ETSU Archaeological Field School SUMMER 2016 (this page is under construction)

Archaeological Excavations on the Upper Cumberland Plateau,

Paleoindian - Mississippian Archaeology at the Pile & West Mound sites and Rock Creek Mortar Shelter

2nd Summer Session, ~July 6 - August 18, 2016

West Mound

We will spend six weeks on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee investigating three sites: Rock Creek Mortar Shelter, the Pile Mound Site, and the West Mound Site. We will be staying and working out of Pickett State CCC Memorial Rustic State Park. More specifically, we will be working from the new Pickett State Park Archaeology Museum and ETSU Archaeological Research Station. Students will gain experience working in a stratified rock shelter site with deposits ranging from more than 11,500 years ago to 1,000 years ago. They will excavate a 13th century house floor and associated features at the Pile Mound site. They will participate in geophysical investigations of the 6m high West Mound and do some testing around the mound. Finally, students will also get a unique opportunity to engage the public. Students will be rotated to conduct tours of the new archaeology museum and rock shelter site. Visitors will also be able to observe us and interact with us while we clean, process, and sort artifacts at the museum/research station.



Rock Creek Mortar Shelter (40Pt209)

Rock Creek Mortar Shelter (40Pt209), in Pickett State Forest on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, possesses a continuous 11,600 year occupation history. This history may be consistent with previous ideas of first colonization of upland rock shelter zones at the end of the Younger Dryas with significant climatic amelioration. However, we have not yet encountered culturally sterile deposits and believe the site may be older still. The initial inhabitants were transitioning from a Pleistocene way of life to a Holocene one. We see elements of both Paleolithic (Paleoindian) and Early Archaic technology here. The site also has significant Early, Middle, and Late Archaic components. Late Archaic inhabitants intensively processed and prepared nut mast at the shelter as evidence by a bedrock mortar hole, nutting stones, and prepared clay baking surfaces for parching nuts, mostly acorns and hickory nuts. Woodland peoples also used the shelter intermittently over a period of about 2,000 years.

See and


The Pile Mound Site (40Fn180)

The Pile Mound Site is located along the headwaters of the Wolf River just off the western escarpment of the Upper Cumberland Plateau. A single 1.5 meter high mound still stands. Archaeological testing and geophysical survey in 2014 revealed a mid to late 13th century civic/ceremonial site. The mound may have housed a structure atop that has been destroyed by plowing. However, GPR survey revealed a buried structure, probably an earth lodge that opens to the east marked by two piles of large stones. A chunkey stone and Mississippian shell tempered pottery were recovered. Interestingly, much of the shell tempered pottery also has crushed chalcedony mixed in as temper, perhaps a holdover from the preceding Woodland Period suggesting a local tradition (this is not seen elsewhere). We know nothing of the Mississippian Period this far up smaller river valleys. In summer 2016, we will excavate one domestic house floor and a large burned feature. We may also do more geophysical survey. 


Pile Mound

The West Mound Site

The West Mound is located about 10km downstream from the Pile Mound. It, too, is a single mound site. However, the West Mound stands some 6 meters high and is accompanied by a large borrow pit (pond) adjacent. A major goal of the 2016 summer field season will be to conduct intensive geophysical survey of the mound and adjacent village area. We also hope to do enough ground truthing and testing to see if the site is contemporaneous with the Pile Mound Site. A cave system is located down below the village area. We will explore it more thoroughly as well.

West Mound

Check out our new promotional video by Buck Kahler and Nolpix, LLC! See 

Ground-Penetrating Radar Image of the Pile Mound: mound construction/activity is inside the dark blue outline.

Pile Mound GPR image

Late Pleistocene (late Paleolithic) blade tools from Rock Creek Mortar Shelter, ~11,500 years old.

blade tools

Rock Creek Mortar Shelter 

Course Goals
The course is intended to introduce the student to the conduct of field archaeology. Students will be given the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to field situations. Students will learn to orient themselves in the field and how to maintain three dimensional control in their excavations. Aspects of archaeological survey, testing, and excavation will be addressed. Proper mapping and cataloging techniques will also be taught. Students should gain insight into why archaeologists go into the field to excavate the archaeological record.

Archaeological field investigations must be problem oriented. We will discuss how to design important research questions and then properly design methods to answer them in a field setting. We will also explore the concerns of archaeologists, cultural resource managers (including federal and state agencies), and native peoples regarding the archaeological record. Artifacts removed from their original context or matrix are of limited use to the archaeologist. Students will learn how to assess archaeological context and integrity. Students will learn how to conduct archaeological field investigations. Click on this link to see course syllabus.

