EAGLEVILLE, Tennessee — The MTSU Archaeological Field School has taken the classroom outdoors for the last six weeks, keeping students hoping for breezes and wearing extra sunscreen as they dig and learn at a site in the rolling hills of western Rutherford County.
At a special event Tuesday at the Magnolia Valley property near Eagleville, about 20 miles west of the MTSU campus, Dr. Tanya Peres, an associate professor of anthropology at MTSU, and her students welcomed more guests to learn about the field school and even try a bit of digging themselves.
“This event is really important, and I’m excited that the rain held off for us to have it,” Peres said as students continued working all around her beneath overcast skies.
“Part of our mission for the field school and the Rutherford County Archaeology Research Project is to educate the public. … People seem really interested in the work that we’re doing.”
The MTSU Archaeological Field School is the only one in Tennessee currently certified by the Register of Professional Archaeologists and is one of 16 in such schools in the United States.
It’s a part of the newly formed Rutherford County Archaeology Research Project, a university-based research program focusing on the ancient peoples that called Rutherford County home between 12,000 and 500 years ago. That span stretches from mankind’s first known first farming societies to the medieval period, and the latter includes the well-known Mississippian period of the Native American farmers of the southeast.
Peres noted that Rutherford County has far fewer recorded prehistoric sites — only 275 so far — than the 1,300-plus sites in adjoining Williamson and Davidson counties, meaning there’s great potential for discovering more about the area’s prehistory with these digs.
University Provost Brad Bartel, a veteran archaeologist who now serves as MTSU’s senior academic administrator, was among those attending Tuesday’s event. He said the field school and research project provides valuable scientific research, trains future generations of archaeologists and connects the community to its roots.
“There are many jobs out there for archaeologists, and we’re fulfilling the needs of the state and the region by training these students. And when the community comes out, it gives them an appreciation for the past,” said Bartel, who has participated in archaeological digs throughout Europe and the United States during his 45-year career.
The field school kicked off May 13 as the field school crew used remote sensing to target potential areas of interest on the property. Under the guidance of Peres and co-director Jesse Tune, an MTSU alumnus and doctoral candidate at Texas A&M, the field-school students learned how to identify, secure and prepare potential areas to excavate and study during their eight-hour days on site.
When rainy forced them indoors, the students did research at the Rutherford County Archives, cleaned artifacts in their campus lab in Peck Hall and participated in workshops to help identify their discoveries, such as learning the differences between rocks that have been "worked," or manipulated by man to serve as tools, and naturally broken rocks.
Peres said the students discovered five unexpected “cultural features, meaning ones created by humans,” at the site, including an old gravel road in the middle of what’s been a horse pasture for decades.
Research revealed that its early 1800s-era construction may link it to the nearby U.S. 31A, or Henry Horton Highway, which is one of Middle Tennessee’s oldest thoroughfares and is believed to follow an ancient Native American trading and hunting path stretching from northern Kentucky to northern Alabama.
Like his classmates, MTSU senior Eric Stockton, a geosciences major from Greenback, Tennessee, worked up quite a sweat Tuesday as he carefully scraped thin layers of soil with a shovel. He assisted the visiting MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee as they worked in an area Stockton said appeared to have served as a hearth at some point.
“This project applies to my mapping (concentration),” said Stockton, who was doing excavation work for the first time. “The first two weeks we did surveying, which involved a lot of data collection that’s not excavating, and that falls into my mapping preference.
“But I’m actually enjoying this (excavating). It’s part of my plans for the future as far as surveying and remote-sensing data and being fully prepared to go on any cultural research management site or any excavation site being prepared by a university.”
The MTSU Field Archaeology School ends June 30. For more information about it and the Rutherford County Archaeology Research Project, visit http://www.facebook.com/MTSURCARP and http://mtsurcarp.wordpress.com.
For more information about the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at MTSU, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/soc.