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Kingsport native devotes his time to digging up history

Amy Millhorn Leonard • Apr 18, 2019 at 4:30 PM

Some people have a knack for finding things, but S.D. Dean has a gift! He has been finding amazing archaeological artifacts and paleontological fossils here for over 50 years.

“I don’t remember when I wasn’t picking up rocks!” he recalls. “As a young kid my brother and I explored around Industrial Drive in Kingsport and found arrowheads which began my lifelong interest in rocks and Native American artifacts.” Since then, Dean has devoted much of his time to exploring, digging and discovering the past.

While attending Dobyns-Bennett High School, Dean worked with professional archaeologists at a dig site on the Nolichucky River. Dean studied sociology at ETSU. Without an archaeology or paleontology program there in the 60s, he began pursuing his passion as an avocational career. After college, he worked alongside professional paleontologists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at 14 different pre-historic animal sites in this area. He learned invaluable methods of discovering, excavating and meticulously documenting thousands of items. He explains, “I learned how to correctly dig a site starting in squares, how to collect charcoal for Carbon 14 dating and how to save dirt surrounding pottery pieces for Thermoluminescence testing among many other things.”

Dean collaborated with the Smithsonian on two projects: the migration of porcupines and creating a map of all area sites in the 1970s with Dr. Clayton Ray. In 1979, Dean discovered the “Eastman Rock Shelter” site. With Eastman’s permission, he began excavating the site - directed by Dr. Charlie Faulkner at University of Tennessee - finding many Native American artifacts. Dean says, “It is estimated that I dug and sifted 256 tons of dirt at the site which dates to 3,000-5,000 B.C.”

In 1985, Dean surveyed Fort Patrick Henry Lake when water levels dropped. He located 70 different undiscovered Native American sites. Around 1990, he explored the now Appalachian Caverns in Blountville, Tennessee, making archaeological finds dating back to the Middle Woodland Era, 667 A.D. His paleontological finds there included a mastodon molar and bones from animals now extinct here like the muskrat, caribou, dire wolf and armadillo. Dean explains, “This area was a tundra for the now Ohio River before the Ice Age in the Pliocene Era, around 19,000 years ago, so there are many animal sites in Sullivan, Washington, Greene and Hancock counties.”

Sites Dean has worked on have changed history. In 2000, the Gray Fossil Site was discovered. He was part of the initial team to decide the next steps for the discovery. Dean says, “We had no idea then that the site would turn out to be a Miocene site 4.5 to 7 million years old.”

In 2004, a Native American site was uncovered on Long Island in Kingsport. Carbon dating indicates it to be over 2,000 years old. Obsidian from out west was also found in Kingsport indicating possible trade with Hopewell Indians of the Great Lakes region. Dean’s most significant find was a 500,000-year-old tooth from an extinct species of muskrat. He is very interested in cave art and has recently made some wonderful discoveries.

The 12-acre “Cane Notch Site” on the Nolichucky River in Washington County, Tennessee, was started in 2016. Dean and Dr. Jay Franklin, former head of the ETSU Archaeology Department, made discoveries of copper beads and pottery possibly proving that Spanish explorers Hernando de Soto and Juan Pardo visited here in the 1500s and that a trade network reaching from North Carolina and Ohio existed. “Cane Notch Site” will be featured in a documentary to appear on local PBS television, May 23 and May 26, 2019.

Dean’s vast knowledge and experience is utilized by UT, ETSU, the University of Alabama, TVA, the State of Tennessee, the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. as well as the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. He has contributed to several scientific publications and papers, assisted graduate students on thesis papers, helps in classes, and expertly identifies found items. He has been a rock collector for 22 years and was a Kingsport Gems & Minerals Society member.

Since finding his first arrowhead, Dean has collected thousands of projectile points and is writing a book about them. He says, “Projectile points are not always ‘arrowheads.’ Some were used as spear heads, tools or other weapons.” Dean can often be found at ETSU’s Valleybrook facility near Fordtown, gluing ancient pottery pieces together. While water levels remain low, he is currently completing a survey of Boone Lake that he began in 2014 revealing over 80 new sites.

S.D. Dean is a valued authority in identifying fossils and artifacts. If you would like to meet Dean or have an item identified, then make plans to come to the monthly “Fossil & Artifact ID Night” at Gray Fossil Site & Museum, located at 1212 Suncrest Drive, in Gray. The next one is Tuesday, April 30 from 4 to 6 p.m. Visit the museum's Facebook page or website at gfs.visithandson.org/ for more information.