Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Clay Sepulchres Along the Cullasaja

The Cullasaja field where the clay sepulchres were found. Beyond the river, Corundum Hill rises in the background.

In the 1870s, objects unearthed along the Cullasaja River caught the attention of the archaeological world. Well over a century later, I’m not sure we’ve gotten a satisfactory explanation for the clay sepulchres of Macon County. The slabs of burnt clay, found by Silas McDowell while plowing a bottomland field, bore the mold of a human figure. Presumably, the native people would dig a grave, and place a layer of clay over the corpse. By building a fire on the clay slab, the body of the deceased would be cremated, leaving an impression on the underside of the clay.

News of the clay sepulchres appeared in academic journals and in newspapers across the country. Silas McDowell shared the story through a letter published in the June 22, 1872 issue of Scientific American, under the heading, The Cherokee Tribe of Indians – A Subject Interesting to Antiquarians:

To the Editor of the Scientific American:
If I am correct in memory, it was near twenty years ago when I met with Henry E. Colton in Macon county, North Carolina, and his business seemed to be an enquiry to myself: "What could have been the intentions of the Cherokee Indians in building so many large earth mounds that were met with in the low grounds of these mountain valleys?"

My reply was that "the Cherokee tribe of Indians disclaimed all knowledge of the origin of those earth mounds, as well as the purposes for which they were built; and, furthermore, that I had evidence, satisfactory to myself, that these mountain valleys had once been inhabited by some race of people antecedent to their occupancy by the Cherokee Indians; and that this fact I inferred from the wide diversity in form, material and quality of their pottery, as well as their edged or cutting utensils, but more particularly as regarded their mode sepulture, which, in all races, is permanently fixed; and in pursuance of this subject, I related to Mr. Colton the following incident:

After the Cherokee Indians abandoned the country in the year 1821, I, in a spirit of romance, became a small farmer in a wild and picturesque valley in the country the Cherokees had left; and while plowing, in a low ground or bottom fields, in passing over a certain spot the plow produced a rumbling hollow sound, and this led to digging – rather scraping away the earth – in quest of the cause; at the depth of fourteen inches I met with charcoal, and then a clay slab that had been so highly indurated by burning that it had the hardness of a brick.

An effort was made to take this slab up entire, as it was but seven feet in length and four in width; but this we failed to do, as it broke in turning it over. But what was out astonishment to find, on the reverse or under side, the complete cast of a human body, not a vestige of which was to be found! From all the appearances, the opinions I formed at that time (and these opinions have not changed) were that at some remote point in the world’s human history, some peculiar race of people inhabited this country, whose mode of sepulture was to place the body of their dead in a shallow grave in a nude state and on its back, with its limbs extended at full length, cover it with soft clay mortar, pile wood upon it and consume the body with fire.

Furthermore, the problem was suggested: May it not be that this race, so far back in the history of man, were the mound builders? In my farming, I found but two other of these burnt clay sepulchres. All of these facts I narrated to Mr. Colton, and about thirty years after their discovery, and after the abrasion of time and the wear of the plow share in farming my lands had reduced these casts in the clay slabs to fragments.

For the first time after the delivery of the above narrative to Mr. Colton, I met with him at a Cherokee Indian ball play, and this was in the year 1860; and he addressed me, as I then thought, somewhat rudely, in these words: "Mr. McDowell, some years ago you described to me some peculiar Indian sepulchres you had found in your fields – have you, since then, discovered any more of them?" My reply was "I have not."

He rejoined: "The reason why I now name this subject is this: I published your narration, and archaeologists and antiquarians give no credit to your story, because, they say, it is contradictive of all the modes of sepulture yet discovered among the various tribes on this continent, and it is due to your reputation as a man of truth to find one and exhibit one of these sepulchres." I was wilted by Mr. Colton’s words and manner, because, not knowing for why, I felt as though I were half a villain. I made him, I fear, an unmannerly reply that was more practical than pious, and have not seen Mr. Henry E. Colton since, nor have I searched for another sepulchre for the purpose of redeeming my lost reputation as a man of truth.

