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

The start of a Nolichucky Rock Art Survey

Nolic Rock Art 1

This entry will sound redundant because there are only so many words in the English dictionary to describe this remote inhospitable place called the Nolichucky Gorge. The Nolichucky Gorge area is only about 8-10 miles long but it’s some of the roughest territory around. Some of the gorge walls scale 2000 feet or more with rugged cliffs and scattered boulder falls. The cliff walls provide a remarkable canvas which should be dotted with rock art, or at least that’s what I originally believed. I had the chance to sit through a wonderful presentation on Western N.C.’s remarkably successful rock art survey by Scott Ashcroft and others. Scott is also one of the guys that helped spear head the restoration of Jaduclla Rock which is a soapstone boulder imprinted with nearly the entire Cherokee Cosmos. It was logical that the Nolichucky River area should produce similar types of rock art since we know that it is essentially the same groups of Native Americans living in both places. Dr. Jay Franklin had also observed patches of concentric circles on some of the feeder creeks flowing into the Nolichucky. So we have a good idea that these type of things should exist.

My first few times down the Gorge required a whitewater raft as well as a guide. I quickly realized this is not a place one casually enters. The bottom 1/3rd of the Gorge is basically impossible to navigate unless you are using a low flying Helicopter or white water rafting. The cliff walls make it impossible to walk any significant length with the exception of going vertical. When you float down the gorge you don’t realize the difficulty of navigating this area which was the first mistake I had made. I had envisioned serious foot travel by Native Americans, going up and down the gorge with some degree of regularity. This is simply not possible. I certainly believe that groups of Native Americans were traversing parts of the gorge, dropping down from the canyons above, but they could not of started at one end of the gorge and walked the entirety. So this revelation has changed the way I look for the art. Instead of concentrating on the bottom 1/3rd of the Gorge I will likely have more success locating trails on the rim of the gorge and checking the rock shelters that were best accessible from the top of the gorge. The vastness of this place and the fact that it possesses so many nooks and crannies means I’ll be looking for rock art here for infinity.



I think we have had some limited success. I followed a spring to it’s headwaters and observed what I believe to be a Cupule. Cupules are baseball sized ground out holes on boulders and usually found on large boulders in or near rivers. Nobody knows the significance of cupules but we believe they have some kind of relationship with water. One has to be careful not to observe an area of erosion and mistake it for a cupule as they could look very similar. This find stuck out like a sore thumb as there are no surrounding rocks that had any kind of erosion or depressions. Also the placement of the cupule is significant for 2 reasons. The first reason is that it was found very near the springhead. Where water comes out of the ground played an important role in Cherokee life and we see this consistently reflected in the art. Number 2, the positioning of the Cupule was on the front edge of the rock where erosion was pretty much impossible as no water could pool in this area. The only issue I have with this particular example is that it was not found in clusters and cupules seem to normally be found in clusters.


Pisgah Forest Dig 05/28-6/13 Western NC



Over the summer ETSU performed an excavation in Pisgah N.C. in Western North Carolina. The Shelter had been partially excavated prior to our arrival. Originally we expected to find artifacts more in line with Cherokee dates because we had some limited information from the prior dig of what they had discovered. Our finds were pretty much limited to small sherds and lots of splintered bone. Strange as it was, most of the large pottery sherds were found in front of the shelter in the non-living area. From the best guesses dr. Franklin could come up with it appeared the later Indians had cleaned out the contents of the original shelter and pitched items out of the interior of the shelter and unto the slope. We will never know exactly why this event occurred but it could have been a ceremonial cleansing or “resetting” of the shelter.