ETSU Archaeological Field School WINTER 2014/15

Archaeological Excavations at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter,

Pickett State Forest, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee

December 12-18, 2014 AND January 2-15, 2015



Upland areas do not typically fit into conventional models of human settlement, except in cases where they are invoked as marginal areas used for hunting and gathering forays by ancient peoples only to return to their lowland homes. However, work on the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) of Tennessee has demonstrated this is not the case, and we can add the earliest Tennesseans to the list. At Rock Creek Mortar Shelter on the UCP, we have recorded a more or less continuous record of human occupation from at least the end of the Pleistocene around 11,500 years ago to about AD 1000. In the late Pleistocene and early Holocene deposits about 1.25 – 2 meters below surface, we recovered more than a dozen blades from a restricted area under the drip line of the shelter. Most of the blades were made/prepared from unipolar cores. There is a mix of hard hammer and soft hammer percussion for blade production. There also seems to be a mix of skill level and/or execution. A few of the well made blades would be at home in European Late & Epi-Paleolithic assemblages, while a few are poorly executed. This suggests a family group as opposed to simply a group of male hunters. It may have been that older, skilled knappers were teaching younger novices to make blades on site. It may also be that these earliest inhabitants of the UCP were coping with the constraints of using the small rounded local cobbles of Monteagle Chert for blade production (as opposed to large tabular cherts encountered in the lower Tennessee River drainage). We’ve recovered numerous core edge flakes and crested blade fragments that were removed to prepare cores for blade production. We have some evidence for over shot biface thinning flaking here (also common in Paleoindian assemblages). The entire range of lithic reduction is present in these early levels. That is, chert cobbles were brought to the shelter for core reduction and tool production. Like later Holocene assemblages all over the UCP, there is evidence of biface production at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter. However, unlike the myriad other shelters we have excavated, we have already recovered far more unifacial tools at this site than any other on the UCP. So far, 50 tools/pieces have been analyzed for microscopic use wear. Activities represented in the late Pleistocene/early Holocene levels include early stage hide and meat processing and scraping wood. Two tools possess some sort of residue which we think may be blood. We might tentatively suggest a temporary hunting camp occupied by residentially mobile families.

Goals of the 2014/15 WINTER field season

We are excited to continue our work at this important site. We hope to recover blade cores in the coming field season so that we may reconstruct the entire blade production sequence. More generally, we will continue to explore why these early people ventured onto this rugged, upland landscape far removed from a major stream and tens of kilometers from primary raw material sources.


1] We will extend more excavation units across the shelter underneath the drip line.



2] We will excavate a large (2 x 2 meter) sondage unit in the open, relatively flat area out in front of the shelter.


3] We will continue with already-open excavation units nearer the back ledge of the shelter in order to look for spatial differences between the back and front of the shelter (i. e., different activity areas).


4] We will examine the sediments using geomicromorphological analyses.

 5] We will collect fossil pollen samples from underneath large sandstone breakdown clasts where organic materials have collected and preserved so that we may examine what the forest composition and local environment were like during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene in this rugged upland region.


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.

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.

Students will lodge in cabins and the staff house at Pickett State Park. Cabins have most or all amenities. Room & board are both covered by the project grant.

Cost: Students are resposible for their tuition & fees only (again, room & board are covered)

Students will be responsible for their tuition costs and meals (maybe lodging, too, depending on funding). 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 for Summer 2014 are as follows: In-State undergraduates pay $246 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $738.00 total). Graduates pay $395 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $1185.00 total). Out-of-State rates for are as follows: Undergraduates pay $369 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $1107.00 total). Graduates pay $593.00 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $1779.00 total). 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 $250.00 materials fee and deposit for each student (This is non-refundable: $50.00 is for a materials fee and $200.00 is for the housing deposit. If you attend field school and my funding comes through, I will then refund the $200.00). Forms are due no later than NOVEMBER 15th, 2014. Students who submit applications after this date may be placed on a waiting/alternate list. Enrollment is limited to 12 students for 2014/15, and is open only to students taking the course for credit - no audit students or volunteers will be accepted. Download application form.


Sachsen Cave Shelter Field Crew 2010

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