Noded fire-carrier vessels and a bank project

A few years ago I had thumbed through a recently donated collection from the Nolichucky when a particular sherd caught my eye.  The sherd was so bizarre looking that I had initially mistaken it for a probable historic sherd from early European settlers.



Above Images: “Canoe Pipe” fragment from Plum Grove

Recently, I realized this sherd, which comes from donated surface collections via the Plum Grove site (1960s), was that of a sacred fire holding vessel. Upon closer inspection, one can still see traces of the red paint in the cracks of the craved clay squares which adorn the exterior of the pipe.  I can add little to what’s already in the published literature (see link here, and rely on the link above from Brett Riggs in which he describes such vessels/pipes as:

“Both “gravy boat” pots and “canoe” pipes can be interpreted as elements of a widespread ritual complex involving fire ceremonialism. The extensive distribution of both artifact forms across a number of archaeological cultures suggests that highly specific and detailed symbolic information was shared across social, ethnic, and political boundaries. ”

Riggs goes on to mention the relatively scarcity of such vessels which are undoubtedly linked to fire ceremonialism.  He uses a really neat reference from John Howard Payne:

“John Howard Payne, who collected information on Cherokee traditions during the 1830s, provides an explicit description of “gravy boat” type ceramic vessels used to transport sacred fire (Payne Manuscript Vol 4:104-105, 225; emphasis added):

The priest made new fire…to be their guide and helper in the war….This fire he put in the sacred ark for the war. This…was about a foot long, shaped somewhat like a canoe, having a lid fitted to the upper side. All was made of clay, burnt in the same manner as Indian earthenware. No one must touch this, but the priest for the war, or his right hand man….”

UNC-Chapel Hill also provides a nice detailed image of what this sherd would have looked like whole:


Image From:

The Plum Grove site of the Middle Nolichucky Valley has long been noted for its importance to southeast archaeology, however, much remains unknown about the site despite large scale archaeological excavations conducted at the site.  Plum Grove is probably the largest and most robust Nolichucky contact-era site but it’s one of a great many that are clustered together in the Middle Nolichucky Valley, perhaps totaling 20-25 contact-era sites in a narrow corridor.

Another interesting project that we recently concluded involved a bank project at site 40wg143, the cane notch site, which is also located in the Middle Nolichucky Valley.  This project involved cutting a window profile into an already eroded bank area of the site in hopes of learning something of the geological and cultural processes that encompass the first terrace here.  We recovered numerous partial vessels, glass beads, and what we suspect is charred peach pit core.  We also got a quick and dirty glimpse at how many archaeological cultures may have inhabited the site, with occupations likely dating as far back as 9000 B.C. through the protohistoric times period.


Above: Tricky stratigraphy, note the slumped black band in the lower left hand corner.13823410_712828230846_2066763551_n

Above Image: Straight ahead view of the profile

In essence, this 13 foot wall, allowed us to better understand one of the key deposits which first drew us to the site.  Pictured below are a few of the partial vessels from the excavation:


Image Above: Grit tempered Jug with strap handles (note the residue coating the fill line)

Image Below: Sand tempered burnished jar with notched applique rim strip





Hertzian Cone Fracture, thermal spalling?

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that blogging can be akin to the ole fishing boat saying about the two best days of fisherman’s life are buying the boat and selling the boat.  In short, I forgot I had created this blog.  I’ve been busy trying to write up my thesis from the Nolichucky excavation that was conducted at the Cane Notch site in the winter of 2015-2016.  We hope to provide a comprehensive overview of the dig during Tenneessee’s 30 days of archaeology, and perhaps I will blog more after this (or not)

Recently, after examining a great many of the partial vessels from the Cane Notch site, we began to notice some interesting fractures in 3 of the roughly 90-100 partial vessels.  Two of these fractures were  Jars from a recent excavation (winter 2016) of a house unit.  One of the fractures occurred on a jar  from the river bank assemblage.  The fractures appear to have been the result of a puncture, or possibly thermal spalling.  I had never really noticed this type of fracture before so I was curious to find out how common it is, and what kind of force it would take to create such a distinct cone fracture.  I should also note, that this is the first I’ve read of hertzian cone fractures in ceramics, so my knowledge base is really limited here (if I’ve royally misidentified this then …well disregard).  First off, a hertzian cone fracture is defined as:

“A Hertzian cone is the cone produced when an object passes through a solid, such as a bullet through glass. More technically, it is a cone of force that propagates through a brittle, amorphous or cryptocrystalline solid material from a point of impact. This force eventually removes a full or partial cone in the material.[1

Roshan Narayanan Manibharathi, Purdue University Dissertation

A good thinking comparison is the force of a bb when shot through  window pane glass…how it leaves that distinct cone fracture on the opposite side of the entry point.  I am not entirely sure how thermal spalling would produce such distinct (directional?) fracturing.

Here are the two examples of the fractures from two distinctly different contexts at the Cane Notch site:


Above: Bank Vessel puncture occurring from the exterior through the interior

Below: House Vessel Punctures or indenture occurred from the interior exiting the exterior





So we have three examples, two of which appears to have been punctured from the exterior and the other that appears to have been punctured from the interior.  A relatively small number of this type of fracture/breakage is represented at the site which appears to parallel studies of ethno-archaeology studies, but they may occur more often then we realize due to the small sherds normally recovered on archaeological projects.  Next I began to wonder if this type of vessel breakage was noted in other assemblages (still pending).  I haven’t noticed this type of fracture discussed frequently in archaeological reports but if you have some examples I would be curious to know.  How such punctures occurred I haven’t a clue, but one can imagine vessels bumping into rocks, particularly during cleaning episodes at the rivers edge, or a myriad of mishaps ie vessels falling over onto sharp objects, kids throwing rocks…a simple saying applies here: schmit happens.


Above: Ric Schmidt (Indiana Pacers 92-05)

But I do find it interesting that it appears to be a low frequency thing, and yet we have two examples from the 17 or so whole vessels from a burned structure at that site.  If these examples are clear cases of cone fractures by puncturing, then that might indicate some possible intentionality, or that the two vessels were punctured during the collapse of the burning house.

As an aside, another oddity is involved with the first vessel photographed.  It appears that after breaking this vessel, the Native Americans made a pottery disc from one of the salvaged sherds (perhaps more remarkable is that they stayed together in the same context after the abandonment of the site).

At times I am amazed at the layering of analysis that is possible with ceramic analysis.  I am sure there probably exists a mathematical equation for the fanning of the hertzian cone, which would probably give me an idea of the size dimensions of the object that punctured the vessels,  or perhaps the minimum amount of force needed to create such a fracture through a vessel wall of xyz thickness…


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

Big NOli


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.

NoliFlint22 Noliflint23

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

magnet 3

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