And yet a kind Providence has saved me, from going down to my grave disgraced, in this way: The 16th day of this month was the recurrence of my seventy-seventh birthday [May 16, 1872], and a team of oxen were pulling a deep running plow through my field, when the point of the plow struck upon the side of one of these burnt clay sepulchres and rent from it a small portion of an arm. I had the plowing stopped, and the locality marked, and it shall remain intact until some scientific individual arrives who can superintend the delicate process of raising the sepulchral slab without injury to the cast of the human figure impressed upon it.

I have intrusted the procurement of the proper man to direct this delicate operation to Colonel C. W. Jenks of St. Louis, now superintending, for the American Corundum Company, the working of the Cullasajah corundum mines in this county.
-Franklin, Macon county, N.C. SILAS MCDOWELL
P.S. Since the 25st inst., when Colonel Jenks and myself conversed publicly on the above subject, eleven of these sepulchres have been reported to me, found in different localities.

I’ve not seen the fragments of clay and have no idea what might have happened to them. While I am loathe to doubt my long-time mentor, Silas McDowell, his theory is a bit of a stretch. Could his story be plausible? It is possible that ancient inhabitants of the Cullasaja valley adopted a unique method to dispose of the dead. However, it seems unlikely.

Cremation was rare among Native Americans. My understanding is that for most burials in this area, the body was placed in the fetal position and wrapped in matting or animal skins.

Elsewhere, Ethiopians would cover corpses with a mud-like plaster, but they would not burn the remains. Some native people in present-day Californai and New Jersey would bury a body in the standing position and then build a fire to consume the remains. Nut this was not a widespread practice. If the method said to be employed in Cullasaja was used anywhere else, I’ve not learned of it.

In his 1878 book, Prehistoric Races of the United States, John Wells Foster included a lengthy discussion of the Cullasaja curiosities:

In the mountainous region of North Carolina, as I shall show elsewhere, were situated the great mica mines, yielding a mineral which entered largely into the trappings of the Mound-builder. In this secluded region, secluded even at this day, with all our railroad facilities — for it can only be reached by a rough ride of two days on horseback,' — we meet with the graves of this mysterious race, differing somewhat in their mode of construction from those at distant points.

To Mr. Silas McDowell, a gentleman who has resided in this region (Franklin, Macon County) for more than half a century, I am indebted for the subjoined information. Up to 1819 the Cherokees held possession of this region, when, in pursuance of a treaty, they vacated a portion of the lands lying in the valley of the Little Tennessee River. In 1821 Mr. McDowell commenced farming. During the first season's operations, the plough-share, in passing over a certain portion of a field, produced a hollow, rumbling sound, and, in exploring for the cause, the first object met with was a shallow layer of charcoal, beneath which was a slab of burnt clay, about seven feet in length and four feet broad, which in the attempt to remove, broke into several fragments.

Nothing beneath this slab was found, but on examining its under side, to his great surprise, there was the mould of a naked human figure. Three of these burned clay sepulchres were thus raised and examined during the first year of his occupancy, since which time none have been found until recently. These fragments were so little appreciated that they were suffered to remain in the field, subject to the disintegrating agency of the elements and the tramping of cattle. During the past season (1872) the plough brought up another fragment of one of these moulds, revealing the impress of a plump human arm.

Colonel C. W. Jenkes, the superintendent of the corundum mines which have recently been opened in that vicinity, advises me thus: " We have Indians all about us, with traditions extending back for five hundred years. In this time they have buried their dead under huge piles of stones. We have at one point the remains of six hundred warriors under one pile; but a grave has just been opened of the following construction : A pit was dug into which the corpse was placed, face upwards ; then over it was moulded a covering of mortar, fitting the form and features. On this was built a hot fire, which formed an entire shield of pottery for the corpse. The breaking up of one such tomb gives a perfect cast of the form of the occupant."

