Archaeological evidence helped protect Nashville’s Fort Negley from encroaching development last year. Now the city will look deeper into the ground in search of further Civil War and African American history.
Starting next month, careful excavation, mapping and aerial photography will begin on the slope next to the fort — an area where there’s potential to find remnants of a buried Civil War trench line.
It’s also where researchers could learn more about the black Nashvillians, including escaped slaves, who built the fort and then created a community just beyond its walls.
“There were houses there. We knew there was a church there. And so I think we’ll learn a lot more about the lives of those individuals,” said Tim Walker, executive director of the Metro Historical Commission. “It is such a sacred site. … It’s significant history to all of us, but especially to the African American community.”
The prior study helped end a controversial development proposal for the city parkland next to the fort, a site that historians and preservations describe as uniquely important in Nashville — and fragile.
In the prior review, researchers turned up artifacts and hints of human remains.
“We don’t really know if there are or not. The archaeologist for the city said there’s a strong possibility,” Walker said. “If we do [find remains], the [Metro Parks Board] will know what steps it will have to take in commemorating those individuals who were there … and making sure they don’t develop over those human remains.”
Archaeologist Zada Law, who has worked on the fort and served as an advisor for decades, says this dig will examine an area where there may be a Civil War trench underground.
“It’s targeting areas of the park that there’s not been previous work done before,” saw Law, who directs the Geospatial Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University. “I’m getting more glimpses into areas I’ve been wanting to know more about for a long time.”
Law pushed for parkwide archeology work during a planning process 20 years ago. That didn’t happen, and this study is again incremental.
But she said the history on site is among the city’s most important stories.
“I’m really amazed how much archeology is in that park,” Law said. “We have a story in Nashville from Civil War to Civil Rights.”
This latest round of research wasn’t guaranteed. Metro has been preparing a larger report on Fort Negley, but wasn’t initially able to fund the archaeology portion. Private fundraising brought in more than $60,000, and Metro approved a final $14,000 earlier this week.