatter zones” in which new communities evolved largely due to the slave and gun trades brought on by Europeans.
For his part, Franklin thinks some of those polities were coalescing earlier.
“From my perspective, this reinforces dates that support that this business of coalescence and groups coming together is pretty significant, and starts, well before the Europeans are on the ground here,” Franklin said. “I think dates from both ends of the site really bolster that idea (a dig at Cane Notch’s east end involved even older material from a couple of middens, or trash sites).”
Even so, Franklin also believes subsequent field schools, should they transpire, will reveal houses from the period that Ethridge has called a “black hole” in archeaological evidence around these parts – the 1600-1650 time frame.
“I think we will find as we continue to investigate that site, it probably extends up toward 1650 – just not this house,” Franklin said.