The Rotherwood Site 40SL61

I recently had the pleasure to participate in Dr. Jay Franklin’s excavation of the Rotherwood Site in Kingsport Tn.  Dr. Franklin had planned to excavate a large town site on the Nolichucky this Summer but last minute changes meant that our planned excavation was pushed back until December.  Jay and S.D. Dean had previously tested the Rotherwood site and located what appeared to be a shell pit or shell lense.  As the excavation progressed it turned out to be a wonderful excavation and I’ll post more when I get chance.


The Cherokee of the Nolichucky River

Nolichucky Archaeology

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The last few days I have had the luck to tag along with Dr. Katheryn Sampeck and her crew from Illinois State as they surveyed Late Mississippian/Cherokee sites along the middle Nolichucky River Valley.  It’s amazing how little is known about the Cherokee presence in upper East Tn.  Dr. Sampeck introduced me to a couple of different massive Cherokee Town sites.  Dr. Sampeck, along with Dr. Jay Franklin and others, are starting to lay the foundation to discovering the full extent of the Cherokee population along the Nolichucky River.   Most of these sites are best described as town sites rather than using the terminology of “village”.

A typical town site on the Nolichucky River would have encompassed an area of 8-15 acres which is in clear contrast to Pisgah Village types (2-5 acres) of prior centuries.  What, if anything, triggered the emergence of these town sites during the 16th and 17th centuries remains unclear…

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Flint Resources of the Nolichucky


One misconception that I often hear is that the indians of Upper East Tennessee had to traverse great distances to find suitable Flint for their projectiles, knives, or bifaces.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The photo above is a variation of Fort Knox Chert.  This chert type is plentiful in both vein and nodule outcroppings in our region. This particular outcropping shows evidence of quarrying as most of the nodules appear to have smacked off.

Pictured Below: Nolichucky Quarry


What is true is that large blocks of high grade cherts are not near as visible on the landscape as compared to other regions.  That’s one of the reasons you rarely stumble upon “arrowheads” or bifaces over 3-4 inches.  I have tried to find suitable material in our region to knap (making arrowheads) out larger arrowheads with very little success due to the highly fractured and cracked interiors of the nodules.

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Pictured Above: Nolichucky Flint

For lack of a better word, some of the Nolichucky flints have a certain dullness or density to the material.  One of the most pleasant sounds a knapper can hear is that distinct snapping sound of a nice, clean flake being removed.  I’ve rarely experienced that ping with Nolichucky Flints that you can hear with other cherts.


As you can from the above photo, you need large blanks of chert to make large bifaces (pictured right).  The white chert is out of Oklahoma while the brown chert is out of Texas.

Magnetometry Survey Complete

ETSU Geosciences Department conducts a survey. This gives us a modified look below the surface to find housing structures, pit features, or central hearths. We are currently awaiting the results

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And these are some of the results, off a small grid area, displaying 3-5 housing structures and various potential pit features. This image is copyrighted and edited for public consumption only


Cherokee Stamped Or Incised Designs

The Cherokees used paddle stamping to imprint different designs on their pottery. When the clay was still wet various carved wooden paddles were used to slap the exterior of the pot which leaves behind these distinct designs.  They also employed a stylus to incise the rims of some of the smaller vessels.  The bottom photo displays a river cane stylus that was used by freehand to create incised decorations near the rim of the vessel.





Simple Stamped de




Looking for archaeological resolution part 1

For a long time now I have been really interested in the prehistoric time period from about 1400-1700 in the Nolichucky Valley.  This is a particularly interesting yet challenging time span for many reasons.  Number 1, the Nolichucky Valley has been one of the least researched areas in the state so I have limited information to go from.  Number 2, by the time the Spanish and English have arrived they created such political and social turmoil that they have disrupted the entire region, resulting in the coalescing of certain groups and the displacement of others.  As you can see from the two images below, a great amount of change occurs in the region just from roughly 1550 to 1650…100 years.


17th Century


Figure 1/2 Backdrop by Dr. Katheryn Sampeck (Illinois State)

The purple circles in both images represent Joara, an empire that spanned a tight range from roughly 1400-1570 A.D…These peoples ceramics are referred to as “Burke Phase”.  They used distinct pottery which was tempered with soapstone and had prolonged contact with the Spanish Entrada of 1568, whom built  the first European fort in the interior United States during this entrada (which was later burned down by the indians).  It’s most likely that this sustained contact resulted in their eventual demise but led to the coalescence of the Catawba Indians many years later.  The Burke Phase cultural has gradually been extending it’s geographic range North from archaeological work by Robin Beck and David Moore among many others.  See Fort San Juan here:

The Red Circle below represents Chiaha, which is better known as “Dallas Phase” peoples.  They inhabited a large chunk of East Tennessee and are considered to be on the fringe territory of the Nolichucky.  Their pottery is distinctly plain shell tempered and can be found readily mixed in the assemblages of many different sites in our region, particularly on the Middle and Lower ends of the Valley.  They encountered sustained contact with the Spanish as early as 1541 and began to wane not long after.

