The banks of the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee have been home to human occupation for at least the last 12,000 years. The river’s natural levees presented prehistoric inhabitants of the region with ideal settlement locations, close to the river channel but elevated above most seasonal flooding. More than 130 archaeological sites have been recorded with the Tennessee Division of Archaeology along the banks of the Cumberland between Cheatham and Old Hickory Dams. Over thirty of these sites in the vicinity of Nashville contain thick layers of freshwater shell. These shell middens (or trash heaps) derive their unique appearance from the millions of freshwater snail and mussel shells that were deposited over thousands of years by prehistoric people living along the Cumberland.
Shell midden sites are of great significance to understanding the past, in that they can reveal unique information regarding the relationship between humans, animal species, and the natural environment over periods of thousands of years. These sites can also help scientists understand past flooding cycles and long-term patterns of environmental change. Although intensive archaeological research has been conducted over the last 50 years at shell midden sites elsewhere in the American Southeast, few formal archaeological investigations have been conducted at any of the sites along the Middle Cumberland. These sites therefore represent a significant but thus far overlooked aspect of Middle Tennessee history.
On the weekend of May 1, 2010, many of us watched as the floodwaters rise over Nashville in the worst flooding the area has seen since 1937. On May 3, the Cumberland River crested at 52 feet, inundating the hundred year floodplain and impacting or destroying more than 9,000 homes and businesses. The material damages were estimated to be over $1.5 billion. The human tragedy and economic impact has been well publicized, and the response to those in need was immediate and widespread. However, little public concern was given to the immediate and on-going destructive impacts of the May 2010 floods to the archaeological record of the region.
After floodwaters abated and the Cumberland returned to its summer pool elevation, Dr. Tanya Peres (Associate Professor, MTSU Department of Sociology and Anthropology) and Aaron Deter-Wolf (Tennessee Division of Archaeology and Adjunct Assistant Professor at MTSU) conducted preliminary damage inspections of several large, severely exposed shell midden sites west of downtown Nashville in order to assess flood damage and investigate reports of looting activity. During this initial visit we determined that substantial portions of these archaeological sites had been displaced or entirely destroyed by the floodwaters. In one case we estimate up to 10 meters (33 feet) of bankline, including substantial archaeological deposits, had been washed away. Additionally, we documented widespread evidence of disturbance and destruction of the remaining site deposits by looters searching for prehistoric grave offerings.
The scope of damage documented during these site inspections prompted us (along with MTSU Assistant Professor Dr. Shannon Hodge) to apply for Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF RAPID (RAPID:Emergency Shoreline Assessment and Sampling of Archaeological Sites Along the Cumberland River in Middle Tennessee) grant was awarded in June 2010, and is one of only three NSF RAPID awards ever made to archaeological projects. That funding allowed us to examine 68 miles of the Cumberland River between Cheatham Dam in Ashland City and Old Hickory Dam in Goodlettsville to assess both natural and anthropogenic disturbances to prehistoric archaeological sites along the banklines. The current project (MTSU Middle Cumberland Archaeology Project) is a natural outgrowth of this initial survey.