Baseball Trumps History in Nashville

Nashville’s Minor League Baseball team is expected to start the 2015 season on a brand new ball field, but the $65 million stadium is being constructed on top of layers of history.

The team broke ground in January at the site of the historic Sulphur Dell Park, which was built in 1885 and hosted Negro and Minor League Baseball teams until 1963. History runs much deeper in this city, however. Below the remains of the original ballpark—and beneath layers of landfill—is part of what anthropologists call “Ancient Nashville.”

A piece of that early metropolis was uncovered during construction, offering a rare peek at a Native civilization dating from 1150 or 1250 A.D.

“It was a thriving population, in the thousands, with dozens of villages and a number of large towns,” said Kevin Smith, director of Middle Tennessee State University’s anthropology program. “The biggest was underneath where Nashville is now.”

Smith believes as many as 15,000 people once lived in the area, or twice Nashville’s population in 1820—10 years after it was incorporated.

The Cumberland Valley attracted civilizations because of a big salt stream that ran through the center, Smith said. People built workshops near the creek and extracted salt by boiling the water or letting it evaporate in the sun.

Kevin Smith

This large salt pan sherd shows fabric impressions.

When construction crews in March stumbled on the remains of one of those workshops, work ceased temporarily. Archaeologists helped identify fire pits full of ash and thousands of pieces of broken ceramic pans.

“In one spot, when they exposed the original land surface, basically there was a big, burned, packed-down area,” Smith said. “To me, it was obvious within a few minutes that this was one of the salt workshops.”

The workshop is the first of its kind to be uncovered, making it a significant find in itself, Smith said, but the excavation site, an area a couple hundred feet long and about 60 feet wide, offered other insights into the ancient civilization. The pottery shards, made of clothing fibers, may reveal clues about what the people wore.

Kevin Smith

A partially excavated T-shaped fire pit with heavily burned margins was discovered at the construction site.

The population of ancient Nashville dispersed around 1450, before the arrival of Columbus or any documentation of the area, said Smith, who has spent 30 years studying the people. He believes the early metropolis was abandoned because of a series of droughts.

The early people likely were part of the Mississippian Culture, or mound-builders, said Pat Cummins, who is Cherokee and president of Nashville’s Native History Association. In later years, the Shawnee made their home on the land.

When white fur traders and settlers arrived in 1780, they built trading posts on the mounds and pushed the remaining Natives out, Cummins said.

“As they say, the rest is history,” he said.

Although details about the early civilizations remain scarce, much of the history may still be intact, Smith said. Modern Nashville is built on landfill as deep as 40 feet, but the ancient city may be preserved underneath.

“Nashville has buried that town so completely we have no access to it,” he said. “We rarely get a window into that history.”

Kevin Smith

A partially excavated fire pit shows ash, burned clay, mussel shells and salt pan sherds.

The recent discovery was not unexpected, Smith said, but the chance to see it was rare. The ruins beneath the city are largely unknown to citizens, and he hopes to use the publicity over the Sounds stadium to educate the public.

“Something even more amazing than an old baseball stadium used to be there,” he said. “History doesn’t start for Tennessee in 1780 when the first settlers arrived in Nashville. There were more amazing things going on 800-900 years ago.”

The Native community wants to know more about the site, even if that means delaying construction on the new stadium, Cummins said.

“This is our connection to our past,” he said. “This is looking at our ancestors from 1,000 years ago.”

With the past lurking literally below Nashville’s surface, modern construction disrupts it way too often, Cummins said. He recalls several projects that uncovered remains of the ancient city.

“Hundreds of our ancestors were forcibly removed from the ground,” he said. “They were annihilated for condominium complexes and Wal-Marts.”

No human remains were found under the stadium, and construction already has resumed, but Cummins believes a burial ground is nearby, and that the excavation was cut short to meet a construction deadline.

“We want to know the extent, if we have ancestors buried there,” he said. “If there is, we don’t need any more baseball played on top of the graves.”

That question may not be answered for another century or more, Cummins said. Because the project is privately funded, the team has no obligation to continue excavating. This corner of Ancient Nashville has again been covered with protective fill and the stadium will go up on top, just as planned.

Construction will not further disrupt the site, Cummins said. And someday, after the crowds of baseball fans have gone home and Nashville’s cityscape changes once again, the excavation may finally be complete.

Until then, each peephole into history serves as a reminder of what still lies beneath, Cummins said. “Most people have no idea as to what they’re walking on or driving across every day.”