Monday, November 24, 2008

More Clay Sepulchres?




A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Silas McDowell’s discovery of clay sepulchres in the Cullasaja Valley. As I summarized then, here’s what he unearthed:

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.

McDowell discovered three such clay slabs in 1821, and then none, until 1872 when he found one more.

As far as I know, these slabs were not preserved or cataloged in any collection where we could examine them today. And I found no comparable forms of burial, other than this statement from John Wells Foster, in his 1878 book, Prehistoric Races of the United States:

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.

So I note with interest an item posted this weekend by Pipsqeak on the Bio-Archaeologists: We Dig Bones! blog. After commenting on the Cullasaja sepulchres, Pipsqeak remarked on the burials found at Town Creek (Montgomery County, NC), and specifically the burials of the Siouan people who arrived after the Mississippian culture that had previously occupied the Town Creek site. In reference to a photo from a masters thesis by Martha Graham (shown above), Pipsqeak explained:

The Siouans buried their dead in the fetal position, completely flexed. While a lot of Southeastern US groups buried their dead in this position, the interesting thing about this picture is the clay cover that retained the impression of the skeleton….I had originally thought that those reports [burials with clay lids] were anomalies, now it looks like, for the Siouan groups, it was a common practice.

Now, I’m not quite sure what the picture represents. It is similar to what McDowell described, but markedly different, as well. His slabs bore the impression of fleshy bodies in a supine position and with their limbs extended, while the photo above reveal an imprint of skeletal remains in a fetal position. What I don’t understand is how the clay molds of Town Creek came about and to what degree it was intentional.

As chance would have it, I used to visit the Town Creek burial site many years ago when the skeletal remains were still on display to the public. Not long after that federal law prohibited such exhibits. But I can’t recall that cremation was used at Town Creek.

So, questions remain unanswered. While I’m indebted to Pipsqeak for pointing out a possible Siouan connection, I’m still mystified by McDowell’s discovery of clay sepulchres along the Cullasaja.

3 comments:

The Appalachianist said...

The Cherokee came down from the Ohio Valley. It was a phased migration to Southern Appalachia. Just a thought.

I've always wanted to go to Town Creek.

GULAHIYI said...

It's well worth getting by Town Creek if you're anywhere in that vicinity. Let me know if you ever plan to travel that way, I can recommend a bunch of places that you'd probably enjoy. From the Uwharries to the Pee Dee, it is really great country.

Anonymous said...

I believe you're correct that all the burials found in the Town Creek area are inhumations. I've got an excellent book around here somewhere on Eastern Woodland Indian archaeology, tool culture and burial practices; got to find that.

It's easy to stand in the meander plain of Town Creek (or the lower Rocky River for that matter), look out on that fabulous bottomland, and feel the centuries of agricultural societies in those places.

Class of '74