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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 12,000–15,000 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 1-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.

The First Tennesseans

The first Tennesseans butcher a mastodon in this mural
The mural is based upon the excavations at the Coats-Hines site in Williamson County, Tennessee, where two mastodon skeletons were found; close examination of the bones revealed that one showed clear cut marks—evidence of the association of humans with this now extinct Ice-Age elephant. Radiocarbon dates place this event in what archaeologists call the Paleoindian Period, around 12,000 years ago.

In the foreground, men are repairing and remounting stone spearpoints onto foreshafts that tip the spears used in hunting. In the background, a mastodon is being butchered in the marshy area where it perhaps had been trapped. The meat is being processed for both consumption and drying for future use.

Displayed are mastodon bones, including the one bearing cut marks that was found at the Coats-Hines site. Also displayed are the stone tools used by people of this time and a brief video showing flintknapping. The floor case features the tools and chipping debris from this process, similar to those that archaeologists find.

Hunters and Gatherers

Native Americans of the Archaic Period (8000–1000 BC) were hunters and gatherers, and their settlements reflect an adaptation to the abundant natural resources of the Tennessee region. Sites varied from larger base settlements to transient hunting or collecting camps.

Many seeds, nuts, and other wild plant foods formed part of the diet. These were supplemented by such animals as the white tail deer, turkeys, bears, and smaller game like rabbits. Freshwater fish and mussels were also eaten.

Artifacts from this period include spear and dart projectile points as well as spearthrower weights. These ground-stone objects were placed on the shafts of spear throwers—short sticks with a hook on one end that propelled a spear or dart.

Many artifacts made of animal bone, especially the bones of deer, are displayed. These include small tools such as fish hooks made from a deer toe bone. Also fashioned from animal bone, teeth, or shell are beads and pendants, evidence of body adornment.

While actual textile fragments remain elusive, textile-impressed clay hearths preserve evidence of weaving technology and indicate that weaving has great time depth.

Floor cases show a recreated dog burial and a hearth filled with round stones, evidence of cooking food with the aid of heated rocks.


Village Gardeners

The Woodland Period (1000 BC–AD 1000) is characterized by the addition of pottery to the material culture, more permanent settlements, and increased reliance on gardening and domesticated plants. Burial mounds are found at some sites.

Pottery vessels, stone pipes carved in animal shapes, and artifacts fashioned from imported materials detail daily life and trade at this time. Two extremely rare artifacts, a woven bag and a bowl made from a gourd, both from a dry cave, illustrate the many objects that were probably made from perishable organic materials.

A floor case shows how archaeologists investigate houses and other structures by excavating pos t holes. Studying the charred remains of plants reveals the first crops of Tennessee Native Americans—sunflowers, lambsquarters, sumpweed, and squashes.

Toqua, a Mississippian Town

Greg Harlin mural featuring an illustration of Mississippian life

Decked out in their ceremonial and elite finery, the leaders of the Late Mississippian Period town of Toqua are assembled in front of the civic buildings on the summit of Mound A. The occasion is the “Busk,” a four-to-eight-day event that climaxed the ceremonial year. On the plaza before them, a single-pole stick ball game is in progress, with spectators watching and socializing; the residential structures extend back to the protective palisade walls.

The scene in the mural is based on research by UT archaeologists who excavated the Monroe County, Tennessee, site in the 1970s. Most of the items shown in the painting are displayed in the exhibition. The name “Toqua” comes from the historic Cherokee town of that name that later occupied the same location.

Artistic Creativity
Native Americans of this time were excellent farmers, with an economy based on maize agriculture, but perhaps it is their artistic creations that fascinate us the most. In ceramic vessels and figures, stone sculpture and chipped stone artifacts, engraved shell ornaments made from marine conch shells, copper cutouts, and cave art, the Mississippian artists exhibit exceptional technical skill and creativity.
On display are examples of all these works, including spider and “Eagle Dancers” gorgets (pendants), animal effigy ceramic bottles, and a copper headdress. Works in stone include sandstone human figures, possibly representing ancestors, “chunkey” game stones, and the well known Duck River cache, a collection of 46 chipped stone ceremonial implements of fantastic forms and impressive size.


Circa 1760. Life-size mural by Greg Harlin

Circa 1760. Life-size mural by Greg Harlin

The tribal identities of the 16th- and 17th-century occupants of Tennessee are disputed. By the eighteenth century, the only native peoples living permanently in Tennessee were the Cherokee. The Chickasaw controlled western Tennessee, but there is no archaeological or historical evidence that they used the area for more than hunting. The Shawnee and Creek briefly occupied small areas in the state, but little archaeological evidence has been found.
The mural is based on archaeological and ethnohistorical research by UT anthropologists and historians, and would be a typical scene at one of the settlements along the lower Little Tennessee River, where Euro-American trade goods are being transported and exchanged.
Artifacts testify to the importance of trade but also to the continuation of Cherokee traditional ways. A large dugout canoe impresses visitors in this section. Measuring 32.5 feet long, this dugout canoe was found floating down the Tennessee River in 1797 and preserved by a local family until coming to the University of Tennessee in 1936. Made by the Cherokee from a large tulip poplar, the canoe is typical of the water transportation in the Southeast for millennia. It is especially noteworthy because of its large size and its excellent state of preservation (even with a couple of small holes).

Cherokee dugout canoe

Cherokee dugout canoe

Both historical documents and artifacts illustrate the efforts of the Cherokee to maintain diplomatic and economic relations with the Europeans, and later, the Americans, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The exhibition closes with the Trail of Tears, or the Removal, of most of the Cherokee in 1838, and the establishment of the current Eastern Band, Western Nation, and United Keetowah Band.

The adjacent theatre features modern Cherokees of the Eastern Band and Western Nation telling their story in We Endure: The Journey of the Cherokee.