(This is the fifth 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 master’s thesis topic of University of Mississippi student Nathan Shreve.)
By Jeff Keeling
Four years ago, Nathan Shreve discovered a bunch of ceramics sticking out of a bank on the Nolichucky River. The find changed his life, and today Shreve is on the cusp of a significant contribution to what the lives of Native Americans living in this area were like in the decades following European contact.
Shreve, who earned a geography degree at Emory and Henry College, was several years out of school when he and his father saw the ceramics on a kayaking trip. The find led eventually to the Cane Notch project, and led Shreve to the University of Mississippi’s graduate archaeology program. The recent field school included excavation of a 7-by-7-meter structure, circa 1600-1650, the findings from which will provide the basis for Shreve’s master’s thesis.
Shreve’s immediate objective? Study the ceramics found at and near the house to answer questions about “coalescence” – the coming together of Mississippian groups into new communities in the wake of European arrival, exploration and exploitation.
Along with East Tennessee State University professor Dr. Jay Franklin, who’s overseeing the Cane Notch project, Shreve is being guided by Drs. Robbie Ethridge and Maureen Meyers at Ole Miss. Ethridge is an ethnohistorian specializing in the “protohistoric” time period of the 17th century, and Meyers is an archaeologist. The entire quartet – and plenty of others in the archaeological world – are excited about what the evidence gathered at Cane Notch might contribute to our understanding of this period when cultures collided.
As Shreve puts it in an early abstract, “This robust protohistoric middle Nolichucky settlement likely represents one of only a handful of locations to test the hypothesis for coalescence. It has been widely noted in the archaeological literature that time gaps exist in many Cherokee locations, therefore this location represents the unique opportunity to closely examine the ways in which Native Americans adapted to the changing dynamics of the 17th century.”
The Mississippian Shatter Zone
Ethridge, the ethnohistorian, is a leading scholar on what is known as the “Shatter Zone.” Before the arrival of Europeans, Ethridge said in a phone interview, Mississippian chiefdoms flourished over a large area of the Southeast.
“These chiefdoms collapsed due to the opening up of the Indian slave trade, basically Indians raiding other Indians to sell on the market to Europeans – and also other disturbances of contact (including the gun trade),” Ethridge said.
From that chaos evolved new communities, including, very possibly, the one at Cane Notch.
“If this whole hypothesis holds, this could be a community that formed out of the shatter zone,” she said. “When your polity falls apart, people didn’t just die. They restructured their lives and the survivors from these raids and all these disturbances came together and formed these new kinds of communities. These coalescences of various people from various polities are coming together and reconstructing and restructuring their lives into new kinds of polities.”
Cane Notch may help provide clues into the formation of those new communities.
“Seeing it on the ground is going to be really important, because we don’t know the mechanisms by which all this restructuring took place,” Ethridge said. “We don’t know how these new communities formed. We can probably say why they formed, but how they formed still eludes us. I think archaeology is the only thing that is going to give us that answer.”
Pottery par excellence
Meyers, whose primary work takes place at a 14th-century mound site in Lee County, Va., said the volume and quality of the ceramics already excavated at Cane Notch holds out promise for great contributions to knowledge about the scantily recorded protohistoric period.
“From the pictures I’ve seen, the preservation is pretty astounding, as well as the amount and type of artifacts,” Meyers said. “My understanding is there’s a fair amount of glass beads coming in. The pottery, which I study, sounds like it’s in great condition, there’s a lot of it, and the house remains itself is in great condition, so that’s amazing to be able to get a site from that period in such great condition.”
Material that points to the economics of the site, including probably the deerskin trade, is also likely to prove fruitful, and far beyond Shreve’s thesis, Meyers said. Work in Northeast Tennessee has been a missing link, largely due to lack of funding.
“I can’t tell you what a black hole that area’s been for people like me working in slightly earlier periods and then for people working in the 16th and 17th centuries. If we could fill in this gap, we might really understand what’s happening in that time period between the Natives and Europeans. We might really get a better picture of that. So yeah, this is big.”
Shreve is hopeful the evidence will point to a coalescence site at Cane Notch.
“At this point it looks like there was a core group of inhabitants,” he said. “Whether they absorbed groups from the periphery of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, we hope to discover.”
He said the French Broad and Holston river valley sites have scant evidence of protohistoric coalescent communities. For instance, they lack the trade beads found at Cane Notch.
“They had to go somewhere. It may not have been the Nolichucky, but it’s certainly a possibility that the Nolichucky absorbed populations, because (the site) was so robust.”
(Previous stories in this series can be found at jcnewsandneighbor.com/category/featured).