Colonel Jenkes, fully impressed with the value of these archaeological discoveries, detailed a man to superintend the exhumation, who proceeded to remove the earth from the mould, which he reached through a layer of charcoal, and then with a trowel, excavated beneath it. The clay was not thoroughly baked, and no impression of the corpse was left, except of the forehead and that portion of the limbs between the ankles and the knees, and even these portions of the mould crumbled.

The body had been placed east and west, the head towards the east. " I had hoped," continues Mr. McDowell, " that the cast in the clay would be as perfect as one that I found fifty-one years ago, a fragment of which I presented to Colonel Jenkes, with the impression of a part of the arm on one side, and on the other of the fingers that had pressed down the soft clay upon the body interred beneath." The Mound-builders of the Ohio Valley, as has been shown, often placed a layer of clay over the dead, but not in immediate contact, upon which they builded fires; and the evidences that cremation was often resorted to in their disposition are too abundant to be gainsaid.

The recovery of a perfect mould of a Mould-builder's form would be a matter of the highest scientific interest ; as much so as of those Roman forms whose impress has been left on the volcanic ashes that settled down upon the ill-fated Pompeii nearly two thousand years ago.

I’m still waiting for the resolution of this mystery.


Western North Carolina Writer's Underground said...

If another one of the sepulchers were to be uncovered, and if charcoal could be retrieved from the site, then perhaps carbon dating of the burnt wood cold be performed. Assuming the Cherokees never buried tribal members in this fashion then a reasonable extrapolation might be that these graves predated Cherokee habitation in WNC. This would present empirical evidence suggesting how long the Cherokee people had actually habitated in WNC.

The Appalachianist said...

Hey, new look at the Ruminations. Oh, this looks like an interesting post. It'll require more time than I have right now, so, I'll have to come back later. My budddy, Twister is from Cullasaja. I'll have to send him here to check it out. Pipsqeak would like it too.

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks for noticing, Appalachianist, I figured after two years of this it was time for a little face-lift, and I think it is easier on the eyes. Which is a good thing, since I've taken to creating the world's longest blog posts. Oh well, some things are too good not to share.

Re: the Cullasaja clay slabs, it just astounds me how many of these mysterious discoveries from long ago have fallen into obscurity. I suppose most of them can be explained away, but I figure it's worth bringing them back for a second look, just in case there's something to it...

The Appalachianist said...

Interesting. I beleive that the notion a race of moundbuilders exsisted is false. Charles Hudson made note of tat in "The Southeastern Indians". I've learned that evidence does show that not all of the mounds in Cherokee country were built by the Cherokee, they did build mounds.

For instance, I'm told the Cullowee Mound was back further from the water than most Cherokee Mounds, a note was made on the remains found there as being small, like Children. As well the tunnels that exsist/exsisted below Western Carolina are said to be small. Too small for most adults.

It could have been a freak and inovative thing, it could have been a traveler. Lots of mysteries in these mountains.

GULAHIYI said...

I'd like to know more about the mounds. I have a hard time getting the big picture on the ancient history of this place. I was reading the WPA Writer's Guide to NC (1939)last night and they described a trip from Sylva to Cashiers. The old mounds of Webster and Cullowhee were identified as landmarks along the way. I believe at least one other mound was near East LaPorte. Lots of these sites were essentially looted in the late 1800s, so you wonder how many answers were lost in the process. Someday, I'd like to make a map of all the known mounds in this neck of the woods. As you say, most of them were very close to water, closer than the Cullowhee mound was. Do you know of any mounds in western Transylvania? The Balsam Grove area sure does look (and feel) like a place that would have been inhabited from the earliest times, but I haven't heard much about permanent settlements there. Bad mojo, maybe? (Hey, I'm just asking...I like it there myself.)

kanugalihi said...

Judaculla sleeps there.

no reason to believe that tsalagi were first. as you well know the legends do not clarify the identity of their predecessors.


Betty Cloer Wallace said...

Perhaps the sepulchers have a Melungeon connection and are a mixture of burial customs.

The Appalachianist said...

I'll have to get back with you on a detailed answer. But, I know of no mounds in Transylvania. I do know of some in Henderson, though I know very little about them.