Did Nashville Do The Right Thing When It Found 800 Year Old Artifacts?

Archaeologists at the Nashville Sounds stadium construction site were given a narrow window of time to study artifacts uncovered there before construction resumed. Critics say more time for study is needed and building should stop for now. Photo courtesy of Metro Nashville.

Archaeologists at the Nashville Sounds stadium construction site were given a narrow window of time to study artifacts uncovered there before site work resumed. Critics say more time for study is needed and building should stop for now. Photo courtesy of Metro Nashville.

There was a story on Morning Edition Wednesday from a vacant hospital campus near downtown Columbia, South Carolina. Archaeologists are racing against the clock to recover artifacts from a Civil War prisoner of war camp on the site. Developers will soon begin transforming it into a mixed retail, housing, and dining center — maybe even a baseball stadium if the city can attract a team. Ring a bell?

Just weeks ago in Nashville, builders at the new minor league baseball stadium site at Sulphur Dell uncovered what appears to be the first hard evidence of a significant Native American salt manufacturing and distribution center dating 800-900 years ago.

The discovery begs us to imagine a city of tens of thousands of people living and working around what is now downtown Nashville. The major hub of mound-building Mississippian culture thrived 600 years before a wandering French-Canadian hunter Timothy Demonbreun built a cabin here — also near Sulphur Dell — launching the first permanent settlement by Europeans.

What’s Legally Required?

Archaeologists were called in and given a few days to excavate the disturbed area at Sulphur Dell, document and salvage its artifacts, basically glean whatever knowledge they could before the site is re-buried indefinitely beneath left field.

Sherds from large pots and fire pits were found, evidence of large scale manufacturing of salt using the sodium-rich water from a natural spring. Image from Kevin Smith, MTSU Professor and Director of Archaeology

Sherds from large pots and fire pits were found, evidence of large scale manufacturing of salt using the sodium-rich water from a natural spring. Image from Kevin Smith, MTSU Professor and Director of Archaeology

The research was done on the city’s dime, but Metro was under no obligation to do it. Why? Because the property is city-owned and there were no human remains found.

It’s confounding to consider what evidence of past civilizations might be lurking under our feet in any given place, but unless that place is owned by either the federal or state government, there really is no law that says a construction crew can’t simply ignore whatever artifacts it finds and continue about its business.

If human remains of any age had been found at the site, the state’s cemetery law would have kicked in and mandated a course of action “with proper respect and reverence for the dead”. Any Native American burials sites would have been re-interred with whatever artifacts accompanied them. But cemetery statutes don’t apply to pots and fire pits without bodies.

The Ethics Of Limiting Research

Archaeologist and MTSU Professor Kevin Smith, whose team worked on the stadium site project, says he would have loved to have more time to study the site, though the artifacts would not have been found at all had it not been for the stadium development. He considers the end result a “win-win situation”:

“We were fortunate the city allowed salvage of the parts of the site that were going to be destroyed – and is now preserving the rest.  Even though it may not be accessible for additional archaeology until many decades down the road – we now know for certain that it’s there and we will know something about what it was.”

According to Smith, archaeology ethics dictate only what is “threatened by destruction” should be excavated. Digging for artifacts in places that haven’t been disturbed could amount to sabotaging future researchers. He illustrates the point with charcoal:

“In the 1930s archaeologists did not save wood charcoal from digs – radiocarbon dating didn’t exist at that time, so saving large amounts of charcoal seemed a waste of space.  Now, we spend much of our time trying to find that same charcoal – because it provides our best modern method for dating features and sites.”

In fact, evidence of fires thought to be used in salt production are among the artifacts found at Sulphur Dell, so it is arguably fortunate the artifacts weren’t uncovered during previous developments at the site.

What About Moral Obligations?

Not everyone is satisfied with the scope of the excavation the city allowed. WSMV reported last week that a group of Native Americans and preservationists, calling itself the Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Salt Town, are asking Metro to do more. In fact they’d like to see construction delayed for a year so further study can be done and are considering a lawsuit against the city.

Though construction is continuing and appears unlikely to stop, the group has met with city leaders and presented demands to the mayor. A representative of the group Albert Bender tells WSMV:

“We would like to see an interpreted center, panels depicting life of the people in the ancient city and we would also like to see a scale model of the ancient city along with the interpreted center, and an exhibition.”

Update: 4/25/14 at 9:00 am

What’s the Dream Scenario For Researchers?

Since this story was first published, archaeologist Kevin Smith weighed in by email on what he believes proper research of the Sulphur Dell site would entail:

“On a site of the size of this ancient town, work could continue for many decades to fully excavate such a site.  Processing and laboratory analysis of the resulting materials would take additional decades.  In a year, a well planned project could conceivably yield an enormous amount of important information.  Without putting pen to paper, I can say that an archaeological project on a deeply buried site like this would require a very very substantial amount of funding — hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

To Smith, there doesn’t appear to be a good option between a very large scale project and the relatively small one that took place:

“The ethics are relatively simple — archaeology destroys its subject matter.  Unlike trees that can be replanted, archaeological sites are not renewable resources — when an archaeologist walks away from a dig, the detailed notes, photographs, and other records are all that will ever remain of that particular site.  Hence, unless we have the time and resources to conduct the best archaeology possible — we prefer to preserve things until the time that we do have the time and resources to do the job right.”

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Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Timothy Demonbreun was the first white man to build a cabin here. Not true. New Orleans trapper Charles Charleville built one earlier, but that settlement was eventually abandoned. Demonbreun established the first permanent settlement.

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