2017: Johnston Site, Tennessee

2017: Johnston Site, Tennessee

June 2017, the Pinson Environment and Archaeology Regional Landscape (PEARL) Project undertook its fourth and longest season of fieldwork at the Johnston site, located along the South Fork of the Forked Deer River in West Tennessee. During the Middle Woodland period (ca. 200 BC – AD 500), this region witnessed an explosion of mound-building and related ceremonial activities, most famously at Pinson Mounds, the largest Middle Woodland mound site in the Southeast. Parts of the Johnston site appears to pre-date the mounds and occupation at Pinson (located approximately two miles upstream), providing an opportunity for archaeologists to investigate the roots of Middle Woodland ceremonialism and monumentality in West Tennessee.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PEARL Project collected multiple types of non-invasive geophysical data at Johnston using gradiometry, ground penetrating radar, and magnetic susceptibility. These techniques allowed us to identify a range of subtle differences in sub-surface deposits (called anomalies), some of which represent the remains of human activity in the form of archaeological features. Guided by these data, we conducted targeted excavations of anomalies across much of the 30-ha site, revealing pits of varying sizes, postholes, a hearth, a shallow ditch enclosure, and the remains of a mound that was mapped in the early 1900s but is virtually undetectable on the ground surface today. Although up to now these excavations have yielded very few diagnostic artifacts, radiocarbon dating of ancient plant remains indicate that some of these features were in use as early as the Middle Archaic period, ca. 6000 cal. BC.

In 2017, we conducted our first full-length archaeological field school at Johnston with students from Appalachian State University, under the direction of Dr. Alice Wright. In addition to practicing basic excavation techniques, students worked closely with PEARL researchers Dr. Sarah Sherwood (University of the South) and Dr. Stephen Carmody (Troy University) to learn how to properly document and sample archaeological deposits for geoarchaeological and paleobotanical analyses. Other members of the PEARL team, including Dr. Casey Barrier (Bryn Mawr College), Dr. Chris Van de Ven (University of the South), and Ed Henry (Colorado State University), were also on hand to talk students through the process of site mapping and research design.

With an extended field season and our capable crew of students, the 2017 excavation included not only small test units where we could ground truth individual anomalies, but also slightly larger excavation blocks in areas with relatively high magnetic susceptibility. Unlike gradiometry, which is capable of measuring fine-grained subsurface variability and identifying the exact location and shape of sub-surface features, our magnetic susceptibility survey coarsely measured magnetic enhancement of the plowzone at regularly spaced intervals across the site. We hypothesized that high “mag sus” readings in the plowzone were indicative of high concentrations of cultural material, such as pottery and organic remains, even where the gradiometer did not detect clear magnetic anomalies.

The results of our excavations of two units in the northern portion of the Johnston site support this hypothesis. Across a 28 m2 excavation area, we identified a 10-15 cm-thick midden below an artifact-rich plowzone. While we have yet to radiocarbon date any of the material recovered from these units, diagnostic projectile points and potsherds date to the Middle Woodland period. As such, this midden may be contemporaneous with some of the mounds at Johnston, and future analyses of its assemblage may reveal what sorts of off-mound activities coincided with some of the earliest monumental architecture in West Tennessee.

Throughout the season, the field school benefitted from the resources and support of Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park, where we set up our lab (and were occasionally on display!) in the park museum. For the fourth consecutive year, we helped the Park host Junior Ranger Day for elementary school students. Thanks to our discovery of the midden, Appalachian State students were able to teach “junior rangers” about lithics and ceramics using materials excavated days earlier; in turn, the “junior rangers” helped us considerably by washing many of these artifacts! As always, PEARL is grateful for our partnership with the Park and the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and we look forward to returning to Johnston next year to continue this research.

From the Tennessee Council of Professional Archaeoloy blog, “PEARL Progress Report 2017: A Middle Woodland Midden,” by Alice Wright and Autumn Melby (App State Class of 2018).


Megan England, with a broken biface recovered from the plowzone at the Johnston site.


Troweling the walls and floors of one of the units where we identified a Middle Woodland midden below the plowzone.


Washing artifacts (left) and giving tours (right) in the basement laboratory of the Pinson Mounds Museum. Appalachian State senior Chris Flowers (far right) was teaching Junior Rangers about projectile points.


2017 Appalachian State Field School students and Dr. Wright  on the last day of backfilling.