Below the Plow Zone: An Excerpt from “Oconaluftee”

The following is an excerpt from Oconaluftee: The History of a Smoky Mountain Valley by Elizabeth Giddens, which is available everywhere books are sold.

A deep dive into one valley of the mountain borderlands of the antebellum South, the Civil War, and industrialization. Giddens makes this amazing place come alive by connecting the stories of prosperous and less prosperous people from vastly different walks of life.

Margaret Lynn Brown, Brevard College

Below the Plow Zone: The Valley’s Human Prehistory

I DON’T KNOW what this is, but …,” says a black-haired, dark-eyed high school student holding a handful of dime-size, dirt-covered objects. The hand reaches toward Melissa Crisp, a Parks as Classrooms project coordinator in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, who has also taught students in the field for several summers now. She is voluble, full of energy and information. The student looks hopeful.

“That’s beautiful!” Crisp picks up a small whitish-gray flake from his palm and holds it up. Looking again to his palm, she picks through the rest of the items. “That’s a rock. That looks like pottery. That’s a rock. But that,” she says, going back to the first, small flake, “is a beautiful piece of chert. That’s what that is. See, that’s lighter, but it’s that Knox chert.” Chert was used for projectile points like arrowheads and Knox chert, not locally available, was traded by prehistoric residents with others in Tennessee. So the small chert flake is the remnant of someone’s effort to make an arrowhead many years ago. The young man, palm empty now, tosses the rocks but keeps the mysterious bits and puts them in a labeled paper lunch bag. As part of a Parks as Classrooms summer program, this intern and others like him methodically dig below the plow zone, the dark layer of soil that had been disturbed by farming, to find artifacts from Native American groups who lived or camped in this spot hundreds and thousands of years ago.

By 10:00 A.M. on a humid July morning, a cluster of high school and college interns have dug a half dozen square meters of dirt on one of the valley football fields alongside Newfound Gap Road, the main road of the park. The field’s vegetation was cut short last week in anticipation of the workshop, but it still harbors poison ivy, so those digging wear gloves and watch where they put their hands. They are also on the lookout for curious mice that might have hidden under a tarp overnight and, as a consequence, for mice-hungry snakes. Both have made cameo appearances over the course of the week. Yesterday, a mouse ran up someone’s pant leg. It’s a funny story now but caused some excitement then. A couple of folks are rather leery of touching or even standing near a tarp. A constant roar and swoosh of road noise provides a soundtrack. Nearby, a camping canopy serves as an office; under its small square of shade lie clipboards for data collection details, artifact bags kept in large plastic bins, rain jackets, a cooler of water, snacks.

As part of a Parks as Classrooms summer program, this intern and others like him methodically dig below the plow zone, the dark layer of soil that had been disturbed by farming, to find artifacts from Native American groups who lived or camped in this spot hundreds and thousands of years ago.

The interns are creating an expanding checkerboard of one-meter squares on the north end of the field. Some look about six inches deep and others about twelve; a couple of promising squares are marked off with string and nails to maintain a boundary line and to facilitate mapping later. They are being dug deeper and more carefully, with trowels instead of shovels. Whatever the tool, students scrape the dirt from a single “unit” at a time and place it in plastic buckets for screening.

A second young man, sunburned and sandy-haired, shows Crisp more objects, simultaneously implying a question: “This is charcoal and it stayed in the sifter so that’s why I kept it.” Crisp looks and replies, “Actually, it’s not charcoal; see the sand and the grit in it? That’s just sort of a sandstone.” But she sees another piece: “That’s really good! That’s chert!” The chert piece, like all the finds, goes into a bag marked with unit number, site, and date.

Another student, an African American college student, approaches. “My rock senses are tingling. Is it fire-cracked rock?” Crisp picks the egg-sized rock out of her hand. “No. Look for reddish rock and a sharp break. You’re right; it’s just a rock.” The student returns to her team of three interns who are laughing as they screen their dirt through a hip-high, wood-frame sieve. The sieve stands on two legs and is held parallel to the ground by one intern. One young woman pours dirt into the top of the sieve, and another, who is holding the frame, shakes the dirt through. When only clumps remain, all three use their hands to pick out objects that might be artifacts. Below the sieve, a pile of light-brown, flour-like dirt grows.

“Oh, those are good pieces of chert! I tell ya, Deronya’s got the touch. This unit has just been gold!” Digging is “almost like a puzzle in reverse,” Crisp explains.

This dig is the result of an ongoing partnership between archaeologists at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Its purposes include expanding the knowledge about archaeology of the park area; exposing local students, and especially Cherokee youth, to archaeological practices and career possibilities; and providing college-age interns with training. The program, with support from the university, the park, and the nonprofit Friends of the Great Smoky Mountains, has been in place for several years, and has enabled research providing new insights into the heavy use of Oconaluftee Valley by people from the Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods of prehistoric archaeology as well as by the Cherokees, who have continuously inhabited the area for more than a thousand years.

Continue reading in Oconaluftee.

Elizabeth Giddens is professor of English at Kennesaw State University.