As stated above, both pottery types of Dallas and Burke Phase are found in the Nolichucky but seem to be somewhat seperated in density.  In the Upper Nolichucky and Watuaga regions it is not uncommon to find large amounts of Soapstone Tempered Burke Ware.  But in the lower valley it is more common to find Dallas Wares.  This has been noted as early as 1968 when Howard Ernhest Jr noted this in his intial survey of the Middle Nolichucky Valley.  So what does this representation of pottery density mean?  Was the Upper Nolichucky Valley part of the Joara sphere of influence?  Was the lower Nolichucky an intergral part of the Dallas Phase?  Or was this region truely a boundary zone that allowed fluid trade between both empires while hosting a people who were essentially wealthy middlemen traders?

In the summer of 2015 we will begin execavations of indian town  “Cane Notch” site number 40WG143, in hopes of beginning to understand some of these dynamics.  Cane Notch pottery is represented by many cultures, including Burke Phase and Dallas Phase, as well as the later Qualla (Cherokee) emergence phase that is more easily identifyable on the landscape.


Above: Qualla Curvilinear Vessel


Above: Shell Tempered, Notched Applique “Handle” (most likely non-functional), Most likely Overhill Tradition


Above: Soapstone Tempered Burke Phase Sherd


Above: Early Catawba looking vessel, or possibly Overhill, contains nested circles overlain on simple stamping.  The nested circles are 4-5 mm in width and were impressed on a separate paddle

It’s going to take lots of work and excavations to further define this region since we only get consistent cultural type potteries emerging around 1550-1680 which we call Qualla Phase (Cherokee).  When Qualla springs onto the scene it engulfs all other pre-Qualla phase pottery types and a rapid cultural change seems to take place.  Some village sizes dwarf their earlier predesscors, seemingly expressing some kind of shift in population into the Nolichucky River Valley by at least 1550.  Are refugees flooding the Nolichucky Valley looking for a safe haven?  Are migrations coming down from the North as some origin stories seem to be saying?  Or is it a comibination of both?  What is evident is that the Nolichucky River a central part of the Cherokee homeland during this period

Nolichucky Trade Beads

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Glass trade beads have often been termed the “worlds first international currency” by Historians.  These beads also entail another story that involved colonization and slave trade.  First introduced in Africa, these beads quickly became the go to item for European traders looking to carve out a niche in Africa.  They would quickly spread as colonization moved rampant throughout the world.  Less technologically advanced peoples were drawn in by the allure of something that could not conceive.  We have many historical accounts of Native Americans becoming enthralled at the chance of owning the beads which lead to pillaging of entire civilizations.  A strand of trade beads could often profit a European trader beyond his wildest imaginations while leaving the recipient with what we now can reflect on as one of the worlds worst cases of buyers remorse.

At the site I currently study we have many of these beads.  Technology has advanced so far in this field that we can now “zap” the beads with a special laser gun called an XRF gun.  This gun essentially gives the archaeologist a read out on the chemical composition of the bead and the most likely manufacturer.  The end result is that they have become important time markers to know who was when and where at certain sites that contain these items.  The Spanish were the first to employ trade beads as a bargaining tool in North American.  The English would later come along and dispense these beads in large numbers in the 17th century along with Kaolin smoking pipes.  The beads were colored by infusing certain metallic compounds into the glass, like lead, nickel, zinc, copper.  The beads were manufactured in many different countries from China to Italy and became a very lucrative business. These beads are incredibly hard to find in the field because most are so small. You almost have to employ a method that involves crawling along the surface. We were lucky enough to have two of the beads incorporated into an archaeological product originating out of the University of Tennessee. The findings were interesting because the beads returned some of the earliest dates out of a cluster of sites spread over the Southeast United States. The dating ranges of the beads were 1570-1630, kind of an unusual time span considering no significant prolonged contact between Europeans and Native American is supposed to be occurring during that time span. The beads could have been traded into the region from other neighboring groups of Indians who had better access to the coast areas, or they could have been trade beads acquired from earlier Spanish expeditions. The possibility even exists that non-documented English explorers had cut deeper into the interior then previously thought. One of the trade beads could be ID’d through KIDD and KIDD’s trade bead seriation in which they described it as “non-faceted chevron bead” or “starr bead” type IKv4 which had a dating range of around the XRF dates of late 16th century or early 17th century. With such a tight range of bead dates it will be a goal of ours to find more of these beads to better define archaeological resolution of the Cherokee groups that called this area home.

Trade BeadsSSSS