Archaeologists turn up historic finds along path for Northern Connector

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   As the city moves forward in its project to build a highway that is being called the Northern Connector to help alleviate heavy traffic on Broad Street and Elk Avenue by linking West Elk Avenue with the intersection of Highway 19E and Highway 91, some interesting things are turning up in the path the road will take.
   Before the construction of the road can begin, the Tennessee Department of Transportation had the responsibility of taking soil samples and examining the proposed path of the road. As part of that process, the Department of Transportation brought in a team of archaeologists to search the area for historical artifacts.
   "There's a little bit here," said Rick Walling, an archaeologist with Alexander Archaeological Consultants. "There is some historic material and a little bit of Native American material here."
   Members of the team located pottery items, broken dishes and crockery, a few brick fragments and some square nails, Walling said. "The historic stuff looks like it probably dates to the early 1700s into the early 1900s," Walling said. "We may be looking at some of the Watauga settlement stuff."
   Of the Native American artifacts that were found, Walling estimates that some of it may date as early as 200 or 300 B.C. "Some of it may date as late as 1000 A.D., but that's just an estimate right now," he said, adding that once the team finishes working on the three sites, they will return to the laboratory where a more definite age on the items can be determined. Once in the lab, Walling said, the archaeologists will compare the items they found with other similar items which have been scientifically dated using radio-carbon dating.
   Walling said that so far, not much has turned up in the search, but who knows what else may be found. "We haven't moved much dirt yet," he said.
   The seven-member team uses surveying technology in order to catalog the exact location of finds, both horizontally and vertically. The control aspect of horizontal and vertical location is important to determining the significance of a site, Walling said. The horizontal location helps archaeologists determine how different areas of a site were used while the vertical location helps not only determine the age of items that are found, but also whether those items have remained undisturbed over the years. "The newer items should be on the top and the older items should be on the bottom," Walling said. "If they are not in that order, then we know the site has been disturbed."
   The team uses both hand and trowel excavation and then takes the soil samples and sifts them through mesh screens to separate the soil from possible artifacts, Walling said.
   Currently, the team is working on Phase II of the process. During Phase I, members of the team did brief searches of the areas to get a "quick idea" of what is there, Walling said. Once the team completes Phase I, they move onto Phase II which is an information gathering process where the team works to decide if the findings are significant enough to warrant further search. Currently, it is unknown if any of the three sites will make it into Phase III investigation, which is data recovery, Walling said.
   Walling stated that he does not anticipate the route of the Northern Connector to change due to the finding of historical evidence. "We don't expect to see that based on what we discovered in Phase I," he said, adding that findings thus far have not turned out to be significant.
   The team plans to spend a few more days on the site they are currently working on before moving on to work on the other two sites. The other two sites contain mainly Native American artifacts with some historical finds dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. "We hope to be finished by the end of June," Walling said. Walling asked that the location of the sites not be released in order to preserve the sites and help ensure that any artifacts that are undisturbed remain that way until the team can properly examine and document them.
   "Hopefully when we are through here we will be able to add a little to the picture of Carter County and what it used to be like," Walling said.