Though the fate of the May Town Center project is now in doubt, the value of the land and the
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future of Bell's Bend is still the subject of much discussion. I know I've been talking fairly nonstop about the archaeology angle and I'm not done with it yet. Yesterday, I talked to David Anderson, a professor at UT Knoxville, who was in Bell's Bend this past weekend as a part of a team of archaeologists who are interested in working in the Bend, about what makes the Bend unique from an archaeological standpoint.
He said that one thing that makes Bell's Bend area special is that not only has it been occupied for about as long as there have been humans in North America, but, since the Bend is relatively undisturbed and undeveloped, that history is still in place.
Anderson advises us to think of the ground in the Bend as "a layer-cake-like record going back thousands and thousands of years." Each inch an archeologist goes down can take him or her back hundreds of years. He says it's very rare to see the kind of deeply stratified deposits, or continuous layering, that we see along the river in the Bend.
Okay, fine, but so what?
Well, it turns out that the Tennessee and Cumberland River valleys are where the largest numbers of Paleo-Indian sites and artifacts have been found anywhere in the Americas to date, and the Paleo Indians are a people we don't know near enough about. These are the earliest explorers and settlers in North America. When they lived here, they inhabited a world full of mammoths and mastodons, giant sloths and sabertooth tigers. Some things they lived with we will never see again. Other things, like the osage oranges in Bell's Bend Park, are
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still with us. (Osage orange, by the way, is a very flexible wood, and was selected by some Indian groups for use in their bows and spearthrowers. Anderson owns a spearthrower of Osage orange, in fact, and practices with it regularly.)
So, as you might imagine, a place like Bell's Bend has the potential to be pretty extraordinary, because of those undisturbed layers. Just having things in sequence, learning that this kind of spear tip got left in the mud hundreds of years before these types of animal bones, would give scientists an understanding of the Paleo Indians far beyond anything we know about them right now.
"We can learn about the lives of these people with a precision we don't normally get," Anderson says. "And the river banks give us a way to view a lot of history quickly, without having to dig a lot of very deep holes."
"Until we get spend some time out there, we don't know what we might find out about the Paleo Indians," Anderson says, "But potentially, it's an extremely important area, in my opinion one of the best places to look for evidence of early peoples in Eastern North America"