A new park being developed near Nashville will offer a rare look at ancient history.
The Nashville Metropolitan Council, the governing body for Tennessee’s capital city and surrounding towns, on December 16 acquired a 6.7-acre plot of earth that covers the area’s largest intact Mississippian village. The village, known as Kellytown, dates to the 1400s and was part of a massive civilization built along a natural sulfur spring.
The city partnered with the nonprofit group Friends of Kellytown to raise the $740,000 price tag for the plot of land, and plans are under way to develop it into an interpretive history park. Purchase of Kellytown brings to an end a 15-year effort to save the site from commercial development, said Pat Cummins, a Cherokee archaeologist and president of Nashville’s Native History Association.
“It has avoided the mass development and destruction of most of the area around it,” he said. “It’s never been archaeologically excavated and the majority has been left pristine.”
Nashville was settled in the late 1700s, on top of what archaeologists call a thriving metropolis, home to perhaps hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Mississippian Culture, or mound-builders. The population of ancient Nashville disbursed around 1450—before the arrival of European settlers—but the people left behind dozens of village sites, some larger towns and countless graves.
It’s rare for modern residents to get a peek at what lies below the city, Cummins said. Rarer still for those ancient sites to be intact.
Archaeologists began excavating the city in the early 1800s, Cummins said. After the Civil War, work crews hired to dig up burial sites uncovered between 30,000 and 50,000 graves within a couple miles of downtown Nashville. Items were removed and never accounted for.
Kellytown, located in the tiny town of Forest Hills, was discovered in the late 1990s when the Tennessee Department of Transportation was widening a nearby road. The site likely contains a concentrated village and several hundred burials, Cummins said.
“That’s based on what was discovered in the path of the road-widening project,” he said. “At almost every Mississippian site we find a lot of children’s graves within the floors of the houses. That was done to keep the child’s spirit close at hand. We expect to find more evidence of that cultural, spiritual practice.”
None of that will be disturbed, Cummins said. Park plans call for experts to identify what exists, do minimal sampling to determine its significance and leave the majority of the site intact.
“Ultimately, the plan is to cause the least amount of impact,” he said. “If there are things that are extraordinary, we can study them and that way interpret it to the public.”
When the park is complete, it will include walking paths, informational signs and a large kiosk display. Design meetings are expected to begin early next year and will include input from the Native communities, Cummins said.
That element of cooperation is new for Nashville, where relationships with Natives weren’t always friendly.
“There was a time when we were denied the right to even claim this as an ancestral site,” Cummins said. “The city said we couldn’t prove these people were our ancestors. We object to that statement because we claim these people as common ancestors to modern people. It doesn’t matter what tribe they are ancestral to; they are deserving of our respect.”
Forest Hills residents tapped into that when they formed Friends of Kellytown and raised $400,000 toward purchase of the site. Initially concerned that commercial development would bring unwanted traffic and bustle to Forest Hills, residents protested a proposed zone change that might have allowed a strip mall or other shopping center to be built.
Then the group learned what was underneath the ground and focused efforts on preserving the site intact, said Bill Coke, former mayor of Forest Hills and a member of Friends of Kellytown.
“We realized there was much more significance there,” he said. “This was one of the last remaining, almost completely intact Mississippian sites in this area, so we determined that it was important to save it.”
For Nashville, this means another “green space” linked to the city’s park system, Coke said. For Forest Hills, the park is a “gem that we have saved for the future.”
For Natives, Kellytown is a win that reverberates across Indian Country, where archaeological sites and burial grounds are too often disturbed to make room for progress, Cummins said.
“You wouldn’t put a Walmart in the middle of Arlington Cemetery,” he said. “These sites mean the same thing to us. These are national shrines to Native people.”