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Painting by Greg Harlin

Archaeology & the Native Peoples of Tennessee


The incredibly rich Native American heritage of Tennessee and the archaeological work that has assisted in understanding that past are revealed in this comprehensive and engaging exhibition.

Based on more than 65 years of research by University of Tennessee archaeologists, the exhibit features many of the finest artifacts of the museum’s world-class archaeological research collection, including its widely known examples of prehistoric Native American art.


Experience the Story of 500 Generations

The exhibit occupies 3,200 square feet of the museum’s main floor. Visitors enter from the lobby through an introductory walkway where a large topographic map of Tennessee uses fiber optic lights to reveal the many excavated sites that form the database for the story about to be told. Two short videos explain the science of archaeology and summarize the history of archaeology in the state.

The exhibition traces the last 12,000 to 15,000 years of Native American occupation of Tennessee, using many of the artifacts from the collections, along with photographs, artists’ renderings, and models.

Among the visual highlights of the exhibit are five life-size color murals by the nationally known painter Greg Harlin. These are arranged around the gallery in each of the five cultural periods, providing dramatic glimpses into the past.

Within each of the five cultural areas are exhibit cases and displays that combine artifacts and images to present the changing lifeways of the Native Peoples and address the topics of society, technology, biology, subsistence, trade, ritual, and art. Pullout study drawers permit the visitor to learn more about specific kinds of artifacts, such as projectile points, pipes, pottery, trade beads, and other topics, including plant domestication, mound building, and cave art.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors enter a mini-theater where a one-minute video, We Endure: The Journey of the Cherokee, summarizes the prehistory of Tennessee and addresses the complex events and issues of Euro-American settlement and the impact and response of the Native People. Since Native People are very much alive today, the video and other displays illustrate how their cultures continue to enrich Tennessee and the nation.

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