The Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society & the Development of Chucalissa

The Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society (MAGS) was originally formed in part based on their work at the Chucalissa site in the 1950s.  MAGS shows the important role that amateur archaeologists played in the past and today in helping to preserve and promote our nation’s rich cultural heritage.

by Ron Brister

Chucalisssa Indian Village and the C.H. Nash museum are located within the T. O. Fuller State Park in Memphis, Tennessee. The park was established in the late 1930s as a recreation area for Memphis area African Americans when strict segregation denied them use of local recreational opportunities. Construction of a swimming pool in the park in 1940 by Civilian Conservation Corps workers unearthed human burials, house ruins and enormous quantities of artifacts. Work on the pool halted.

Archaeologists from the University of Tennessee (Knoxville) were asked to evaluate the find. Professor T. M. N. Lewis was lead investigator. Excavations were supervised by Charles Nash and George Lidberg, two experienced UT excavators. Numerous trenches were dug into the mounds, residential areas, and plaza by 30 CC workers in 1940. Archaeologists were impressed by the depth, artifact richness, and extent of the ancient deposits. Lewis drew up plans for the National Park Service for a museum and interpretative site. He suggested that the village area be set aside as a National Monument. Excavations, covered by protective buildings, would be made to exposed house ruins, burials, pottery, and artifacts. Native American craftsmen would make baskets, pottery, bead work, and other crafts on site. The museum would house general displays on the archaeology of Tennessee. These would not be removed to the museum but left in place. The museum would house general displays on the archaeology of Tennessee.

The National Park Service declined the suggestion for a new National Monument. The outbreak of World War II soon after resulted in all national resources being directed to the war effort. Excavation and development plans ceased. The site was abandoned to erosion, looters, and thickets of locust trees.

MAGS members processing artifacts on a recent Volunteer Day at the C.H. Nash Museum

The Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society was founded in 1951 under the leadership of Wiley Wilcox and Dr. Perry Bynum to promote Lewis’ vision of an archaeological park and museum. Their first priority was to excavate a portion of the site to prove its archaeological uniqueness. Some members wanted to treasure hunt the entire site for spectacular artifacts but excavation director Kenneth L. Boudoin insisted that the investigation be limited to one area to demonstrate the features, depth, and extent of the site as well as recover artifacts.

“It was determined in the Spring of 1952 that the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society should confine itself to one single, archaeologically rich area which was to be worked as thoroughly as possible to show the archaeological potential of the site rather than to explore the site for possibly rich burial areas which might turn up spectacular grave furniture and other highly interesting features to be found on the site.”  (Beaudoin, Kenneth L. 1953. A Report of Excavations Made at the T. O. Fuller Site, Shelby County, Tennessee Between March 8, 1952 and April 30, 1953. Printed Privately.)

Members received permission from the Tennessee Division of State Parks to conduct a 1,000 square foot test excavation. Amateur archaeologist Kenneth L. Beaudoin directed a rigidly scientific investigation which exposed house ruins, burials, storage pits, post holes, stone and bone tools, corn, beans, nut hulls and other plant food remains, and pottery sherds. Five graves were found containing eight skeletons of people buried with pottery vessels and tools and utensils used in life.

“During the war and the subsequent decade of relative inactivity a small group of local enthusiasts, members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society, made repeated efforts to reactivate the program. They were met with interest, sometimes intense- but no commitments. Their luck changed a little in 1952, when they managed to secure permission from the Tennessee Division of State Parks to conduct further test excavations, which they promptly began. Later the members spent considerable labor in clearing the central portion of the town site of trees and brush. But the dedicated society members did not see the fruition of their years of effort until 1955.”

(Nash, Charles H. 1962. Chucalissa Indian Town reprinted from Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume XXI, Number 2, June 1962. page 3.)

The State Parks system acquired control of the ancient village area in 1955. Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society located former UT archaeologist, Charles Nash, who had supervised the 1940 excavation, in Memphis. Governor Frank Clement provided funds to hire Nash as site archaeologist. Shelby County Commissioners provided penal farm labor, a supervisor, and supplies to build the reconstructed houses

Following the initial excavation and clearing, Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society members provided a trained excavation crew for archaeologist Charles Nash to excavate a section of the residential area as a burial exhibit.

“The devoted members of the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society stayed constantly active during the first years of the excavation, contributing their skill and labor to augment that of the Penal Farm workers. The burial exhibit excavation, a major feature of the museum, testifies to the ability and perseverance of these dedicated amateurs.” (Nash, Charles H. 1962. Chucalissa Indian Town reprinted from Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Volume XXI, Number 2, June 1962. p. 4.)

The 187 acre Chucalissa site and museum were transferred to Memphis State University to encourage research and interpretation. Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society gradually reduced its presence at Chucalissa and veered more into gems and minerals. This changed in 2010 when the Society board began contributing money and volunteers for the Heritage Festival and other Chucalissa events. Society members now regularly help with artifact inventory and exhibit refurbishing on monthly Volunteer Days. Assistance with funding and offers of help in constructing a reconstructed house in the village area brought the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society back to Chucalissa.

Ron Brister retired as Collections Manager for the Pink Palace Family of Museums after 37 years of service.  He continues to volunteer his expertise throughout Midsouth, is the President of the Friends of Chucalissa and librarian for the Memphis Archaeological and Geological Society.  He can be reached at bristerr@bellsouth.net

About C.H. Nash Museum

The mission of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, a division of the University of Memphis, is to protect and interpret the Chucalissa archaeological site’s cultural and natural environments, and to provide the University Community and the Public with exceptional educational, participatory, and research opportunities on the landscape’s past and present Native American and traditional cultures.
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