Pile Mound Site Mississippian Rims: zone check stamped w/mixed shell and local chalcedony temper

Pile Mound rims

What Students May Expect - SORT OF (every field season is different)
field school video image and link   

2009 Field School video by Jeffrey W. Navel (click on image above to see it - takes a minute or two to load)

Students should register for ANTH 4407: Archaeological Field School (OR 5407 for graduate students). A 3 or 6 hour section is available.

ETSU students may commute to the site daily (we will meet up together each day). Non-ETSU students should contact Jay Franklin to arrange lodging if needed. 

Cost: Students are resposible for their tuition & fees only (housing costs are covered)

Students will be responsible for their tuition costs and meals. In an effort to make the field experience more affordable for students, the course is offered as three (3) credit hours OR 6 credit hours (If the 3 credit hour option is chosen, students may later repeat the course for a total of six credit hours). In-State rates are offered for all students. Out of state students are urged to contact Jay Franklin ASAP to make these arrangements. In state rates are provided by a separate contract in association with Terre Ancienne, a French archaeological organization with whom we work and have exchange agreements. For non-ETSU students, there is a $25.00 University application fee as visiting students. See Visiting Students

Enrollment is open to students from any university, although priority may be given to ETSU students. No one will be admitted for enrollment without completely filling out and agreeing to the terms of this application form. Applications are to be accompanied by a $50.00 materials fee. Forms are due no later than December 1, 2015. Students who submit applications after this date may be placed on a waiting/alternate list. Enrollment is limited to 15 students for the winter 2015/16, and is open only to students taking the course for credit - no audit students will be accepted. Volunteers may be accepted. Contact Jay Franklin personally if you wish to volunteer. Download application form.

    West Mound with Borrow Pit used for mound fill just in front.

West Mound old

Student comments from previous field seasons

"I would fully recommend . . . field school to any student with an interest in archaeology. It is a chance to broaden one's knowledge in a way that is impossible to do sitting in a classroom. It is an experience I will never forget. . . Attending field school has been the climax of my college career."

"This is the best class I have ever had."

"The field school is a valuable experience on many levels. Students not only learn about archaeology techniques and methods, but also social skills and group participation. The field school was by far one of the best experiences that I have had at ETSU. . . I have also learned to function better in a group. Group skills are very important to students entering the work force, and I feel that the ability to cooperate and be productive with co workers is not emphasized enough in the college curriculum."

The Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee
The Cumberland Plateau rises some 1000 feet above the adjacent Tennessee River Valley. It is part of a larger region referred to as the “‘great Wilderness’, that dark and mysterious forest” in early historic times (Campbell 1921:32). For reasons not entirely clear (although the above quote may offer some clues), however, the region has traditionally been viewed as a cultural backwater (e. g., Swanton 1946). I have been conducting archaeological and historical research on the Upper Cumberland Plateau for ten years now, and it is my contention that the notion of “cultural backwater” could not be farther from the truth. Campbell (1921:xxi) underscores this by calling the region (the Southern Highlands), “a land of promise, a land of romance, and a land about which, perhaps, more things are known that are not true than of any part of our country.” It is certainly a land of archaeological promise for underneath the sandstone bluff lines and in the myriad hardwood coves and box canyons of the plateau are thousands of rock shelters and hundreds of caves. These karstic features are not only part of the natural landscape but also part of the cultural landscape. Prehistoric Native Americans used and occupied these rock shelters and caves for 12,000 years. “Throughout Appalachia, almost by definition, rock shelters are extremely important repositories of archaeological materials” (Watson 2001:320). In fact, people have lived on the plateau year-round since Late Archaic times, about 4000 years ago.
It is my hope and belief that students will not only have a meaningful archaeological experience, but also a meaningful cultural experience during their stay on the Upper Cumberland Plateau. Below you will find links to some interesting and fun places to visit in your “down time”.

Web sites of Interest:

Pisgah National Forest

North Carolina Rock Art Survey

Contact information:

Dr. Jay D. Franklin
Associate Professor of Archaeology
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
Box 70644
East Tennessee State University
Johnson City TN 37614-1702
423-430-4370 (main office)

423-833-6249 (cell)


Dr. Franklin's homepage

References Cited

Campbell, John C.
1921 The Southern Highlander and His Homeland. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.

Franklin, Jay D. (2008) Luminescence Dates and Woodland Ceramics from Rock Shelters on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. Tennessee Archaeology 3(1):87-100.

Swanton, J. R.
1946 Indians of the Southeastern United States. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 137. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.

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 L. P. Sullivan and S. C. Prezzano, pp. 319-322. The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.


Roundleaf Catchfly: native

wildflower of the Cumberland Plateau