TRC excavations in northern Alabama

Submitted by TRC (770-270-1192)

In October 2007, TRC began data recovery excavations at The Spirit Hill Site, 1JA642, a multi-component prehistoric site on the Tennessee River in northeastern Alabama. We completed the fieldwork in May 2008, and are currently involved in the analysis and reporting. Data recovery operations focused on a 2.81-acre tract in the central portion of site that received 100 percent excavation coverage, but our investigations also included the removal of prehistoric human burials that were unexpectedly encountered in a 1.52-acre area to the south. The work consisted of test unit excavation, backhoe trenches, mechanical stripping, and feature excavation. Because of the site’s complex stratigraphy, mechanical stripping to expose cultural features was conducted in multiple episodes after each level of burial and feature excavation was finished to expose additional features further down the soil column. During the data recovery efforts, pit features, postholes, structures, canine burials, and human burials, were identified, mapped, and documented. Early Archaic, Early, Middle, and Late Woodland, and Mississippian components have been identified at the site, but the vast majority of features are associated with Late Woodland and Early Mississippian occupations.

We excavated over 600 non-burial features at 1JA642, including small to very large hearths, storage/refuse pits, smudge pits, and rock clusters. A majority of the features consisted of shallow or amorphous pits with a monolithic fill zone, but some exhibited zoned, multi-event fill layers. Many of the largest and deepest pit features are associated with the Archaic period components. Non-burial features are yielding ethnobotanical and zooarchaeological data on subsistence and seasonality, while the lithic and ceramic assemblages from those proveniences will provide perspective on the material and social aspects of technology. Due to outstanding preservation, we also have a rare opportunity to examine bone, antler, and perhaps wood artifacts, and determine how those tools and ornaments were integrated into specific technological traditions. We collected over 900 soil samples from non-burial features for flotation. Botanical analyses are in progress, but the results to date indicate that a variety of plants were being utilized. Maize and squash have been identified in some cases, but hickory nut, acorn, maygrass, chenopodium, and other species are more common. Although we are still at a preliminary stage of analysis, the relative low abundance of maize suggests that the Late Woodland and Early Mississippian inhabitants were primarily focused on hunting and gathering rather than horticulture.


Excavations in one portion of the Spirit Hill site with rectangular structure in foreground.

Post patterns indicate that palisade walls were present, and at least 10 discrete structures have been identified. The structures are rectangular and circular in shape, some with partitions. Over 4,000 post holes were excavated, mapped, and documented, and we expect that additional structures will be identified once a more detailed analysis of posts and non-post features is conducted. Four structures have been radiocarbon dated; the calibrated intercept dates are A.D. 600; A.D. 660; A.D. 880; and A.D. 1010. Thus far, it appears possible that prehistoric people from the Late Woodland/Early Mississippian periods lived at this site more or less continuously for over 400 years.

A total of 27 canine burials were excavated at 1JA642. Most were articulated and in a flexed position within discrete burial pits. However some were in association with human burials and refuse pits.


Spirit Hill dog burial.

TRC excavated the human burials at the site in accordance with a plan developed in consultation with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee. A total of 278 human burials were discovered, and with a few exceptions, they appear to be arranged in 12 clusters, some or all of which could be formal cemeteries. Radiocarbon dates confirm that burials date to the Late Woodland and Early Mississippian periods. The burials were found immediately below the plowzone, and up to 2.7 m below the surface. Most burials contained mussel shell fill, but not all. Some graves were superimposed over deeper interments, and it appears that soil was deliberately added on top of existing graves to allow burial of additional people in the same location. Some interments appear to have been part of a burial mound. Single and multiple interments were present, and burial methods include tightly flexed, flexed, semi-flexed, and extended. Although post-cranial elements were well preserved, the entire skull was missing in a few cases. Projectile points were discovered in contexts that suggest some individuals were wounded or killed by them. A few individuals could not be associated with a formal burial pit, and some were found without a skull lying face down with the feet bent behind them. Most graves did not contain burial goods, and those that did had no more than a few items. Some burials contained bone hair pins, needles, or awls. Others contained undecorated limestone slabs, and in other cases, large pitted cobbles were found within the burial matrix. Four intact shell tempered ceramic vessels were encountered within a burial pit of an adult male.

Analysis is on-going, but TRC expects that 1JA642 will greatly expand our understanding of the late prehistoric period in the region.