By Jeff Keeling
Sometimes, unforeseen problems can create unforeseen opportunities. Such has been the case with the Boone Dam repair and accompanying lowered lake levels of Boone reservoir.
The prolonged exposure of the lake levels at “winter pool” levels has created a boon for area archaeological researchers, led by Dr. Jay Franklin of East Tennessee State University. In return, Franklin and his colleagues, including students, have helped the Tennessee Valley Authority monitor and protect – as far as is possible – the many sites that are vulnerable to looting, erosion and unintentional damage until vegetation reestablishes itself.
One upshot of the work is that researchers are continuing to refine their knowledge about Cherokee presence here that occurred much earlier than previously thought.
Last week, Franklin said that vegetation actually is coming along more quickly than anticipated, but in the meantime teams have added 96 previously unrecorded sites around Boone Lake. The work has helped flesh out and refine knowledge that Franklin and others had started gathering around a decade ago when sites were exposed during winter.
Even before the dam issue, the group had made some significant discoveries about Native American activity in the area. Franklin said a 1955 paper hypothesized that a site in the area was a mixed Cherokee/European-American one, probably not much more than 200 years old.
“With our knowledge about the Overhill Cherokee, we thought this was probably a late site,” he said. “We figured post-1700, certainly post-1600.”
Dating techniques showed otherwise, though. “The dates came back mid-1400s, early 1500s, and we were like, ‘wow, this is a lot earlier than we expected.’”
It also was consistent with the recent discovery of the Cane Notch site on the Nolichucky River. In the midst of the pre-Cane Notch research, someone had suggested that perhaps the Overhill Cherokee could have been in this area.
“My response was, ‘it’s way up the (Tennessee) valley and 200 years too early,’” Franklin said.
Now, with the help of optically stimulated luminescence dating, which is more precise than radiocarbon dating, the researchers are building a solid case that the Cherokee appear to have been in this area much earlier than previously thought.
The group is in the second of a seven-year project with TVA. Franklin said he hopes his ETSU colleague Dr. Eileen Ernenwein, a geoscientist, will be able to use ground penetrating radar and magnetometry equipment to add even more knowledge to the record.
“Even though to the eye things are gone, the ground penetrating radar and the magnetometer can see things that we can’t see anymore, but there may still be vestiges of them there.
“There’s no doubt we get a lot of research value out of this and it helps contribute to the late pre-history and early history of the region, both with the Cherokee and early settlers,” Franklin said.
He’s gaining a greater interest, following the recent purchase of the Flourville Mill near the reservoir, in studying the area where William Bean built the first non-Indian permanent dwelling in what is now Tennessee, and where Bean’s son Russell was the first European born in what became this state.
The researchers have discovered that three previously recorded historic sites also have prehistoric components, and vice versa for two other sites. Additional details have been discovered at a total of 32 other sites.
Additionally, they’ve documented dozens of raw material outcrops around the reservoir, composed of materials such as chert and quartzite. That allows them to begin discussing mobility and resource extraction that could have been occurring in the region before European settlers arrived.
“A big part of it for me has always been that I get to involve students in this project,” Franklin concluded. “It’s good research experience for them, but it also gives them a really good understanding of how most archaeology works in the U.S. because of the National Historic Preservation Act. It’s just really good practical experience.”