The Brentwood Library… What Lies Beneath

Today when you visit the Brentwood Library, you’ll find books, as well as a beautiful reading room with colored stained glass panels, a huge audio-visual collection, computers, people taking part in a slew of community classes, and a children’s reading room with “Story Time”. Along with the facility itself, there are beautiful walking running paths circling the grounds. If you take a stroll, you’ll notice signs indicating that there is much more to the library that lies beneath the surface…

Sign on the trails encircling the Brentwood Library site
Sign close-up
View of the trails on the library property

During the initial phases of the library’s construction, it became apparent that it’s grounds had a much deeper significance… one that increased our understanding of Middle Cumberland Mississippian settlements along the Little Harpeth River.

On July 29, 1997, Mike Moore from the Tennessee Division of Archaeology received a call from the Head Librarian for the City of Brentwood informing him that human burials may have been exposed during construction of the new Brentwood Library. To date, the Brentwood Library site specifically was not a known archaeological site. Frederic Ward Putnam as part of the Harvard Peabody Museum Expedition of 1882 had excavated eighty stone box graves and found a Nashville style shell gorget along with a notched-rim bowl, a human effigy hooded bottle, and eight marine shell beads in the area referred to as the Jarman Farm Site, which was assumed to be near, but the exact location was unknown, until now.

On arrival, he noticed that building was already underway with four to six inches of soil having been turned down, exposing cultural resources including “stone-box” grave capstones. Construction was ceased as more stone-box graves were identified as well as palisade lines, structures, and refuse-filled pits.

Photo of stone box grave (center) from TDOA report

The City of Brentwood determined that, considering the value of the tract of land, construction would have to continue, which was a costly decision in terms of publicity. The Native American Community became extremely upset and and passionately displayed their concern via print and television, as well as by holding protests (peacefully) at the site, while the work continued in compliance with Tennessee state cemetery statutes (see TCA 46-4-101-104; 11-6-116; 11-6-119).

In regards to the archaeological effort, it involved 4 months of salvage excavations which found 24 hearths, 14 limestone clusters, and 10 ceramic vessels… 85 graves. 66 graves (containing 75 individuals) were removed since they could not be avoided by construction and initially taken by the Division of Archaeology for analysis. Once the analysis was completed the Chickasaw Nation was consulted and the remains were reburied on the grounds on June 11, 2004 (see post). It involved a 45 minute ceremony consisting of prayers and songs, conducted in the Chickasaw language.

The results of the archaeological analysis were as follows: of the exhumed individuals, 29.3% were infants under one year of age, rising to 55% for young children 5 and younger, and 64% for children under 10 years old. Mississippian groups commonly buried very small children inside their houses. Several health problems were identified, 28% suffered from some sort of oral or dental issues, as well as bone disease. An interesting point was the absence of physical trauma in the samples found. During the original Jarman Farm Site excavation there was one individual found with an arrow embedded in the vertebrae (neck), but none on the 1997 excavation other than an infant with a clavicular (collar bone) fracture.

Structurally, there were no wall trench structures recorded. The domestic structures included walls measuring between five and seven meters long and included support posts, hearths, limestone clusters, and stone-box graves as interior features. Several buildings held artifacts left by the native residents. Pottery vessels were recovered as well as a flake scraper and a mass of deer and bear animal bones. Further investigation was limited to investigate and sort each feature into functional categories with the primary goal of mapping the numerous archaeological resources exposed by the search for the graves.

The site represented a Mississippian period town established on a terrace overlooking the Little Harpeth River and was occupied over an approximate 150 year period during the 14th and mid 15th centuries. The vast number of structures uncovered shows an active settlement with at least several hundred residents who were protected by a palisade wall that enclosed the primary habitation zone.

One can only speculate, but possible causes could have been the depletion of timber for use in making houses or fires, battles, or abandonment due to difficulty defending the position, the outbreak of disease (possibly brought by the earliest European colonials), or natural phenomenon.

TDOA report

Tennessee has a large number of historical archaeological sites dating back many thousands of years with new discoveries being made regularly due to finds during roadwork or urban development. The TN Division of Archaeology does a fantastic job of publishing their finds to help inform the general public.

A special thank you to Mike Moore (Tennessee Division of Archaeology) and Toye Heape (Native History Association) for reviewing and providing guidance with this post considering the amount of summarizing that was needed to condense the extensive documentation of the site.

View of the Brentwood Library property today


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