by Teri Baker
Townsend with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians said his
federally-recognized tribe has been working with officials since the
remains of a prehistoric human was discovered on the site last June.
"The Department of Transportation (DOT) has done everything it
was supposed to do," Townsend said, noting they had contacted
all five federally-recognized tribes in the southeast.
In an area along U.S. Highway 11, archaeologists with Jacksonville
State University found what they believe to be the remains of
Woodland- and Archaeic-era Indians and artifacts dating back as far
as 8,500 B.C.
The site is being excavated because of road work to straighten an
area known locally as "Dead Man's Curve." The group of
archaeologists came to Fort Payne to remove Native American
artifacts from the site where the new road will soon be built.
Townsend said he was concerned because his organization represents
Cherokees in eight states—Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, West
Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.
"We work with federal and state agencies in these states,"
He said the state has agreed that if any remains have to be moved,
they will be reinterred a short distance away. "We find that's
very respectful on their part," he said. "We feel
state-recognized groups have every right to be concerned about their
ancestors and their remains, but we were at the site in June meeting
with the Department of Transportation and were impressed with their
care and respect, the way they treated us."
According to Harry Holstein, director of the Archaeological Resource
Laboratory with Jacksonville State University, as with all federal
and state projects, this research in mandated.
"This is a three-phase project," he said. "In 1999 we
did the first phase of the project on the site when our guy went out
there, walked the fields and found two sites." One site is
located across the creek, but it will not be excavated. Holstein
said the finding of arrowheads proved this could be an important
In phase two, during the summer of 2000 the college took students to
the site where they dug holes and found evidence of posts, pits and
nutshell fragments. This determined that homes had been on the site.
Phase three of the project, which entailed major excavation, began
Holstein said the last people on the site was over 500 years ago and
was probably the Woodland Indians. "We've not touched anything
recent," he said. "It's all prehistoric. We've gaining
valuable information about the cultures."
The area was first occupied around 8,500 B.C., according to
Holstein, the late Archaic time period to the Woodland time period,
between 200 B.C. and 500 A.D.
"In June we started the project, and found so many posts and
pits, we stripped off the entire right of way, took off the topsoil
and exposed over 500 features," he said.
Over 2000 posts, which represents structures, were found on the
"But," Holstein said, "we stopped digging immediately
once we found bones. We called the Alabama Department of
Transportation and the Alabama Historical Commission the same day.
Then we had to wait."
The Native Americans were also contacted. "Every
federally-recognized tribe was contacted," Holstein said.
"We tried to also contact local tribes, but I'm sure we missed
some people." He said they met with the Cherokees on the site,
and the group was pleased with what they were doing.
"We had to wait four months after that," he said. "We
had to pay students and workers to camp at the site, and we did our
best to protect the graves.
However, Holstein said, things came to a head when they hired the
Fort Payne police to patrol the site during the Christmas holidays.
"When people saw police camped on the site, they started
talking, and rumors started going around," he said. "Local
people drove by and thought `Gold!' By the time we got back after
Christmas it was a mess."
Holstein said one rumor was that they had taken the bones out and
had them on display at the university. "That's not true,"
he said. "All bones found were reburied near the site. We were
trying to protect them."
"We want everyone happy," he added. "We're trying to
help the county and city. And we want off the site as quickly as
they want us off."
Archaeologists are digging very carefully, he said. Every time a pit
is found, the digging stops. "We use satellites to tell us
where we're at on the field," Holstein said. "We want to
locate all the burials we can, otherwise the bulldozers will mash
them if we don't move them.
We're trying to find them all to relocate them." Holstein
expects excavation to continue another two to three months.
"We're trying to locate everything," he said.
On-site director Rick Walling says he's excited about the project is
because it's unusual to find such a well-preserved ground site.
"The field has never been plowed with a tractor, and remains to
this day pastureland, We're finding pits that were used for storage
and fire pits that were used to fire pottery and for cooking,"
he said, adding that thousands of fragments had been found.
Objects found by the researchers are not funerary objects, but
fragments used in every-day life. "This probably started as a
place where they came through and stopped for a short while,"
Walling said. The first people traveling through were transient and
date back to the earlier Archaic period around 10,000 years ago.
What started as an occasional site ended up in the latter period as
a settlement, Walling said, and became a settlement some time around
3,500 years ago.
Researchers are trying to determine if inhabitants were hunters and
gatherers or farmers. "We don't really know if they were
farmers or not," Walling said.
As an added benefit for the public, when the university finishes
with the project they will publish a report complete with photos.
"We're excited about this," Holstein said. "We asked
the Highway Department and federal officials if they would help pay
for this report for the public, and they agreed."
When the project is completed, a glossy report complete with photos
will be available for the public and will explain the various time