Well, my fellow East Tennessee history aficionados, the wait is over. The McClung Museum’s special exhibit Knoxville Unearthed: Archaeology in the Heart of the Valley opened last Friday night, and it’s quite spiffy. Kudos to the co-curators, archaeologists Charles Faulkner and Tim Baumann (bonus points to the latter because he’s a fellow Marble Springs board member), exhibits preparator Christopher Weddig, and all the other folks who helped make it happen. It’s a fantastic 225th birthday present for the city.
The exhibit covers Knoxville’s transition from a rough frontier settlement into an industrialized city, but being an eighteenth-century guy, I’m most excited about the early stuff. Let’s take a look at some highlights.
Before there was a State of Tennessee, Knoxville was the capital city of the Southwest Territory. This English-made teapot was found at the site of the office Col. David Henley occupied after his appointment as agent of the Department of War in 1793. It was the same location where, in 1796, a convention met which drafted Tennessee’s first constitution.
Remember our visit to Tellico Blockhouse back in July? Here’s a pearlware teacup recovered from the site, dating to the period when the fort was an active frontier post.
East Tennessee’s original historic inhabitants are represented in the exhibit, too. The archaeological record contains traces of items they obtained in trade with Anglo-Americans, like this eighteenth-century brass bucket fragment from the Cherokee town of Tomotley.
Trading with whites didn’t mean the Cherokees slavishly adopted whatever products they obtained, however. Sometimes they repurposed Anglo-American goods into something new. A brass kettle from England might end up as ornamental tinkling cones, like these examples from Chota.
James White was the first Anglo-American settler to take up residence in Knoxville, moving here with his family in the mid-1780s. These bones belonged to a pig that ended up on the White family’s table. Pork was an important staple of pioneer diets in the southern backcountry.
Hey, speaking of pioneers, I think I know this guy…
I’m delighted that artifacts from Marble Springs figure prominently in the exhibit. Teams of archaeologists from UT conducted excavations at the site in the early 2000s, but this is the first time their discoveries have been on display for the public.
Items dating from John Sevier’s occupancy of the site include this English bowl fragment…
…and a small piece of a pepper shaker. Perhaps Nolichucky Jack used it to add a little flavor to his food while mulling over how much he hated Andrew Jackson.
Ceramics recovered from Marble Springs indicate that while Sevier lived pretty well, he wasn’t using the finest dinnerware available on the early frontier. But he was wealthy enough to have other people doing his work for him. This hatchet head and knife were recovered from the location of one of the slave cabins. They offer a tangible link to men and women we know mostly from brief, passing references in Sevier’s journal.
Artifacts excavated from the slave quarters of Blount Mansion, the 1790s home of the Southwest Territory’s governor, provide another look at the lives of enslaved laborers in early Tennessee. One of them wore this good luck amulet…
…while fragments of English and Chinese ceramics indicate that slaves used hand-me-down dinnerware from their owners.
About a year ago, as you may recall, we paid a virtual visit to Ramsey House. When Francis Ramsey took up residence in the Knoxville area in the 1790s, he initially lived in a log cabin. Later, after completing the impressive stone house that is still standing to this day, he seems to have used the log building as an office. In the nineteenth century, the log structure changed functions again, this time to a slave quarters. Here are a few bits and pieces recovered from the site, including another amulet.
Finally, this may be the most poignant item featured in the exhibit, a neck restraint dating from the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century excavated from the Tellico Blockhouse site. Little wonder the enslaved inhabitants of early Knoxville carried those amulets; they needed all the good fortune they could get.
And we haven’t even gotten to the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts yet. Knoxville Unearthed runs until January 8, 2017. Admission to the museum is free, so stop by and check it out.