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Tennessee archaeology and native peoples

Native American women grinding corn

You'll be unsurprised to learn that my favorite exhibit at the McClung Museum was the Native American wing. Not only is this one of my favorite topics to learn about, but the exhibit was also based on archaeological sites and artifacts from Tennessee, making the information very close to home.

I particularly enjoyed the way exhibit creators focused on how-we-know as well as what-we-know. For example, from the exhibit above: "Corn was ground into meal using mortars and pounders of stone or wood. Archaeologists think women did the work. Why? The repeated motion caused their arm bones to become thicker and stronger than those of Archaic Period women --- a change not seen in men."

Human coproliteOr, more succinctly, take a look at the coprolite to the left. Yes, that's fossilized human poop used to analyze our ancestors' diets. I'd heard of coprolites before, but had never thought of them in relation to our own species. I mean, how exactly does human excrement become fossilized?

Indian corn

Cultivated sunflower evolutionMuch of the rest of the Native American agriculture exhibit contained information I'd read previously in books like 1491 and in more scholarly texts or at museums like Sunwatch. But I was particularly taken by one map (not shown here) that focused on North American cucurbits.

Guess which type of currently cultivated squash evolved very close to where we now farm? The crookneck squash...which just happens to be the one summer squash I find easy to grow organically in our bug- and fungus-rich environment.


Native American figurine

Cherokee water striderOf course, the exhibit wasn't all about field corn and summer squash. There were plenty of cultural tidbits as well, such as clay figurines like the one above and ornaments like the one shown to the left. Interestingly, the pendant is supposed to represent the Cherokee myth of the water "spider," which brought fire on its back across the water from gods to humans.

I put "spider" in quotes in the previous paragraph because, from the image, I think this particular pendant actually represents a water strider. Yes, both water spiders and water striders do exist. Of the two, I think the latter is more likely to carry fire over long distances since they skim rather than scurry across the water.

Cherokee canoe

PotsherdsThere were other fascinating artifacts, too, like this 32-foot-long canoe that was found drifting in the Tennessee River. Mark and I both scratched our heads over the ungainliness of such a tremendous vessel until I decided it must have been used like a Uhaul moving van. My guess will have to stand since the exhibit gave no indication of the canoe's real use.

Overall, the McClung Museum's "Archaeology & Native Peoples of Tennessee" exhibit may be the best I've seen on the topic. I only wish I'd skipped the Mayans so we could have hit the room with my brain fully fresh. In fact, if it wasn't such a schlep to get to Knoxville, I would have used up all of my museum brainpower on that one room alone. If you're in the area, I highly recommend giving it a try!



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Oooooo!!! I'm going to have to take a friend of mine whose great-grandmother (documented!) was Cherokee up to see this. ETSU's General Shale Natural History Museum had a lecture by the new archaeologist on Cherokee archaeology a few months back that was wonderful, especially since one of their digs is about 3 miles away from me. Thanks for this post!
Comment by NaYan Sat Mar 12 08:31:57 2016