A Tumultuous Time: On Ancient Hiwassee Island

An investigation in southeast Tennessee may be revealing evidence of problems that plagued the region in the thirteenth century.

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This picture shows a platform mound that was uncovered by excavators with the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. That project uncovered evidence of a single palisade surrounding a Mississippian village. Recent investigations have revealed evidence of several more palisades, suggesting that the villagers could have felt threatened. Photo BY CHARLES H. NASH, 1938. WPA/TVA ARCHIVES, PRESENTED COURTESY OF MCCLUNG MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY AND CULTURE, THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE. 120MG31/FHM01233.
This picture shows a platform mound that was uncovered by excavators with the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. That project uncovered evidence of a single palisade surrounding a Mississippian village. Recent investigations have revealed evidence of several more palisades, suggesting that the villagers could have felt threatened. Photo BY CHARLES H. NASH, 1938. WPA/TVA ARCHIVES, PRESENTED COURTESY OF MCCLUNG MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY AND CULTURE, THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE, KNOXVILLE. 120MG31/FHM01233.

Fall 2018: By Elizabeth Lunday.

During the Great Depression, when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) planned the construction of reservoirs along the Tennessee River, the agency recognized that archaeological sites in the region would be lost forever under the rising waters. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) mobilized to conduct excavations that would gather as much information as possible about these sites in the time remaining. Hiwassee Island was one of the sites targeted for investigation. Located about thirty-five miles northeast of Chattanooga, the island sits at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers. Between 1937 and 1939, archaeologists from the University of Tennessee supervised WPA excavations, focusing on a Mississippian village at the north end of the island. They uncovered a central plaza, several houses, and a large platform mound. The excavations at Hiwassee contributed to the creation of one of the first regional chronologies for the Southeast and was summarized in a report considered a landmark publication in Mississippian studies.

And that was that. The Chickamauga Dam on the Tennessee River was completed in 1940 and water levels rose, submerging nearly half of the small island. People in the area assumed all Hiwassee archaeological sites had either been inundated, excavated by the WPA, or destroyed by farming, said Erin Pritchard, TVA senior archaeological specialist.

But archaeologists familiar with Hiwassee suspected the site held more secrets. Lynne Sullivan, a research professor and curator at the McClung Museum at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, found intact cultural deposits on Hiwassee when conducting field schools there in the late 1990s. That caught the attention of the TVA. The agency is responsible for protecting archaeological sites within the land it manages, and it can’t protect sites it doesn’t know exist. “People say, oh, that island’s been plowed for a hundred years, there’s no archaeology left,” said Pritchard. “We didn’t believe that, but we couldn’t prove it.” So in 2015 the TVA decided to take another look at Hiwassee Island.

Excerpt, Read More in our Fall 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 2. Browse Contents: FALL 2018.

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