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Archaeological Excavations at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter, Pickett State Forest, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee

Location: Jamestown , Tennessee, United States

December 12, 2014 to January 15, 2015

Session dates: 
This field school will meet December 12-18, 2014 AND January 2-15, 2015.

Application Deadline: 
Saturday, November 15, 2014

Program Type

Field school


East Tennessee State University

Project Director:

Jay D. Franklin, PhD, East Tennessee State University

Project Description


Upland areas do not typically fit into conventional models of human settlement, except in cases where they are invoked as marginal areas used for hunting and gathering forays by ancient peoples only to return to their lowland homes. However, work on the Upper Cumberland Plateau (UCP) of Tennessee has demonstrated this is not the case, and we can add the earliest Tennesseans to the list. At Rock Creek Mortar Shelter on the UCP, we have recorded a more or less continuous record of human occupation from at least the end of the Pleistocene around 11,500 years ago to about AD 1000. In the late Pleistocene and early Holocene deposits about 1.25 – 2 meters below surface, we recovered more than a dozen blades from a restricted area under the drip line of the shelter. Most of the blades were made/prepared from unipolar cores. There is a mix of hard hammer and soft hammer percussion for blade production. There also seems to be a mix of skill level and/or execution. A few of the well made blades would be at home in European Late & Epi-Paleolithic assemblages, while a few are poorly executed. This suggests a family group as opposed to simply a group of male hunters. It may have been that older, skilled knappers were teaching younger novices to make blades on site. It may also be that these earliest inhabitants of the UCP were coping with the constraints of using the small rounded local cobbles of Monteagle Chert for blade production (as opposed to large tabular cherts encountered in the lower Tennessee River drainage). We’ve recovered numerous core edge flakes and crested blade fragments that were removed to prepare cores for blade production. We have some evidence for over shot biface thinning flaking here (also common in Paleoindian assemblages). The entire range of lithic reduction is present in these early levels. That is, chert cobbles were brought to the shelter for core reduction and tool production. Like later Holocene assemblages all over the UCP, there is evidence of biface production at Rock Creek Mortar Shelter. However, unlike the myriad other shelters we have excavated, we have already recovered far more unifacial tools at this site than any other on the UCP. So far, 50 tools/pieces have been analyzed for microscopic use wear. Activities represented in the late Pleistocene/early Holocene levels include early stage hide and meat processing and scraping wood. Two tools possess some sort of residue which we think may be blood. We might tentatively suggest a temporary hunting camp occupied by residentially mobile families. See these links also:

Goals of the 2014/15 field season:

We are excited to continue our work at this important site. We hope to recover blade cores in the coming field season so that we may reconstruct the entire blade production sequence. More generally, we will continue to explore why these early people ventured onto this rugged, upland landscape far removed from a major stream and tens of kilometers from primary raw material sources.

1] We will extend more excavation units across the shelter underneath the drip line.

2] We will excavate a large (2 x 2 meter) sondage unit in the open, relatively flat area out in front of the shelter.

3] We will continue with already-open excavation units nearer the back ledge of the shelter in order to look for spatial differences between the back and front of the shelter (i. e., different activity areas).

4] We will examine the sediments using geomicromorphological analyses.

5] We will collect fossil pollen samples from underneath large sandstone breakdown clasts where organic materials have collected and preserved so that we may examine what the forest composition and local environment were like during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene in this rugged upland region.



Period(s) of Occupation: Paleoindian - Late Woodland

Project size: 
1-24 participants

Minimum Length of Stay for Volunteers: 3 weeks

Minimum age: 

Experience required: 

Room and Board Arrangements

Students will lodge at Pickett State Park in cabins. Room and board are covered by project funding.

Students are responsible for their tuition and fees only.

Academic Credit

Name of institution offering credit: 
East Tennessee State University
Number of credits offered 3 to 6 hours
In-State rates are as follows: Undergraduates pay $235 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $906.00 total). Graduates pay $378 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $1326.00 total). Out-of-State rates for Summer 2013 are as follows: Undergraduates pay $610 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $2736.00 total). Graduates pay $672.00 per credit hour plus University fees (3 credit hours = $3342.00 total). For non-ETSU students, there is a $25.00 University application fee as visiting students.


Contact Information
Jay Franklin, PhD
Box 70644, ETSU
Johnson City
U. S.
Recommended Bibliography: 

Franklin, J. D., M. E. Dennison, M. A. Hays, J. Navel, and A. D. Dye

2013 The Early and Middle Woodland of the Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee. In Early and Middle Woodland Landscapes  of the Southeast, edited by A. Wright and E. Henry, pp. 71-88. University Press of Florida.

Franklin, Jay D., Maureen A. Hays, Sarah C. Sherwood, and Lucinda M. Langston

2012 An Integrated Approach: Lithic Analyses and Site Function, Eagle Drink Bluff Shelter, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee. In Contemporary Lithic Analysis in the Southeast: Problems, Solutions, and Interpretation, edited by Phillip J. Carr, Andrew P. Bradbury, and Sarah E. Price, pp. 128-145. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Franklin, Jay D., Renee Walker, Maureen A. Hays, and Chase Beck (2010) Late Archaic Site Use at Sachsen Cave Shelter, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee. North American Archaeologist 31(3-4): 447-479.

Franklin, Jay D., Luminescence Dates and Woodland Ceramics from Rock Shelters on the Upper Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, Tennessee Archaeology, 3(1): 87-100, 2008

Des Jean, Tom and Joseph Benthall, A Lithic Based Prehistoric Cultural Chronology of the Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee Anthropologist, 19(2): 115-147, 1994,

Franklin, Jay D., Big Cave Archaeology in the East Fork Obey River Gorge, Tennessee, Cave Archaeology in the Eastern Woodlands: Essays in Honor of Patty Jo Watson, 141-155, 2008, Knoxville, Tennessee

Franklin, Jay D. and Sierra Bow, Archaeological Exploration of Workshop Rock Shelters, Upper Cumberland Plateau, Tennessee, Tennessee Archaeology, 4(1, 2):145-162, 2009,

Simek, J.F., J.D. Franklin, and S.C. Sherwood, The Context of Early Southeastern Prehistoric Cave Art: A Report on the Archaeology of 3rd Unnamed Cave, American Antiquity, 63(4): 663-677, 1998,