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each hillside, dodging yellow jackets buried in the ground, 'trusting' in the unreliable GPS and radio coverage, using outdated maps, wrestling with snake gaiters duct-taped to jeans, and creek-stomping in water knee-deep taken as the standard day at work, it is a wonder that the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 ground...at 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.