By Dave Ongie
Editor’s Note: About two years ago, Jeff Keeling wrapped up a seven-part series on the Cane Notch archeological site along the Nolichucky River. Recently, Dr. Jay Franklin took time to reflect on the findings of the dig on the 12-acre site and look ahead to an upcoming dig in the same area.
In a room near the back of ETSU’s Valleybrook campus, shards of pottery form crooked rows on a counter, each piece meticulously labeled.
A few feet away, other pottery fragments have been pieced together to form ceramic bowls, incomplete yet elegant relics from the 16th century. Until a few years ago, this pottery sat shattered under a blanket of earth just a stone’s throw from the Nolichucky River on a site known as Cane Notch.
Nathan Shreve happened upon the area while on a kayaking trip down the river with his father David in 2012. The water was rough that day, so father and son beached their kayaks at the site, where Nathan immediately saw exposed potsherds. The rest, as they say, is now history.
After spending countless hours analyzing the items recovered from Cane Notch during a dig that occurred during the winter of 2015-16, there is no question the site is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to painting a more complete picture of the history of the Cherokee people, understanding how different Native Americans coalesced into communities and more accurately documenting the travels of Spanish explorer Juan Pardo.
But according to ETSU’s Dr. Jay Franklin – who participated in the Cane Notch dig with Shreve, fellow ETSU professor Dr. Eileen Ernenwein, avocational archeologist S.D. Dean and many others – Cane Notch undoubtedly raised more questions than answers.
“Every new thing you find, every new season you go out, it changes the story because you find new things,” Franklin said. “You get some new answers, but you find some new questions in the process.”
All the pottery analysis is done at Cane Notch, and Franklin came away with a strong belief that the pottery is “Cherokee-like,” but with some caveats. Shreve’s thesis at the University of Mississippi and Jessica Dalton-Carriger’s dissertation at the University of Tennessee offer plenty of evidence that the pottery found at Cane Notch is consistent in many ways with pottery discovered at Overhill Cherokee sites further south, but there are certainly some subtle differences.
“The bottom line is that we feel like we have really strong material evidence of Cherokee pottery at the site,” Franklin said. “In fact, pottery that anticipates the Overhill Cherokee pottery. We have that in well-dated, middle 1500s context at the site, which is really 150-200 years earlier than we see it farther down the valley in those known historic Overhill sites.”
Some of the differences can be attributed to the different materials the people at Cane Notch had on hand. When Bennie Keel – a retired National Park Service archaeologist and an expert on Cherokee artifacts – saw the pottery discovered at Cane Notch, he summed it up by saying it was “the same, but different” than what he routinely encountered in North Carolina.
With that being said, there are enough differences in some of the pottery discovered at the site to assume there were several different people groups living in the 12-acre village at Cane Notch during the middle 1500s.
“So this is not a novel assertion, but it looks like we have from the middle 1500s up until maybe 1600 or a little after, a lot of different kinds of people are dumping into the middle Nolichucky Valley,” Franklin said. “Whatever it means culturally, we’ve got a pretty complicated situation, multicultural, multiethnic communities may be where at a certain point a new identity is forming, and possibly the one we recognize as the Overhill Cherokees.”
One of the great mysteries is what role Europeans may have played in these people groups coalescing in communities like the one discovered at Cane Notch. While the search for definitive evidence that Pardo made his way up the Nolichucky River was certainly on Franklin’s mind during the dig, the site did not yield enough conclusive evidence to make that assertion.
The discovery of a single lead musket ball on the floor of the house is a tantalizing piece of evidence, but ultimately it wasn’t conclusive proof that Spaniards visited Cane Notch.
“Those early guns the Spanish used, the shot sizes were highly variable, so if you’ll pardon the pun, it’s not ‘smoking gun’ stuff yet, but it’s a good start,” Franklin said.
For all of the questions raised by the dig at Cane Notch, Franklin came away satisfied with the greater understanding the dig provided for the Cherokee people and the archeological community as a whole.
“We are helping to shed more light on another chapter – if by another chapter we mean another geographic region – of the Cherokee World, which they knew prehistorically and during that protohistoric time, was much larger than the current Qualla boundry,” Franklin said.
Also, Franklin is thrilled to help the students in his classes understand that there still are many things to be discovered in this world. While there are no longer uncharted lands lingering over the horizon, there is plenty of history beneath our feet in Northeast Tennessee and elsewhere just waiting to be unearthed and added to the history books.
“There was an article that came out about a year or two ago, I think, in our flagship journal American Antiquity about the Age of Discovery being dead, or it was going away.” Franklin said. “There’s still a lot to do. When I have students work on some of these projects with me, they want the background literature to help them with their research projects, but in a lot of this that we’re doing, there isn’t the background literature. They’re helping to write it.”
Franklin is hoping to write a new chapter in the months ahead as he begins work on a site just down the Nolichucky River from Cane Notch. Franklin expects to start scratching the surface of the new site, which is contemporary to Cane Notch, this summer.
The goal is to add another piece to the puzzle, hopefully from the 1600-1650 timeframe that remains an archeological black hole of sorts in our area.
“Based on some of the pottery that’s come off of it and the geophysics we’ve already done, the house shapes look the same and the same size,” Franklin said. “Hopefully it will help us flesh out the picture a little bit.
“In this line of work, because we’re ultimately interested in culture and behavior and interactions, but don’t have direct access to (the people), it takes a really long time, and you have to be okay with never being done.”