ETSU Archaeological Field School WINTER 2015/16

Archaeological Excavations at the Cane Notch Site,

a Protohistoric Town on the Nolichucky River in Upper East Tennessee

December 12-17, 2015 & January 2-17, 2016

Cane Notch Site looking north

“only two resting places, in their emigration before they finally reached on the lands of their rest: and the first of which is mentioned was at ah, nee, cah, yungh, lee, yeh, which has reference to some large mountains lying somewhere between the head waters of the Holston, the Clinch, & the Cumberland waters: and their other was somewhere near noh, nah, cloock, ungh (Spruce Tree Place or Nolichucky); and from this rest it is presumable the nation seperated. . . .” Charles Hicks, Cherokee leader, (1826)



We propose archaeological excavations of the Cane Notch Site on the Nolichucky River in upper East Tennessee. Cherokee traditional histories indicate settlements here before 1690. Cherokees during the 1750s asserted claims to the Watauga and Nolichucky valleys by virtue of their former settlements. Our work is significant because Cherokee origins have been a topic of research for decades without much revelation. Despite Cherokee traditional histories, upper East Tennessee remains largely uninvestigated. Archaeological surveys on the Nolichucky and Watauga recovered contemporaneous pottery assemblages characterized by multiple regional pottery traditions that date from the mid-16th to mid-17th century. In fact, it is likely the De Soto entrada spent at least a couple of days in the Middle Nolichucky Valley and may have crossed the ford in the river at Cane Notch.We believe these assemblages represent early coalescent communities that later became the historical Overhill Cherokee polities farther south down the Tennessee Valley by the late 17th century. We recovered vessels which bear resemblance to later Overhill pottery in Southeast Tennessee but in the same archaeological context as earlier types of pottery that typically characterize different archaeological traditions. There is much greater diversity in the pottery at Cane Notch than in later Overhill towns. We hypothesize greater diversity in pottery assemblages is indicative of earlier coalescent communities. As communities mature, they become more homogeneous. Our observations are based on surface collected and riverbank-eroded materials thus far. Larger, well-dated samples from controlled stratigraphic excavations are critical to understand Overhill origins. Our samples will be characterized with respect to intraassemblage diversity and compared to contemporaneous assemblages from the greater region to determine if the Cane Notch collection exhibits significantly greater diversity. 


Goals of the 2015/16 WINTER field season

The 2015/16 investigations will target two block areas across the site with the aim of recovering coherent ceramic assemblages from discrete, dateable contexts. The geophysical work allows us to more accurately target excavation areas. We will excavate two 20 x 20 meter blocks. Block 1 will be the most centrally located. Based on surface collections, Block 1 will allow us to capture the greatest protohistoric ceramic diversity - we have also identified by GPR a house floor in Block 1 (see image below). Block 2 will be placed the farthest northeast portion of the site and should allow us to capture the late prehistoric Pisgah component at the site - a house floor has also been located here. We will target closed finds, ones that are self-contained, such as pit features and discrete house floors. The features and associated wares will be dated by both radiocarbon and luminescence. The pottery assemblages (and other associated artifact classes like trade beads) will then be analytically characterized (surface treatments, temper, rim treatments, etc.) with respect to intraassemblage variability and diversity, and compared to contemporaneous assemblages from the greater region to determine if the Cane Notch collection exhibits significantly greater diversity than those in the core Overhill, Qualla, and Burke phase areas. Cane Notch appears to be one of perhaps two dozen protohistoric towns in a rather tight geographical are of the Middle Nolichucky.  

Block 2 house floor

One of the main things we wish to explore is that of Identity – we as westerners have a different perspective than native peoples on this.

For native peoples, including the Cherokees, Identity proceeds as follows:

1] born of the fire of your town. In this respect, town affiliation may be more important that ethnic relationships – at least as conceived by western folks.

2] your clan

3] every other relationship is peripheral; it is “unique” to think beyond the first two, town and clan (to native peoples)

These “other” peripheral relationships may be viewed better as “chains of cooperation”

In this respect, they perhaps resemble Gamble’s (1999) networks.

In consultation and conjunction with members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Tribal Historic Preservation Office, we are interested in exploring the following things at the Cane Notch Site. They proceed from more general to more specific type interests.

1] Where did the people who lived at Cane Notch come from? What became of them, and where did they go from here? (also see #8 below) As archaeologists, we are tasked with describing and interpreting what we find and then asking how we should go from here.

2] Is Cane Notch a “Cherokee” site? Was there a connectedness to Cherokee towns (in western North Carolina)? Were there/what were the bonds between towns > on the middle Nolichucky? Across the Southern Appalachians?

3] What kinds of house types, pit features, community structure, ceramic design motifs, etc. are revealed at Cane Notch? How do these compare to Qualla sites in western North Carolina? Are they the same? Different? What will the Cherokee Elders make of the differences?

