Rock Shelters of the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee

A major facet of my research involves archaeological investigations of the rock shelters of the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) of Tennessee, part of a broader area referred to as “The Wilderness” in early historic times (Myer n. d.). There are quite literally thousands of rock shelters and caves that characterize the plateau. “Throughout Appalachia, almost by definition, rock shelters are extremely important repositories of archaeological materials” (Watson 2001:320). Their ubiquity across the Cumberland Plateau made them ideal locations for shelter, habitation, and processing nut mast.

There is also great variation in rock shelter configuration on the UCP. Many are large shallow caves, or “rock houses” in the regional parlance. Others are very small and may have served as intermittent overnight shelter for 1 or 2 individuals. The majority are what may be described as bluff overhangs. Virtually all of these were used by prehistoric peoples.















A primary working hypothesis of my rock shelter research is that cultural sequences (culture histories) applied to this region are inadequate. Culture histories for Middle and East Tennessee were developed in neighboring lowland regions. These “histories” have been boiler-plated onto the Cumberland Plateau, even though comparatively little systematic archaeological research has been conducted here. The plateau has often been characterized as a marginal zone that prehistoric peoples occupied only intermittently and more out of necessity than preference. There is simply no archaeological evidence to support this contention. I maintain that the Upper Cumberland Plateau was both intensively and extensively inhabited and exploited for thousands of years. To support my ideas, I have recorded more than 200 rock shelter sites in the region over the past nine years (Franklin 2002). Together, these sites span the known range of Southeastern prehistory from the Paleoindian (ca. 13,500 years ago) through the Late Prehistoric eras (ca. 400 years ago). The Cumberland Plateau possesses its own unique and rich culture history. By examining the sequencing at particular sites and obtaining associated radiocarbon dates for the various sequence episodes, the culture history of the Upper Cumberland Plateau should begin to take shape.

There are valid reasons why the culture history of the Cumberland Plateau would differ from those of neighboring lowland regions. The natural environment may be considered a primary reason. The Cumberland Plateau rises more than 300 m above the adjacent Highland Rim and Ridge and Valley. In areas between these regions and within the plateau itself are many unique micro-environments that were inhabited prehistorically. In short, there are not only significant environmental differences between these regions, there is also much greater environmental variation within the Cumberland Plateau.

These differences should be reflected in material culture (e.g., artifacts) and thus represented in the archaeological record. For example, cord marked pottery is the prevalent type recorded on the UCP. In fact, throughout the Woodland Period, cord marking far exceeds other types of surface treatments. While cord marked pottery was common in other regions, so were treatments seen only in minor amounts on the UCP. If different pottery “types”, more specifically surface treatments and tempering, can be taken as representations of different ethnic groups, then it may be that different ethnic groups occupied the UCP of Tennessee. The prevalence of cord-marked pottery might also suggest a cultural conservatism in this region. Such suggestions for upland regions have been made before, although largely applied to historic peoples (e.g., Brush 1984). Nevertheless, some of the same ideas may have applied to prehistoric inhabitants of upland regions as well, most notably the maintenance of local traditions and resistance to change (Sullivan and Prezzano 2001:323). It must be emphasized, however, that increased samples sizes and controlled stratigraphic excavations are needed before such an idea can be hypothesized.

My rock shelter research is ongoing. In an effort to involve students, I have incorporated the rock shelter excavations into my archaeological field school, most recently at Eagle Drink Bluff Shelter representing perhaps 10,000 years of intermittent occupation.

Dr. Franklin's homepage

References Cited

Brush, S. B.
1984 The Anthropology of Highland Peoples. In Cultural Adaptation to Mountain Environments, edited by P. Beaver and B. Purrington, pp. 159-167. Southern Anthropological Society Proceedings No. 17. The University of Georgia Press, Athens.

Franklin, Jay D.
2002 The Prehistory of Fentress County, Tennessee: An Archaeological Survey. Doctoral Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Myer, William E.
n. d. Stone Age Man in the Middle South. Unpublished Manuscript on file at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C. And the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, Nashville.

Sullivan, Lynne P. and Suzanne C. Prezzano
2001 A Conscious Appalachian Archaeology. In Archaeology of the Appalachian Highlands, edited by Lynne P. Sullivan and Suzanne C. Prezzano, pp. 323-331. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Watson, Patty Jo
2001 Ridges, Rises, and Rocks; Caves, Coves, Terraces, and Hollows: Appalachian Archaeology at the Millennium. In Archaeology of the Appalachian Highlands, edited by Lynne P. Sullivan and Suzanne C. Prezzano, pp. 319-322. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.