10,000 years in the Smokies: the condition of archeological sites in the Park
Archeologists at Great Smoky Mountains National Park just completed a three year project: gathering baseline archeological site condition data on over 450 previously identified archeological sites. These sites represent the remains of the earliest inhabitants of the Great Smoky Mountains, who used the land, its plants, and its animals as many as 10,000 years ago. Archeologists visited each site, verified its location using a GPS (Geographical Positioning System) unit, made sketches of the layers and artifacts involved, took photos of the area, and wrote detailed notes about the site’s appearance and changes since the last time they saw it. They entered this data into the Park’s computer database, and sent artifacts to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Office of Science and Technology (OSTI) in Tennessee.
They also did subsurface testing (digging) to determine how far the sites stretched underground, and what other artifacts existed in soil layers. In many cases, this work allowed archeologists to better understand the types of activities taking place at these sites and the time periods in which they were occupied. This work will continue to serve as a tool to support Park, field support office and central office archeological resources preservation, protection, planning, and decision-making.
Archeology and fire: conducting surveys prior to prescribed fires
Before fire managers burn areas of the Park as part of a five-year prescribed fire plan, it’s vital that we know what, if any, cultural resources are there. Archeologists can locate and describe cultural resources—prehistoric artifacts, mounds, wood cabins, fences, graveyards, and more—and work with fire managers to protect them during the prescribed burns. In the long run, setting these prescribed burns helps to protect cultural resources, because fire managers have some control over when the fire burns, how hot it is, and how far it spreads. Since its establishment in June 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has had a policy of suppressing (putting out, no matter the cause) all wildland fires. After many years of fire suppression, plants and debris on the forest floor have built up so much that a natural fire could burn with more heat, intensity, and speed than these forests can withstand—and certainly more than a historic wood cabin standing within those forests can tolerate.
While the suppression of some wildfires will continue to be an important part of the Park’s overall fire management program, today we recognize that not all the effects of fire are undesirable. Under optimal climatic conditions (usually damp days in fall to early spring), with adequate fire containment procedures (water, firebreaks, and shovels at the ready), personnel, and control lines, intentionally set fires can provide the park with a natural alternative or ‘prescription’ for rehabilitating or restoring our forests health and vitality.
Between 2005 and 2009, park archeology staff recorded and helped protect at least 25 above ground wooden structures and numerous archeological sites within prescribed fire areas. Most vulnerable are wood structures such as cabins or barns, but archeological sites underground are also at risk. Setting up fire containment lines involves burning down to mineral soil (or the layer without any organic leaf, root, or decaying plant material), which may be below artifacts, so archeologists dig test sites along the proposed lines.
Many of these surveys occur in areas that archeologists have not explored before. The pre-fire surveys allow archeologists to see how prehistoric peoples used particular biomes, and when people moved into or out of an area. Today many of these areas are remote, off of established trails and roads, but in the prehistoric past they might have been accessible to hunting and foraging groups who used them often. Because the areas that the fire will cover are so big, archeologists tried new methods of predicting where artifacts or sites might be based on characteristics of locations where they had found sites in the past, and then seeing if their predictions proved to be correct.
The archeological information gleaned from these pre-fire surveys has been instrumental in refining the park’s cultural history and identifying potentially archeological sensitive areas in areas near the fire. Ultimately, by testing areas that seem likely to hold artifacts, archeologists can develop prediction tools to identify underground sites based land features or signs, and protect more cultural resources.
Return to Resource Roundup: January, 2009.