One Hundred Years of Archaeology at Gordontown: A Fortified Mississippian Town in Middle Tennessee

By Moore, Michael C.; Breitburg, Emanuel et al. | Southeastern Archaeology, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

One Hundred Years of Archaeology at Gordontown: A Fortified Mississippian Town in Middle Tennessee


Moore, Michael C., Breitburg, Emanuel, Smith, Kevin E., Trubitt, Mary Beth, Southeastern Archaeology


Archaeological research on Mississippian culture in Tennessee's Middle Cumberland region during recent years has provided a revised chronological sequence as well as new information about settlement shifts. Excavations at one fortified Mississippian town, Gordontown, and a reanalysis of past site investigations from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries indicate the site area included one platform mound, a substantial burial mound, and a sizable habitation zone enclosed by a palisade with bastions. Radiocarbon assays and ceramics conclusively date this site occupation to the Thruston regional period (A.D. 1250-1450). Mortuary and other analysis results reveal a dynamic, yet somewhat stressed, native population within the middle Cumberland River Valley.

As research builds on Mississippian period societies across the Southeast, archaeologists are exploring the variation in cultural adaptations through time and between regions. Detailed reconstruction of the archaeological sequences within regions is producing information on the developmental histories of specific chiefdoms, both at the major centers of Cahokia, Moundville, Etowah, and Spiro, and at smaller polities. From the perspective of the Middle Cumberland region of central Tennessee, interregional comparisons have focused on the better known Mississippi River Valley and East Tennessee. Recent archaeological work and publications have filled some gaps for lesser-known areas such as western Kentucky (e.g., Hammerstedt 2005; Wesler 2001), eastern Kentucky (e.g., Jefferies et al. 1996), and southern Tennessee/northern Alabama (e.g., Welch 1998, 2005).

The significant Mississippian period occupations in the Middle Cumberland region have been underrepresented in the literature, although recent research has led to a revised chronological sequence as well as new information about settlement shifts and the health status of resident populations. Here, we focus on one fortified Mississippian town, Gordontown, where excavations during the 1980s and a reanalysis of older site investigations show a community plan with a platform mound, a burial mound, and a residential area enclosed by a bastioned palisade. Gordontown's occupation dates to the Thruston regional period (A.D. 1250-1450), a time when populations at this and other sites in the middle Cumberland River Valley were stressed and social conflict was a factor.

Mississippian Culture in the Middle Cumberland Region

Researchers have recognized a discrete Mississippian culture within the Cumberland River drainage of Tennessee and Kentucky for many years (Bushnell 1920; Holmes 1903; Phillips et al. 1951; Putnam 1878; Thomas 1894; Walthall 1980). Until recently, systematic efforts to define boundaries for this cultural manifestation were rather limited. Most studies focused on one aspect, stone-lined graves, as the defining characteristic of the region's culture.

Attention to stone-lined graves was initiated in the antiquarian reports on the Cumberland River Valley in Middle Tennessee (Haywood 1823; Jones 1876; Putnam 1878; Thruston 1897). These works established a pattern of interest in stone-lined graves that dominated archaeological research for many decades. For example, Gates P. Thruston opened his classic Antiquities of Tennessee with "The prehistoric cemeteries of the Stone Grave race of Tennessee are among the most interesting memorials of aboriginal life in America" (Thruston 1897:1). Also, Cyrus Thomas noted that "the characteristics which distinguish this district as a whole ... [include] the general distribution and large number of stone graves" (1894:576).

Archaeological literature during the first half of the twentieth century continued to define Mississippian peoples living in the Cumberland Valley primarily by their mortuary practices. William E. Myer inadvertently set this course with his 1920 excavations of the Fewkes and Gordon (Gordontown) sites (Myer 1928). …

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