(This is the first in what will be an ongoing series about new archaeological research centered around the Cane Notch site along the Nolichucky River in Washington County. The discovery of some Cherokee potsherds there in 2012 ultimately led to a dig in December and January, the material from which will keep researchers busy for some time to come. The stories of the people involved, and of the archaeological community, are many and varied. News and Neighbor considers it a privilege to be able to tell readers the stories of a project that should make valuable contributions to the archaeological record.)
Sprouting winter wheat inched up from rich soil in the Nolichucky River bottomland. Amid the small, bright green blades, laboring precisely but racing time, a team of archaeologists, scientists, students and lay people dug slowly downward in contrast to the rising grain. As their trowels and shovels worked in tandem, the treasures for which they came –
physical artifacts, but more importantly the basis for knowledge and understanding – revealed themselves. Potsherds, scrapers, the occasional bead or game stone, all were delicately excised from the dark brown earth.
The team worked under the supervision of Dr. Jay Franklin, an archaeologist who teaches in East Tennessee State University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. They were in what is called the Cane Notch Site, set on roughly 12 acres in Washington County, abutting the river and about 20 feet in elevation above it. They wrapped up this, their first of what may be multiple digs, on Sunday, nearly four years after Nate Shreve, now a graduate student in archaeology at the University of Mississippi, beached a kayak and discovered numerous potsherds sticking out of the riverbank.
Now, Shreve is using material collected from a 1600s-era Native American house floor during this just-concluded winter field school as the basis for his master’s thesis. Leah Morse, a University of Arkansas graduate student and a Cherokee Indian herself, is using material from a pre-historic (estimated 1500s) pit for her thesis. And Franklin is headed to ETSU’s Valleybrook satellite campus, which houses his lab, for what he expects to be many months of work – the results of which a broad group of stakeholders await.
“I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that there was some kind of pretty significant protohistoric settlement here,” Franklin said.
It is anyone’s guess at this point how the findings from Cane Notch, which could be under study for years, will fit in with current knowledge about the Cherokee and other Native American peoples who called the region home between roughly 1500 and 1700. Franklin said far more research and excavation has occurred on the North Carolina side of the mountains than in Northeast Tennessee, which is likely one reason the Eastern Band of the Cherokee helped fund Cane Notch with a $20,000 grant. Representatives of the band have been closely involved with the work.
“I think they would like to know the people here, how they lived, and how closely related it is, both in time and material culture, to the Cherokee sites of the same period over closer to and on the boundary,” Franklin said, referring to the reservation in North Carolina.
“In my conversations with council members and elders, Cherokee peoples have talked for a long time about this area as an important area to them, and I think it’s a way of adding another chapter of Cherokee history. The Cherokee reach, and influence and towns, were at one point very broad across southern Appalachia.”
The prospect of important knowledge had plenty of people enthusiastic through the field school’s duration, not least Shreve and Morse. The duo had plenty of help from the team of nearly two dozen.
For several weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays, and for two more weeks in January, team members labored to pull as much material as they could from the selected pits. Pre-Christmas warmth saw early finds in both the protohistoric section near the 12-acre site’s west end, and the pre-historic spot a couple hundred yards to the east. Shovels sunk with relative ease into the soil as temperatures climbed into the 60s and even 70s, and the pits took their precise, well-defined shapes, all straight, sharp lines.
With the crews away for two weeks at Christmas, torrential rains raised concerns that work might be impacted, but by the time the group returned in full force shortly after the New Year, all was generally well. Then the weather swung again, with bitter cold mornings hardening the soil for the critical final week of Jan. 11-17.
Through it all, the slice of shovels squaring off sidewalls, the rustle of five-gallon buckets being “dry-screened,” one after another after another, and the camaraderie of a joint pursuit of knowledge kept the team motivated and on task. And as the days wore on, more and more of what they’d come in search of began to reveal itself, too. Potsherds. Scrapers. The occasional bead.
It was good news for the entire endeavor, and certainly for Shreve and Morse.
Morse’s pre-historic site didn’t yield a definite house floor the way Shreve’s protohistoric one did, but a couple of middens (waste areas) and something, even if not a floor, was enough to produce some nice ceramics, beads and other material.
“It’s rewarding, and I find it exciting, actually thrilling, when you find small beads and realize they’re 500 or 600 years old,” Morse said. “And as I said, these are my ancestors that lived on this site, so it’s been very meaningful, both on kind of a spiritual level as well as an intellectual level.”
Shreve’s site, meanwhile, had yielded lots of pottery and other treasures, including enough hide scrapers to make Shreve speculate about a connection with the fur trade.
“This house is exceptional in many ways,” Shreve said last Thursday. “Number one, it’s preserved really well. It was never nicked by the plow. Everything was just the way they left it, down to the posts in the wall. The artifacts were laying almost the way they fell when the house burned up – just unbelievably preserved.”
Over the next months and even years, research and science will help answer many of the questions that have been unearthed at Cane Notch during the first field school. At Valleybrook, north of Gray, the material will undergo date testing along with being cleaned, labeled, catalogued, compared, and shared with colleagues in order to gain as great an understanding as possible about the people who lived at the location.
Where the people who lived at the site came from and when, how they lived while they were here, whether they encountered Europeans directly (indirect contact seems a given due to glass beads found at the site), when and why they left – those and many other questions remain to be considered.
“We’re still dealing essentially with pre-history, and we’re probably going to have to find answers in the ground,” Franklin said. “We’ll have to wait for some dates. We’ll have to wait for some analysis and some papers and some conversations with colleagues who work in other parts of southern Appalachia, and so our ideas are probably going to unfold over the next few years or so, and then hopefully inform us about what we want to do next time we come back here – which may be two years from now. The other part of this is not to come back here before we have some pretty specific questions, and ways to answer those questions.”
While answering those sorts of questions will take time and always remain an incomplete exercise, the answers surrounding the discovery of Cane Notch – and the timeline leading up to the winter field school – are much clearer. That subject will comprise the next article in this series.