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Archaeological Survey At Big South Fork River National River and Recreation Area


College students assisted rangers surveyed rock shelters in Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area this summer. NPS photo.

The National Park Service is seeking to inventory and preserve archaeological sites across the National Park System until funding permits their excavation. Thanks to the largest number of archaeological sites in the Southeast, the spotlight is turned on the relatively humble Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

With crawling through rhododendron clinging to each hillside, dodging yellow jackets buried in the ground, 'trusting' in the unreliable GPS and radio coverage, using outdated maps, wrestling with snake gaiters duct-taped to jeans, and creek-stomping in water knee-deep taken as the standard day at work, it is a wonder that the archaeologists at Big South Fork are ever able to accomplish their work.

Big South Fork, like all other National Park Service sites, is conducting a survey of all known archaeological sites in the park. At Big South Fork, most sites are under rockshelters – large, overhanging sandstone bluffs – and are often home to precious resources, almost always in remote locations. Indeed, many of them were first identified by a helicopter survey conducted in the park. Now, though, it is time to have boots on the all of the park's 1,368 known sites (for comparison, that's approximately three times the number known to exist in Great Smoky Mountains National Park).

This summer, two interns from Middle Tennessee State University -- Jennifer Clinton and Jesse Tune -- worked for more than two months and were unable to locate all of the rock shelters, which is why Big South Fork archaeologist Tom Des Jean and seasonal biological technician Alonda McCarty, along with Knoxville News-Sentinel writer Morgan Simmons, took to the backcountry earlier this month to continue the exhaustive search.

Over the course of the summer, the combined efforts of the four park employees led to the discovery of moonshine stills, hominy holes, and land that has been literally unseen by Americans for decades. And it has been unseen for good reason – access to the sites is a long, arduous process.

"We've probably found 160 moonshining sites over the course of this project," Ranger Des Jean told the newspaper. "It makes you wonder how they got it out once they made it, unless they drank it on site."

Unfortunately, the sites are not remote enough, as the park estimates that about 40 percent have been looted. Big South Fork rangers are actively fighting looting in the park by incorporating resource protection messages in interpretive programs and with a special resource protection hotline that people can call to report suspected illegal activities. These efforts are paying off, as a recent arrest resulted in a fine of $3,198.09, as prescribed by Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

But not every excursion into the wilds bears fruit. "Some of these surveys are brutal," Ranger Des Jean said. "Sometimes we reach the site, and sometimes there's nothing there."

To learn more about Big South Fork's archaeological resources, head over to this site.


Hmm......Good for them now only if we could do the same at the park I volunteer at, The Boston Harbor Islands. In fact the lack of action is somewhat sadding in the park because it was the site of concentration camps during the king phillp's war, and qurrantine hospitals. On one of the island their are an estamated 4,500 bodies buiried but no one has looked.

One of the main obstacles to inventorying and monitoring archy (federal term for archaeology/archaeological) sites/land on federal lands is that funding is based on mitigating for other projects. So, archaeology is funded by other management branches and has VERY little money of it's own. Some of these other projects include prescribed burning/thinning, logging (Forest Service/BLM), road/building construction, and etc. For example, when the fire crews want to burn or maintenance wants to expand or build a road or structure they have to (theoretically) get archaeology to sign off and use their project funds to pay for the archy survey.

Thus, there is no over all plan to survey public lands within whatever management area you are in. It is done in a hodge podge manner.

Rob Mutch

Mr. Mutch,

I certainly understand what you are saying. Indeed, I have witnessed firsthand several surveys that are only taking place because of NEPA regs or some other project. However, having lived and worked this summer with many of the individuals cited in this piece, I can assure you that surveying BISO's rockshelters and other archaeological resources, is an ongoing effort that is not the results of other projects, and that - at least at Big South Fork - it is taken very seriously and is not being done in a hodge-podge fashion.

Chance is right,

Because the people who would pay for the study at my park are NPS (In fact they don't own any land). The Boston Harbor Islands ais really a park that should be owned and operated by BLM, for a lot of reasons, but the owners of the park's land being the City of Boston (mostly Boston's Fault) and State of MASS didn't like (not hate) the idea.

The Park well run because it is not "run" by NPS, but NPS still could fund a study if they had the money. Right now NPS is trying to get Harvard to do the Study.

Your comment about the challenges posed to such surveys by the thick vegetation reminded me of a comment by a ranger who worked for me at Lake Mead. He was a geologist by training, and had spent his entire life in the West. He was sent "back East" for some training, and sent us a post card with the following observation:

"I think there's some interesting geology out here, but I can't tell - it's all covered up with trees!"

Jim B

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