Excavating and Analyzing Prehistoric Lithic Quarries: An Example from 3rd Unnamed Cave, Tennessee

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The excavation of lithic quarry sites presents archaeologists with logistical and analytical problems that are often not encountered at other site types. Likewise, deep cave sites pose their own array of logistical problems. These problems are compounded when a lithic quarry is located deep underground. 3rd Unnamed Cave in Tennessee presents such a situation. Recovery methods were designed to be both logistically feasible and analytically useful. Specifically, recovery techniques were designed to maximize efforts at mass analysis and refitting. Mass analysis indicated that the assemblage debris is homogeneous and in primary position. Core refitting also indicates homogeneity and shows that the prehistoric miners of 3rd Unnamed Cave used an expedient bipolar reduction technique and removed relatively large, uniform flakes for further reduction elsewhere.


The Cave Archaeology Research Team (CART) from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee has spent the last five years documenting a particular archaeological deposit with unique preservation and associations (Simek et al. 1998). Prehistoric hunter-gatherers entered deep, dark zone passages of 3rd Unnamed Cave1 in north-central Tennessee and intensively mined and reduced chert nodules, primarily in a remote passage hereafter referred to as the primary mining and workshop chamber. Hundreds of piles of chert debris resulted from these activities, which remain in place today on cave sediment surfaces as if just abandoned by the ancient miners. Radiometric assays on associated fireplaces date the mining activities to the Terminal Archaic Period, ca. 3000 BP. These are among the oldest deep cave chert mining ages documented in the eastern United States. Only the dates associated with chert mining in Wyandotte Cave compare with those from this cave (Munson and Munson 1990:62-- 63). Three radiocarbon dates from the chert exploitation area in Wyandotte indicate exploitation of this resource between 2200 and 240 B.C. (Munson and Munson 1990:49, Table 1).

The entrance to 3rd Unnamed Cave is situated approximately 20 m above a tributary of the Cumberland River at the bottom of a precipitous gorge that is incised into the Western Cumberland Plateau Escarpment (Sasowsky 1992:13). This stream has cut its gorge over 300 m below the surface of the Cumberland Plateau. Terminal Archaic hunter-gatherers trekked over 1000 m into the cave to mine and work chert nodules on a scale unparalleled anywhere else in deep cave environments, including Wyandotte Cave in Indiana. Chert nodules were extracted from primary positions in the limestone walls of the chamber and from secondary positions in the sandy sediments of the chamber floor. What make this site truly remarkable are its incredible preservation and unique associations, which include bare footprints, torch stoke marks, mining pits with digging stick marks, piles of flintknapping debris, and cave art. Petroglyphs are evident on the ceiling of the primary mining and workshop chamber, perhaps suggesting a ceremonial aspect of site use.

One of the miners' principal objectives was the acquisition of raw material necessary for stone tool production. Thus, the focus of my research was predominantly technological. More specifically, my goals were to determine the reduction techniques practiced by the ancient miners and the objects they removed from the cave. Given the pristine preservation of the archaeological deposits, I used refitting as the primary method of analysis in order to identify lithic reduction strategies and techniques practiced by the cave's ancient miners. Following the definition offered by Van Peer (1992:131), I use the term reduction strategy to refer to

the conceptual framework within which a reduction sequence [or chaine operatoire] will be carried out. The strategy relates to the selection of a particular volume, the organization of the volume in view of its reduction and the range of possible options to be taken in the course of that reduction. …