Archaeological Excavations at the Cane Notch Site, a Protohistoric Town on the Nolichucky River in Upper East Tennessee

Location: Johnson City, Tennessee, United States

December 12, 2015 to January 17, 2016

Session dates: 
*** This field school is now full. *** This field school will meet December 12 - 17, 2015 AND January 2 - 17, 2016. Students should arrive on the evening of December 11th if possible and depart on December 18th. Ideally, students will return the evening of January 1st (the 2nd is fine) and finally depart the project on January 17th. NOTE: I am happy to entertain students who may only be able to make the January session due to end of semester exams in December. Contact Jay Franklin to discuss.

Application Deadline: 
Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Deadline Type: 
Contact for details

Program Type

Field school



East Tennessee State University

Project Director:

Jay D. Franklin, PhD, East Tennessee State University

Project Description

*** This field school is now full. ***


“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 will conduct 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.  

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).


Period(s) of Occupation: Protohistoric Lamar/Cherokee/Mississippian

Protohistory, town, Cherokee, De Soto, Nolichucky River, fur trade

Project size: 
1-24 participants

Minimum Length of Stay for Volunteers: *** This field school is now full. ***

Minimum age: 

Experience required: 

Room and Board Arrangements

ETSU students may commute to the site daily (we will meet up together each day). Non-ETSU students will be picked up and dropped off at the field houses daily. The field houses are located in close proximity to (grocery) stores, restaurants, etc. Lodging will be provided by the project for students who need it (those coming from outside the area). Students and volunteers are responsible for their own food costs.

NOTE: all participants, including volunteers, are required to pay the $50.00 materials fee for the course. See Students are responsible for their tuition and fees (in-state rates). Lodging will be provided by the project for students who need it (those coming from outside the area). Students and volunteers are responsible for their own food costs.

Academic Credit

Name of institution offering credit: 
East Tennessee State University
Number of credits offered 3 to 6 hours
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 on ETSU's web site.


Contact Information
Jay Franklin, PhD
Box 70644, ETSU
Johnson City
U. S.
Recommended Bibliography: 

See our new promo video for the project: 

Franklin, Jay D.

2015 The Archaeology of Charlie’s Rock, a Protohistoric Rock Art Site at the Juncture of the Upper and Middle Nolichucky Valley, Upper East Tennessee. ESRARA Newsletter 19(1):10-13.

Franklin, Jay D., Christina L. Bolte, and S. D. Dean

2014 Seriation and Luminescence Dating of Late Prehistoric Ceramics from the Austin Springs Site on the Watauga River in Upper East Tennessee. In Instances of Prehistoric and Historic Archaeology in Mountainous Areas of the Eastern United States: Papers from Upland Archaeology in the East Symposium XI, compiled by Clarence R. Geier, pp. 128-143. James Madison University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Franklin, Jay D., Elizabeth K. Price, and Lucinda M. Langston

2010 The Mortuary Assemblage from the Holliston Mills Site, a Mississippian Town in Upper East Tennessee. In Mississippian Mortuary Practices: Beyond Hierarchy and the Representationist Perspective, edited by Lynne P. Sullivan and Robert C. Mainfort, Jr., pp. 325-350. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Sampeck, Kathryn, Jonathan Thayn, and Howard H. Earnest, Jr.

2015 Geographic Information System Modeling of De Soto's Route from Joara to Chiaha: Archaeology and Anthropology of Southeastern Road Networks in the 16th Century. American Antiquity 80(1) 46-66.

Marcoux, Jon

2010 Pox, Empire, Shackles, and Hides: The Townsend Site, 1670-1715. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa. 

Lapham, Heather A.

2006 Hunting for Hides: Deerskins, Status, and Cultural Change in the Protohistoric Appalachians. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.