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TVA Senior Archeology Specialist Erin Dunsmore travels by boat to check on sealed caves.

Protectors of the Past

TVA Archaeologists Build Relationships with Partners to Preserve History

TVA senior archaeology specialist Erin Dunsmore has a big thing in common with Indiana Jones.

Like the popular movie hero played by Harrison Ford in the new fifth sequel of film, she hates snakes.

Her first in-the-field encounter with a slithering specimen came during a summer field school she attended while earning her undergraduate degree in anthropology. She’d slept in a tent during that program and mosquitos had plagued her.

Even so, that experience solidified her love of archaeology.

A map guides visitors along the many walking trails near the Muscle Shoals Reservation.

“It isn’t in the job description, but we deal with snakes a lot,” Dunsmore said.

Beyond that, it would be tough to liken a modern archaeologist to Indiana Jones. Much has changed since the 1930s, the era originally featured in the iconic Hollywood franchise.

“The time Indiana Jones is set in was the wild west of archaeology,” Dunsmore said. “There was more of an emphasis on discovering, as opposed to protecting and preserving artifacts and sites.” 

A Big To-Do List

Dunsmore joined the Tennessee Valley Authority 23 years ago as an archaeological data entry contractor.

She soon earned the role of senior archaeologist.

Today, TVA employs 35 archaeologists who are collectively involved in 12,500 archaeological sites. These locations can contain artifacts or historic features from the 1930s or earlier.

As time passes, that site list is likely to grow.

“We haven’t surveyed all of our land yet, so there could be more sites out there we don’t know about,” Dunsmore said.

When archaeological sites are discovered, such as those containing Tribal artifacts or the graves of Native American Ancestors, Dunsmore focuses on monitoring these important places and prioritizing them for protection when needed.

Some sites, such as those near bodies of water, are threatened by erosion.

Riprap is placed along the banks near these sites to help preserve them. During the winter, when water levels are lowest, Dunsmore checks the sites to ensure they’re still in good condition.

“It’s a small team working across seven states, so we’ve got a long to-do list,” she said.

A Thousand Eyes 

Over decades of public works projects and archaeological research across the region, Native American Ancestors and cultural items were sometimes excavated.

In the 1990s, federal legislators introduced the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act to ensure Ancestors and cultural items removed from federal lands would be returned to Native American Tribes.

TVA specialists work to return Ancestors to Tribes, and they listen to Tribal Nations’ needs regarding repatriation and reburial of Ancestors.

“Now, excavations of graves are very rare,” Dunsmore said. “And construction sites are almost always moved if they are found. If it’s unavoidable, we work closely with Tribes to immediately rebury those Ancestors as close to the original site as possible.”

Sometimes, artifacts are vulnerable to looting.

If those incidents affect Ancestor sites and artifacts, Dunsmore and the Cultural Compliance team must relay that information to Tribes.

“But I also get to come up with solutions and keep it from happening again in the future,” she said.

She manages A Thousand Eyes, an outreach program that trains volunteers to protect archaeological sites and report any suspicious activity on TVA land. The two-day training involves TVA police and Tribal representatives.

“I just found out our site stewardship program is one of the few that involves Tribal instructors,” she said. “It’s been a dream come true to see how much of a difference it makes for everyone involved.”

TVA’s outreach programs help people realize that looting isn’t victimless. Witnesses are encouraged to report any instances of looting.

“One of the most successful things has really been bringing in the Tribes and having them talk about their homelands directly to the communities,” she said. “It's been so successful because people usually relate to people.”

When community members realize Tribes are still connected to this area, they begin to appreciate history more, she said.

Wonders of Muscle Shoals

Muscle Shoals Reservation, in northern Alabama, is a TVA site known for its rich history.

While the reservation today features plenty of public walking trails, at one time it was home to a town called Southport.

Founded in 1813, Southport grew to become the largest cotton port east of Memphis, as the Tennessee River was only navigable up to that point.

The booming town faced challenges in the 1830s, however, because of a newly built railroad in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Its population continued to decline after the Civil War.

When workers completed Wilson Dam in 1924, just a few residents remained in Southport. The town is now inundated by the Tennessee River, which borders the reservation.

“Sometimes people will come over here with scuba gear and try to dive to find artifacts,” Dunsmore said.  

Muscle Shoals also has a Civil War-era fortification called an earthwork, which Confederate soldiers built in 1864 to help protect them from enemy fire.

Across the south there are multiple kinds of earthworks, including small forts, artillery emplacements, rifle pits and trenches. Built from dirt, they were positioned near resources such as railroads and rivers, so soldiers could defend them.

Other archaeological sites trace back to the Great Depression era.

Many of the walking trails at Muscle Shoals Reservation, for instance, were originally made by the Civilian Conservation Corps, established during the Great Depression to provide conservation jobs to young men in need of work.

In Muscle Shoals, these workers built an overlook near the Tennessee River, as well constructing multiple water fountains.

Civilian Conservation Camp workers placed water fountains along the trails so visitors could stay hydrated.

The Civilian Conservation Corps ended in the early 1940s, but some of their creations continue to bring joy to those who visit Muscle Shoals Reservation.

The stone stairs they installed along walking paths are still used to this day.

There’s also a pavilion in the park, standing within a halo of trees. Renovations and repairs have kept the original structure and design in mind.

Meaningful Work

Preservation work at Muscle Shoals also involves working closely with Native American Tribes.

In the nearby sloughs of the Tennessee River, many cave sites were once the homes of Native Americans.

Some of these caves have now been closed off as a result of multiple looting attempts.

One specific cave, the site of many Native American Ancestors, was blocked off with multiple layers of concrete and mesh fencing. The engineering feat required collaboration from multiple TVA specialists, including engineering, transportation and construction.

And that’s truly at the heart of modern archaeology—building relationships and collaborating with partners to preserve important historic places.

“Working with the Tribes to protect their Ancestral lands is one of the most meaningful things I think I could ever do,” Dunsmore said.
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Learn more about TVA’s partnerships with Native American Tribes.

You can help 

If you witness looting or vandalism to historic sites on TVA property, please call the TVA police at (855) 476-2489. 

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