Pieces of a larger picture

A mortar and pestle used by Cherokee people and found in the park.

The Cherokee made tools from readily available natural items such as this rock mortar and pestle to grind nuts, seeds, and corn.

NPS photo.

Archeologists uncover many, many traces of past life in the Smokies. These can include tiny stone chips, washed away wood mills, or underground posts from Cherokee houses hundreds of years old.

Here’s some more of what they have found:

  • A handmade, very old ceramic pipe used in Cherokee ceremonies
  • Mortar and pestle ground stones used for grinding nuts, seeds, and corn
  • Metal hinges, fittings, and plates from European settlers’ houses and wagons
  • Rusted iron farm tools
  • A trash heap (called a “midden”) with signs of what people used—and didn’t use—in the past
  • An old hearth, marking the spot of a prehistoric home
  • The traces of logging camps, engines, train tracks, and other industry
  • Beads
  • Toys—pieces of dolls, clay marbles
  • Lead shot (from a gun)
  • Musket balls
These artifacts may seem to be randomly scattered in or on the ground, but they and their position are clues to a bigger picture of past life. A large part of an archeologist’s work is making inferences, or drawing conclusions based on a few facts, about who lived here and how. Just from the variety of artifacts found above, you could tell that people had lived here during prehistoric times through the Civil War and beyond. And you could tell that families lived here year round, judging from the toys, signs of long-term homes, and tools to grow crops.
Heath Bailey carefully scrapes away soil layers in an excavation unit.

Archeology technician Heath Bailey carefully scrapes away soil layers in an excavation unit at Cataloochee.

NPS photo.

Another vital part of an archeologist’s job is sensing patterns in what he or she finds. In the Smokies, as in many places, distinctive elaboration (details) and decoration on pottery can provide clues to the connections between individual families: who shared meals or traded with whom. The pottery and its distribution can also provide clues as to how these families fit into the larger regional landscape: were they prosperous, for example, and receiving decorative pottery from many areas? Or were their pieces of pottery functional dishes that they made for their own use?

Archeologists can tell these things from pottery because the styles, methods, and patterns people used changed over time and space. People living near the Smokies in the Qualla, or Middle Towns, of the Cherokee, for example, made pottery that looked different from pottery that the Over hill Cherokee people—those along the Tennessee River 100 miles away—made. And styles changed over time, so pieces of pottery from 1400 will look very different from those crafted in the 1800s. If we found pottery here that matched that of a group hundreds of miles away, for example, we could tell approximately what century the pottery was from, as well as infer that the groups may have traded, had members marry one another, or relocated to somehow share that pattern.

Other artifacts are good indicators of how people’s lifestyles and trading patterns changed over time, as well. A good example is in another artifact archeologists commonly find: pieces of tools used to hunt food. The Cherokee often traded for and began using European goods, so a stone arrowhead in the 14th century might be replaced with a metal arrowhead and a musketball in the 19th century.

All of these clues are vital to understanding our past and presenting it to future generations. We all have ancestors that go back in time for tens of thousands of years, but we often cannot see the traces of these people on the landscape. Archeologists help the park piece together an ongoing story of its people and protect it for the future.

Return to Dispatches from the Field: Cultural Resources.

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