The Archaeology of 3rd Unnamed Cave, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee

3rd Unnamed Cave was discovered by members of the Tennessee Cave Survey in 1975. It is a large karst feature in the Monteagle Limestone comprising more than 11km of passageways. In a remote dark zone chamber (the Mining Chamber), the Survey members noticed many bare footprints in the muddy sediment surface. They contacted pioneering cave archaeologist, Patty Jo Watson, who first visited the cave in 1977. She believed that the footprints were those of prehistoric aboriginals.

Watson again visited the cave in 1981. On this visit, she was taken into the large entrance of the cave and through a long, sinuous passage (the Meander Passage) to reach the Mining Chamber. More than 1 km into the cave, Watson began to notice chert flaking debris along the sides of the passage. Finally, Watson and company entered the Mining Chamber directly above by climbing through a narrow crawl way. Upon entering the chamber, she noticed hundreds of piles of flintknapping debris and core fragments with associated fireplaces.

There were also mining pits in the sandy sediments with digging stick marks still evident in profile. The footprints are located approximately 60 m farther down the passage somewhat removed from the mining locations (I’m guessing Watson had entered the footprint room from the other direction on her first visit and as such never saw the Mining Chamber itself).

Also during the 1981 visit, a few petroglyphs were noted on the ceiling of the Mining Chamber. Several charcoal samples were recovered from the chamber and the Meander Passage below. Five radiocarbon assays indicated use of 3rd Unnamed Cave during the Late and Terminal Archaic periods, ca. 3000 years ago.

In 1996 as a graduate student in archaeology at The University of Tennessee, I began again field work in 3rd Unnamed Cave. In sum, more than 30 trips were made into the cave. Four more flintknapping areas were collected, several more glyphs have been recorded, in situ and bulk sediment samples were taken for micromorphology and microdebitage analyses. In addition, we now have 21 radiocarbon assays from various contexts in 3rd Unnamed Cave (Franklin 1999, 2001; Simek, Franklin, and Sherwood 1998).

Prehistoric hunter-gatherers ventured into remote passages of 3rd Unnamed Cave to mine and work chert (flint) nodules on an intensive scale. Fifteen radiometric age assays place this activity in the Terminal Archaic Period about 3,000 years ago. All radiocarbon assays from the Mining Chamber are Terminal Archaic (n=9). Furthermore, one charcoal sample taken from the lithic concentration, Area B, overlay a crosshatched petroglyph. This sample yielded a radiocarbon assay of 3170 BP. Therefore, the petroglyph (and the others almost certainly) are terminally dated to the Terminal Archaic making them some of the oldest cave art in the eastern woodlands.

            The miners used digging sticks to quarry thousands of chert nodules from the floor sediments of the mining chamber. They also extracted nodules from primary positions in the limestone walls of the chamber. Once the miners procured the nodules, they extensively tested and reduced them using chalcedony hammerstones; these hammerstones were presumably imported as no chalcedony source has been located inside the cave. Small fires of pine and red cedar were lit to illuminate their activities. Clearly, the procurement of chert from the cave was a very logistical affair, contra Binford’s (Binford and Stone 1985:152) notion that raw material acquisition among hunter gatherers was embedded within other mundane activities such as hunting.

            Core refitting of the lithic debris has shown that the miners used a bipolar technique of core reduction. Altogether, 877 pieces were conjoined to form 298 cores and core fragments. Items of export were relatively large, uniform exterior flakes that could be worked into a variety of stone tool forms at other (presumably open air) locations.

References Cited

Binford, Lewis R. and N. M. Stone
1985 “Righteous Rocks” and Richard Gould: Some Observations on Misguided “Debate”. American Antiquity 50:151-153.

Franklin, Jay D.
1999 The Rime of the Ancient Miners. Unpublished Master’s Thesis, Department of Anthropology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

2001 Excavating and Analyzing Prehistoric Lithic Quarries: An Example from 3rd Unnamed Cave, Tennessee. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 26(2):199-217.

Franklin, Jay D. and Jan F. Simek

2008 Core Refitting and the Accuracy of Techniques for Aggregate Lithic Analyses: The Case of 3rd Unnamed Cave, Tennessee. Southeastern Archaeology 27(1):108-121.

Simek, Jan F., Jay D. Franklin, and Sarah C. Sherwood
1998 The Context of Early Southeastern Prehistoric Cave Art: A Report on the Archaeology of 3rd Unnamed Cave. American Antiquity 63(4):663-677.

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