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Dig aims to save Native American burial mounds

Toye Heape stood on the slope of an ancient Native American burial mound, confident in the significance of what was beneath his feet.

Dig aims to save Native American burial mounds
MTSU students Courtney Croft, left, and Abigail Hyndman sift dirt as JoBeth Simon and Kate McKinney measure the depth of a hole they excavated at one of two ancient Native American burial mounds in Franklin's Westhaven community. [Credit: Steven S. Harman/The Tennessean]
The 1,800-year-old site has long been known to historians. But Heape, vice president of the Native History Association, was still excited to see state archaeologists slowly burrowing into the dirt last week.

The excavation, scheduled to end Friday, was never intended to prove specifically what rests within the two small hills that sit just south of Highway 96 in the Westhaven subdivision. The intent is simply to preserve them.

“For the Native American community, whether (the site) gets on the National Register (of Historic Places) or not, it’s still a sacred place,” Heape said. “Our feelings about it won’t change.”

The Tennessee Division of Archaeology is working with several organizations to have the ancient burial sites formally acknowledged by having them placed on the National Register. The small-scale excavations, conducted with the help of archaeology students from Middle Tennessee State University, are in support of that effort. What they’re looking for is evidence that the burial sites are still intact.

Archaeologists and historians have dated the mounds to about A.D. 200, during the Woodland period of Tennessee’s prehistory. Phosphate mining, farming and a series of harsh excavations in the mid- to late 1800s have threatened the integrity of the sites.

When Southern Land Co. began planning to build the Westhaven community more than a decade ago, it promised not to disturb the mounds. That promise has been kept.

Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist for the state, knelt at the site where students were digging and pointed to the visible layering of soil as strong evidence the mound is intact.
Preserving history

To be eligible for the National Register, he said, an archaeological site has to have “research potential,” meaning scientists could dig into the mound and answer questions about how and why they were created.

It is illegal, however, to disturb a grave. Scientists also understand that once they’ve rooted through a historically significant site, they’ve destroyed it, Deter-Wolf said.

“For the same reason, you don’t go out and dig up Gettysburg,” he said. “It’s enough to know that it’s there.”

The larger of the two mounds is visible from the driving range at Westhaven Golf Club and stands some 20 feet tall. The other, smaller mound is a few hundred yards north. Williamson County and Middle Tennessee are home to a number of burial mounds, but these are among the oldest, according to the state.

They’re often referred to as the Glass Mounds, a nod to the property’s former owner, Samuel F. Glass, who lived there in the 1800s.

Previous excavations uncovered various items with which the deceased would have been buried, including some likely brought to the area by Native Americans from the Ohio Valley, Deter-Wolf said. A copper pan-flute casing, a metal ax and other artifacts from the site are kept at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology.

Author: Josh Adams | Source: The Tennessean [March 16, 2013]

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