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


2 thoughts on “Looking for archaeological resolution part 1

  1. David

    Great site–although, if you’re going to call it the best site on WordPress.com, please edit your spelling. The word is whittled, not widdled–as in, “I whittled down the piece of wood to look like a pocket knife.” “Widdle,” according to Oxford American, means to urinate.


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