The Cherokee realm and Cherokee towns once extended well beyond the 57,000 acres of the Qualla Boundary. . . .

4] What is the nature of the ceramic assemblages at Cane Notch? We will be exploring both the late prehistoric (for now, we refrain from using the term “Mississippian” at Cane Notch) and protohistoric components in Field Season 1.

a] the prehistoric component appears to be dominated by Pisgah ceramics, which many scholars view as Iroquoian, proto-Iroquoian, and/or prehistoric Cherokee (in western North Carolina, some see it as the “Mississippianization” of the Cherokees; we do not believe this is an [wholly] accurate characterization of Pisgah in upper East Tennessee). However, we also see significant amounts of soapstone tempered wares (Burke?) in association as well as some early Qualla-looking wares. Can we characterize these relationships? I think the large amounts of soapstone tempered wares on these sites on the Nolichucky and Watauga indicate large flows of people long before the Spanish arrived and wanted to cross the mountains with the help of the folks at Joara. Were these “chains of cooperation” or something beyond?

b] the protohistoric ceramic assemblage at Cane Notch thus far seems comprised of very Qualla-looking wares (in many cases, it matches the type descriptions perfectly); shell tempered wares that bear great resemblance to (later) Overhill Cherokee wares from Tellico in southeastern Tennessee. These shell tempered wares are mostly flaring to widely flaring rim plain vessels with partial/punctuated rim strips placed about an inch below the lip of the vessel. Later Overhill vessels from Tellico appear to have these rim strips but they go all the way around the circumference of the vessel. Do the vessels at Cane Notch anticipate the latter ones from Tellico, and are they related? In the protohistoric component (but some also in the late prehistoric component), we find what Howard Earnest, Jr. called the Nolichucky series > largely plain burnished, sand tempered vessels with abundant mica in the paste and/or sand temper. Some of the vessels mimic both the Qualla-looking vessels and the proto-Overhill vessels as well. There is a rim treatment that appears to be unique to Cane Notch (hence the site name) that is characterized by either a rim strip or thickened rim that has been notched by a cane stylus. This mostly occurs on the sand tempered vessels but is not limited to them. Lamar incised motifs are common, including unique cazuela-like vessels but with widely flaring rims above the carinated part of the neck. Most of these are sand tempered (Nolichucky series Lamar?). Finally, we have some ceramics that seem to bear resemblance to Catawba wares. These consist of simple stamped vessels with nested circles over-stamped. Another common vessel or motif are bird effigies on the rims of small burnished bowls. This motif is also seen on the Watauga River sites.  

We will explore these ideas through both detailed ceramic attribute analysis and portable x-ray fluorescence elemental analysis – and, of course, detailed chronometric dating.

5] Based on the above ceramics, we may also be able to address the idea of coalescence. The working assumption is that early coalescent societies are more heterogeneous in their material culture, while later ones become more homogenous through time. Given the diversity of protohistoric ceramics present at Cane Notch, we may hypothesize an early coalescent town.

6] We think it is possible that one or both of the Spanish entradas (De Soto and Pardo) visited or passed very nearby the town at Cane Notch. The shoals area at Cane Notch has been called the old wagon ford for as long as local folks can remember. The Nolichucky is still largely a wild river, and thus remains as it may have been centuries ago. There aren’t too many places where it’s safe to cross the river. The ford at Cane Notch is the first place beyond the rugged upper Nolichucky Gorge where this is possible without great danger. Anyone traveling from the Johnson City area of the Watauga would almost certainly come down Cherokee Creek to this section of the Middle Nolichucky. It would have been necessary for the Spanish to cross the river in order to traverse the broader south side of the river to sites farther downstream where documentation of a Spanish presence is almost unequivocal (40Gn9). Several glass trade beads recovered from Cane Notch have been analyzed by p-xrf analysis and determined to fall within an early protohistoric range of about 1550-1630 based on elemental characterization.

7] It seems likely that the protohistoric inhabitants of Cane Notch were involved in the fur trade and possessed firearms - and maybe at an early date, perhaps by 1630 (thus far we no chronometric dates beyond 1650). We have recovered numerous gunflints from surface surveys already. Some appear to be very expedient, and some appear to have been reworked into end scrapers as they are not the typical looking thumbnail end scrapers that also occur in large numbers in a concentrated area in the protohistoric area of the site.

8] Finally, we think it is quite possible that the protohistoric inhabitants of Cane Notch were the progenitors of the powerful, historically well-documented, Overhill Cherokees of 18th century southeastern Tennessee. This hypothesis is based both in historical Cherokee narratives as well as recovered ceramics that appear to anticipate Overhill wares. They bear no resemblance to Mississippian shell tempered wares in upper East Tennessee (like Dallas).


Overhill-looking flared rim

Qualla Complicated Stamped rim cane styles notche rim

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.


non-faceted chevron bead

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.


Nolichucky River

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