News Post

Uncovering History
Uncovering History

St. Andrew's-Sewanee School's campus is home to a wealth of natural resources, including several prehistoric archaeological sites. One rock shelter, impressive both in size and in its archaeological richness, is the lab for Marion Knoll's science elective, Archaeology of the Southeastern United States. Under the guidance of Mrs. Knoll, fourteen Upper School students are engaged in a careful excavation of the site, and, in the process, they are learning about site formation processes, environmental and ecological changes in North America over the last 20,000 years, and the human history of the southeastern United States, particularly the Cumberland Plateau, prior to European contact.

Students began the course by conducting a surface collection on the site. They gathered chert flakes left behind from the production of projectile points and sandstone nutting stones and grinding stones exposed on the shelter floor. Next, they created scaled maps of the shelter. Current parent Jason Barry '00 introduced them to modern surveying techniques using GPS Total Station technology.

Students are employing current scientific excavation methods, using trowels to slowly and carefully excavate the test units and preserve both the artifacts and data about the context in which they are uncovered. Students record the data and then properly clean, store, and catalog the artifacts for future analysis and interpretation. Results of the excavation are shared with Dr. Sarah Sherwood, archaeologist at the University of the South, and Dr. Jan Simek, head archaeologist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. The collaboration among Mrs. Knoll's students, Dr. Sherwood, and Dr. Simek will contribute to ongoing research and a deepening understanding of when and how prehistoric peoples used rock shelter sites on the southern Cumberland Plateau.

The exacting science of archaeology is also calling into play skills from other courses. "We learned the Pythagorean Theorem in math," offers Faith Daisy '20. "I didn't know it was going to come up in my life, but we needed it to measure and construct our test units." Seven carefully measured squares, each comprised of two triangles, are used to expose the stratigraphy of the site down to the sterile shelter floor in a controlled linear area.

The class's work is the continuation of research begun as a 2006 Winterim course, SAS's annual one-week break from regular classes to explore specific topics during in-depth short courses. The results of the initial test excavation and ongoing salvage excavations indicated that much of the shelter floor had been heavily looted in the past. Because looters employ no scientific method, do not share what they find, and ignore the important context associated with the artifacts, they destroy key pieces of evidence regarding our shared human history. The class's findings will inform decisions regarding future excavation or protection of the site.

Since 2006, approximately 150 SAS students have helped to screen, identify, gather, clean, store, and catalog over 5,000 artifacts. Despite the damage caused by looting, enough diagnostic artifacts have been uncovered to conclude that the shelter was occupied at least 8,000 years ago and into the period just before European contact around 1450 AD.

Even more significant than the age of the artifacts are the stories they tell of the people who made them. As Alvin Wong '20 surveys a tray of findings, he contemplates a piece of limestone too perfectly shaped to have occurred naturally. Seth Walker '19 believes he has identified a flint stone in his collection. Over the years, students have identified chert projectile points used for hunting, chert knives or scrapers used for hide preparation or cutting meat, shards of pottery created for food storage or cooking, nutting and grinding stones to process acorn and hickory nuts, and limestone hoes used for digging storage pits or cultivating plants.

"It's really satisfying to uncover an artifact that somebody else made," says Pete Haight '20. "Finding out what this culture was like through its artifacts is very interesting."

Multiple pieces of pure white quartzite are also found in the artifact assemblage. Because the source of this quartzite is only found in the Appalachian Mountains, its presence helps to determine that the prehistoric populations in this area may have traded with peoples from what is now eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina or traveled to or from those areas.

Jack Bailey '20 appreciates the "real work" of the course, "We're learning, but not just by listening to a teacher ramble on with a PowerPoint. Ms. Knoll guides us, but we also have to learn on our own, and we're doing actual, not simulated, scientific work."

Ananda Janke '19 knew of the areas prehistory thanks to visits to nearby Old Stone Fort State Park in Manchester, Tenn., but she didn't realize that there was still work to be done and that she could be doing it. Classmate Harrison Hartman '20 has gained a new appreciation for his home. "I've lived on the Mountain all my life," offers Harrison. "I knew that prehistoric people lived here, but I never thought about it very deeply. Now I think about the things that I encounter every day that they would have encountered."

So far, the students have only dug through the looters' dirt, but they expect to be reaching undisturbed soil soon. A complete ground-penetrating radar analysis conducted with University of Texas-Austin geophysicists in mid-November will provide more detail about the intact cultural features and the extent of past looting. "There is a big sense of responsibility," notes Steven Anderson '20. "We could break something or throw something out that has importance. But there's also a sense of fulfillment if we find something, because we know that we've uncovered history."