Archaeology makes its mark on the Domain

by Christopher Murphree

As professors and students alike kick into their routine processes to begin the new year, a hidden world of the many peoples who inhabited this mountain lies right beneath our feet.

University Archaeologist Dr. Sarah Sherwood, also a professor in the Environmental Studies Program, works with the Office of Domain management to help preserve and maintain the archaeological record here on the Domain. Dr. Sherwood has worked extensively throughout the Southeastern United States and the Balkans of Eastern Europe. Yet, while her expertise has led her to areas all over the globe (Iceland, Africa, Europe etc.) she maintains that the archaeological record here on the Domain can be just as interesting. From open-air rock art and cave art, to prehistoric rock shelter sites, and yes, to the ever present flint and arrowhead, the Mountain is full of remnants from a world before us.

The depth of time from which these artifacts hail is astounding. The range includes ancestors of the Native American who came into this region at least as early as 12,000 B.C.E. to citizens of the modern Industrial Age who farmed here as recent as the early twentieth century.

This early occupation is not limited to just the Domain. From the depths of the Cumberland Plateau to the mountains and floodplains of the southeast, numerous cave paintings have recently been discovered. These productions are often more than just a piece of art, but provide valuable insight into the lives and cosmology of the peoples who inhabited this land before us.

On September 8, Dr. Sherwood and colleague Dr. Jan Simek from the University of Tennessee, hosted a talk discussing their recent work on the regions prehistoric rock art with an emphasis on Picture Cave, an impressive art site located in southeast Missouri. The rock art can typically be divided into two groups: open air and cave site art. As its name suggests, open air rock art can typically be found along bluff faces and outside of caves. Cave rock art is typically much more difficult to come upon and is located deep in the dark zones of caves. Throughout their research, they documented nearly 300 different sites containing images as early as 6,000 years ago, however the bulk of the sites appear to date to the Mississippian Period 900-1600 A.D.

Although many of the cave paintings appear simple in their use of single lines and basic shapes, their complexities and reflections on prehistoric life suggest a deeper meaning. Upon closer inspection, many paintings are organized upon a hierarchy based upon their importance. The art in the upper section of caves reflects the daily life of nomadic people, while the art of the lower sections of the cave concerns the complex religious traditions found in Mississippian culture.

In addition to the difficulties of finding rock art within caves, finding the caves themselves can be a tough challenge to overcome. Due to natural changes in the Earth’s landscape, many areas that were easily accessible to our ancestors before us are hidden from view. Throughout the southeast, approximately 1,500 caves have been discovered and explored, while an estimated 8,000 caves are still waiting to be investigated.

Yet despite the challenges that lie in unearthing the distant past, researchers and students alike continue to take on the challenge. This summer, fourteen students joined the Sewanee Environmental Institute Archaeological Field School. Students spent six weeks exploring a rock shelter site to acquired archaeological technical expertise to excavate and study the site to discover how and why it was used by native cultures over 7,000 years.

Although Lily Davenport (C’16) realized that the field of archaeology was not for her, she found the experience “incredibly rewarding and educational” and would highly recommend the field school for interested students.

While the Archaeological Field School is a great resource for students, it is not the only way to discover the cultural history buried within the Domain. The University also offers several classes that explore various aspects of archaeology here and beyond. During the Easter semester Dr. Sherwood will be teaching Anthropology 106, a class that introduces students to the scientific underpinnings of the fields of archaeology and physical anthropology. A more advanced and field oriented experience can be found in her Archaeological Survey class that both studies various field methodologies while students gain practical experience exploring the Domain to identify and document sites. Dr. Celeste Ray from the anthropology department will also be teaching Celtic Culture and Archaeology, yet another avenue to explore in prehistory.