NPS Profile: Uncovering the past

Melissa Crisp labels an artifact at a Cataloochee excavation.
Melissa Crisp labels an artifact found during the Cataloochee excavation. The screen is for sifting soil from each layer in the unit.

NPS photo.

Go into the field with archeologists in this PODCAST as they search for signs of past life in the Smoky Mountains. You can also access a text-only pdf transcript of the podcast.

To figure out the human history of a landscape, archeologists Erik Kreusch, Heath Bailey, and seasonal crews hike to landscapes where humans could have hunted, traded, or lived in the past. The Smoky Mountains range from craggy, crumbling mountainsides to level meadows. The sites where you would like to set up camp are also the places people in the past preferred: wide, shady coves at low elevations and grassy, flat gaps at high elevations. These sites weren’t always easy to reach on foot (and they still aren’t), but for their effort people had fertile soil for planting, or, at the high elevations, ideal hunting and food gathering grounds.
Excavation at Cataloochee, on the North Carolina side of the park.
Archeologists excavate the building footprint of a planned vault toilet at Cataloochee.

NPS photo.

When archeologists uncover artifacts, they don’t automatically start an excavation. They document the site by taking photos, GPS (Geographic Positioning System) points, and map markings. Then they carefully measure and note the soil layers, which will give them clues about the age of any artifacts. For example, red clay soils are usually older than fluffy, black soils, so sherds (broken pieces) of pottery found there may be left from many centuries before those in another layer. Floods, farming, fire, and other changes in the land can shift artifacts, so piecing together the whole picture takes a skilled eye and patience.

Because there are so many archeological resources in the park, it would take a very long time to excavate them all. In some cases, it would also cause a lot of damage to the site itself and to native plants and animal habitat. To use the small archeology crew’s time effectively and to reduce harm to natural and cultural resources, archeologists only excavate the footprint of a proposed building in future construction sites. When the park plans a new building—a large one such as the visitor center at Oconaluftee, or a small one such as a vault toilet at Cataloochee (featured in the podcast)—archeologists dig shovel tests, and if any artifacts are found, excavate the area in careful layers.
Prescribed fire in Cades Cove.
Prescribed fires require a lot of pre-planning. The role of archeologists is to survey for pre-historic or historic sites before the landscape burns.

NPS photo by Heath Bailey.

Archeologists spend the majority of their time testing sites to make sure the park is a responsible steward of its archeological resources as it changes the landscape. These changes include placing utility lines, rerouting trails, and constructing new buildings. They also include resource management work such as installing scientific monitoring stations, planning prescribed burns, and restoring fields of native grassland. In most cases, if a crew finds a significant archeological site, the project is shifted so it doesn’t harm the archeological artifacts.
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.
Archeologist 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.

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Last updated: November 12, 2015

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