The petroglyphs on Judaculla Rock remain as puzzling as when I first examined them thirty years ago.
Whenever I travel past the remaining mounds along the Tuckasegee and the Little Tennessee I imagine scenes from long ago.
And I have a list of places to visit, among them Fort Mountain, Track Rock and the Eagle Rock Effigy in Georgia and the Duck River Stone Fort in Tennessee.
They’re all great mysteries, and often viewed as isolated phenomena. It's a challenge to see them in the context of a larger story and discover what, if any, common bonds they share. For a book that might connect the dots, I turned to Cahokia, Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi, by Timothy Pauketat.
While it doesn’t shed much light on the specific sites I just mentioned, it brings to life the great urban center of North America that developed almost a millennium ago. Just downriver from the confluence of the Missouri, Cahokia sprawled across what is now East St. Louis, IL. Pauketat writes:
At one time, there were more than two hundred packed-earth pyramids, or “mounds,” at Cahokia and its suburbs. More than half of these were built in a five-square-mile zone that was designed with reference to the four sacred directions and the upper and lower worlds. The pyramids were arranged around vast open plazas and were surrounded, in turn, by thousands of pole-and-thatch houses, temples, and public buildings. At its height, Cahokia had a population of ten thousand, with at least twenty or thirty thousand more in the outlying towns and farming settlements that ranged for fifty miles in every direction.
Depiction of Cahokia at its peak of development
Pauketat suggests that the giant supernova of July 1054 was of such astronomical significance that it may have been a factor in the creation of Cahokia. As it shone brightly in the sky, people around the world saw the supernova as an omen. At Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, a map of the night sky painted on the sandstone cliffs commemorated its sudden appearance.
The archaeological evidence from Cahokia reveals complex celestial timepieces, evidence of a powerful hierarchical society, and signs of ritual human sacrifice. In some ways rivaling the empires of South America, Cahokia was the cradle of a culture that spread toward the Southeast and the Plains. By the year 1400, though, it was abandoned.
What were the connections between Cahokia and the monuments marking the Southeast? I’m not certain Pauketat answers that question directly or in much detail, but he does offer at least one helpful perspective for understanding Judaculla Rock:
Like other preindustrial people around the world, most pre-Columbian North Americans did not conceive or quantify time and space the way historians and cartographers do today. Anthropologists and archaeologists have described this in different ways, often counterposing a daily, experiential time to a kind of genealogical or historical time and, beyond that, a mythical, monumental, or, one might say, ritual time. These were never rigidly distinguished, any more than natural forces were distinguished from supernatural ones.
This being the case, ancient maps may not always take an expected form. Not every old map might fit Western cartographic conventions, with a huge X marking the spot where archaeologists will find answers to their questions. Much rock art was thoroughly embedded within the spatial and temporal fields wherein people, places, and nonhuman forces were thought to coincide, meaning that certain Native American maps may not even be found in one place but spread across the landscape like clues in a treasure hunt.
The quest continues!