Archaeological Investigations at the Clee’s Ferry Site, June 2009

Report prepared for Nashville Past and Present, by Aaron Deter-Wolf, Tennessee Division of Archaeology
June 12, 2009

Clee’s Ferry At Bells Bend, View From The Southern Bank Of The Cumberland River, Nashville Tennessee, June, 2009

On June 1, 2009, an individual fishing at the old ferry ramp at the end of Old Hickory Blvd. on Bell’s Bend identified a large bone lying along the shoreline. They collected the bone, and suspecting it was human in origin, contacted the metropolitan Police Department of Nashville and Davidson County (Metro PD). After the Medical Examiner identified the bone as a human femur, Metro PD launched an investigation into what was deemed a possible homicide. Police divers were deployed to search the river bottom and a series of vehicles were recovered from the river. However, no additional remains were identified.

After seeing media coverage of the search, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology contacted Metro PD and the Office of the Medical Examiner to alert them of the possibility that the bone was archaeological in origin. Archaeologists know the portion of Bell’s Bend immediately adjacent to the old ferry ramp as the Clee’s Ferry site (spelled Cleece’s on modern maps). This area has been identified as a prehistoric archaeological site since at least the 1830s, and is mentioned in several late 19th century accounts of notable ancient sites in Tennessee. The site was added to the TDOA permanent site file record in 1972. Although no modern, scientific excavations have conclusively determined the lateral extent of the site, artifacts recovered from along the riverbank suggest the deposits extend for at least 0.25 miles both north and south of the boat ramp.

The Clee’s Ferry site was occupied for thousands of years by the ancestors of modern Native American groups. The earliest inhabitants of the site likely set up camp along the Cumberland River approximately 8,000 years before present. Data in the TDOA site files indicates that prehistoric groups used the Clee’s Ferry site as a location for both camps and villages throughout large portions of the Archaic (ca. 8000–1000 B.C.), Woodland (ca. 1000 B.C.–800 A.D.), and Mississippian (ca. 800–1500 A.D.) periods.

Perhaps the most visible indication of the Clee’s Ferry site is the thick lens of shell visible along the bank at approximately 16 feet below ground surface. This portion of the site is known as a “shell midden” and derives its unique appearance from the millions of freshwater snail and mussel shells that were collected, consumed, and discarded over thousands of years by people living along the Cumberland. Based on excavations at similar sites throughout the American Southeast, Archaeologists have determined that shell middens like the one at Clee’s Ferry were formed and occupied between approximately 6000–3000 B.C.

The media regularly present stories on disturbances at “Indian burial grounds.” However, for most of the prehistoric period the inhabitants of the Southeastern U.S. buried their dead within or immediately adjacent to their settlements rather than in isolated cemeteries. At Clee’s Ferry and other shell midden sites, the site inhabitants lived on top of the gradually accumulating midden and buried their dead within the thick layers of discarded shell. The high pH of shell middens counteracts natural soil acidity and results in excellent archaeological bone preservation within and immediately adjacent to the midden.

Variable river levels and waves from boat traffic have caused severe erosion along the riverbank throughout the Clee’s Ferry site area. Slumping and collapse along the bank line frequently expose previously buried archaeological deposits, including human skeletal remains. Based on TDOA site file data, it is believed that the majority of the site has already eroded into the Cumberland.

The site has also been regularly disturbed as a result of illicit excavations by collectors prospecting for human burials and the artifacts they contain. Under the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 it is illegal to collect artifacts or excavate on public lands (including along the bank of the Cumberland River) without a federal permit. In addition, it is a felony under Tennessee law to disturb human burials without a Chancery Court order. Nonetheless, the site deposits at Clee’s Ferry and the human burials therein have been heavily disturbed over the years as a result of looting and pothunting activity.

On June 4, TDOA archaeologists visited the site to perform a ground surface inspection along the exposed shore and riverbank adjacent to where the femur was recovered. This survey resulted in the identification of human skeletal elements from multiple individuals scattered between the base of the bank line and the water. Investigators also identified between four and six prehistoric human burials protruding from the bank line and coinciding with the scattered bone along the
shore. Based on the level of bone preservation and density of skeletal material along the shore line at the time of inspection, TDOA staff concluded that the skeletal remains recovered by Metro PD on June 1 originated within the prehistoric archaeological deposits of the Clee’s Ferry site.

News coverage of the June 1 find reported that the leg bone was identified “floating in the river.” However, the weight and density of long bones makes it highly unlikely that the femur floated at all, let alone upstream to the base of the old ferry ramp. Rather it is probable that an unknown individual collected the bone along the shoreline where it had eroded from a prehistoric burialand carried it to the ramp, where it was later identified and reported to Metro PD.

TDOA archaeologists collected all human skeletal material from the ground surface along the shoreline. This material was returned to the TDOA facility in Nashville for curation and storage, and will be added to the state Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) registry. In accordance with state and federal laws governing the excavation and disturbance of human remains, no human skeletal material was removed from the bank line ofthe Clee’s Ferry site. It is anticipated that over the next several months the remainder of the identified burials will become displaced from the midden deposit, either as a result of natural
erosion or due to increased looting activity following recent media coverage. TDOA staff will return to the site periodically to recover any additional remains from the shore line and document future disturbances and the progression of site erosion.


One thought on “Archaeological Investigations at the Clee’s Ferry Site, June 2009

  1. Anonymous

    I enjoyed the article on Clees Ferry. As a kid it was a special trip to take the ride across the river. Also, the link to Across the Universe, wow, what a great movie and soundtrack. My 2nd fav movie after Forrest Gump.Chip Curley


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