Historic Archaeology: Associating Vegetation with Sites

Often, I find myself looking for historical sites on the landscape when my Forest is working on a new project and we’re tasked with surveying the cultural resources. Most folks understand that part of CRM (cultural resource management) is complying with Section 106 (a completely different blog post for another time!) and determining what cultural resources might be affected by the project, if any.

My Forest has the luxury of land acquisition maps from when TVA bought the lands from residents in addition to historic maps, so this becomes part of our literature review (figuring out what we already know of the project area).

Armed with notepads, a camera, a GPS, a bunch of maps, and tick spray, my co-workers and I set off to find sites -either for the first time or to record them after they’ve been previously identified. The GPS and maps are a huge help, but after a while you come to notice vegetation that is quickly associated with historic homesites. The most common is what we call the “wolf tree.”

“Wolf tree” isn’t a species, rather it refers to a tree that is something of a “lone wolf” among its peers. When an oak or maple is growing in a yard, it often has only one or two nearby competitors as a source of shade for the home. Or sometimes this is a boundary marker, or tree providing shade at a barn. Other trees are cleared for the yard, field, or neighborhood so that there is an obvious distinction between the neighborhood and the forest.

Once the house is abandoned or removed, and the forest is allowed to reclaim the land, trees return. But that one-time-shade tree is still spread out, larger than the rest, and you know just by looking at it that if it could talk you’d have quite the story.

Wolf tree maple.
Wolf tree maple.

Above is a maple tree that was on a former homesite on my Forest. Little is left of the site beyond a set of steps, some old tires and bottles, and a few foundation stones. A hundred meters or so away and in the forest was another maple, this one grew up with some close neighbors and you can see the difference:

Maple that isn't a wolf tree
Maple that isn’t a wolf tree

In the second example, the tree limbs are more vertical, reaching for available sunlight where it can get it. In the first, however, the branches are more horizontally spread since sunlight was not in short supply and neighbors weren’t competing. The first tree had a whole yard to work with; the second just a few square meters today, but probably much less 20-40 years ago. The first tree is probably 65-80 years old. Possibly more.

About Carl Feagans 396 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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