Carolinas’ rocks hold ancient messages

CorrespondentApril 21, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    Judaculla Rock: From Cullowhee, drive south on N.C. 107, east on Caney Fork Road, left on Judaculla Road.

    Historic Hagood Mill: From Pickens, S.C., take U.S. 178 north 3 miles, turn left on Hagood Mill Road (it’s at 138 Hagood Mill Road).

The horses and bears painted on the cave walls of Chauvet, France, are looked upon with awe as the handiwork of people who lived thousands of years ago.

In the American Southwest, Kokopelli – the humpbacked fertility god of Pueblo mythology – plays his flute over many a rock face … and on many a tourist T-shirt and coffee mug.

Yet very few people know that a wealth of ancient rock art lies in their backyard, hidden underneath the tangled vines and towering trees of the Carolinas foothills and mountains. Not as elaborate, well-preserved or easily interpreted as those in France and the Southwest, there are nevertheless more than 100 sites where archaeologists think prehistoric people expressed themselves with the tools at hand – stones for chipping, clay for painting.

There are also a number of sites deemed “historic,” created after the advent of writing, and others that can’t be categorized.

At the prehistoric sites, there are human and animal stick figures, tracks of deer and bear, circles within circles, crosses within circles, and geometric designs totally incomprehensible to 21st-century eyes.

At one South Carolina site, several male stick figures are explicitly (and amazingly) sexually endowed. At the same site, a rectangular box with a head and arms and legs sticking out has been dubbed “Refrigerator Man (or Woman)” by researchers.

Age and authorship are generally unknown, though radiocarbon dating of the faded red and yellow pigment on the Paint Rock pictograph on the North Carolina-Tennessee border indicates it was painted 5,000 years ago.

Until 16 years ago, only a handful of sites, including Paint Rock and Cullowhee’s Judaculla Rock, significant to Cherokee legend, were known to the public. Then, in 1997, archaeologist Tommy Charles of the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology gathered interested volunteers and formed the S.C. Rock Art Survey. The finds soon started adding up, until at last count there were 63 petroglyph (stone carving) sites, containing hundreds of images – prehistoric, historic and undetermined. There are four pictograph (painting) sites, all prehistoric.

“He’s the one who got us going in the first place … when we in North Carolina heard of all the success he was having,” says Scott Ashcraft, Burnsville-based archaeologist for the U.S. Forest Service.

He and archaeologist David Moore of Warren Wilson College, with researcher Lorie Hansen, formed the mainly volunteer N.C. Rock Art Survey. It has counted 80 petroglyph sites – prehistoric, historic and undetermined – and three pictograph sites.

Now, Charles has written a book, “Discovering South Carolina Rock Art,” ($29.95; University of South Carolina Press), a portion of the U.S. Forest Service website is devoted to North Carolina rock art ( http://1.usa.gov/Yi07nn), and two of the most prominent sites are becoming more publicly accessible.

For public viewing

One is Judaculla Rock, in private hands for many years but now, as a Cherokee Cultural Heritage Site, the centerpiece of a small Jackson County-owned park near Cullowhee.

It’s the prominent soapstone boulder where, in Cherokee legend, Master of Game Animals Tsul’Kalu’ (Anglicized as “Judaculla”) gave chase to disobedient hunters. Leaping from his home on Tanasee Bald, he left his seven-fingered handprint. It’s one of many images archaeologists believe were carved at different periods.

Time and vandals took their toll until recent years, when a host of interested parties, including the Cherokee Tribal Historic Preservation Office, Jackson County, the rock art survey and others united in a conservation effort. Now the sediment that had obscured images near the base has been cleared away. Even before donation of the land, the Preservation Office’s Russell Townsend says, his office staff spent an entire day scrubbing away blue spray paint.

Landscaping and a raised boardwalk for hands-off viewing surround the rock, which was recently put on the National Register of Historic Places.

Soon to be a public attraction, a large flat-topped rock was discovered just eight years ago at historic Hagood Mill in Pickens County, S.C.

As is typical of much Southeastern art, the 31 images there, most of them prehistoric, are so eroded that they’re practically invisible in direct sunlight.

A survey volunteer who had seen nothing there in bright sun decided to go back on a rainy day in 2005. “Tom, you’re not going to believe this,” he told archaeologist Charles when he excitedly called him. “That Hagood rock is covered with little people.”

Those 18 “little people” and the other images on a 30 by 40-foot section of the boulder have been enclosed in one room of a new two-room building erected by Pickens County Museum ( http://bit.ly/16SdW1r).

The handicapped-accessible minimuseum is expected to open this fall, with low lighting illuminating the images and a circular walkway surrounding them.

When, where and who

Dating rock art in the moisture-laden Southeast is considerably trickier than in the arid West, where a naturally occurring “varnish” can seal organic matter into petroglyph grooves. Organic matter can be dated by the rate of its decay, but in the Carolinas, much of that gets washed away.

At Paint Rock, 30 feet up the side of a cliff, red and yellow geometric lines in a right-angled design resembling modern art have been dated: 2920-3320 BC.

Dr. Johannes Loubser, a rock art specialist with Atlanta-based Stratum Unlimited, says the red paint is ochre – iron oxide – and that the yellow, with a high sulfur count, could have come from the clay of nearby Hot Springs.

Hired by Judaculla Rock conservationists using a grant from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, Loubser used “stylistic cross-dating” to conclude that some of the Judaculla images – concentric rings and crosses within rings – were created between AD 500 and 1700.

Datable artifacts like pottery bearing similar motifs have been recovered around the Southeast, he said. They’re from that time period, the Late Woodland-Early Mississippian, when the people that gave rise to the Cherokees, Catawbas and Creeks were changing from hunter-gatherers to farmers.

No graffiti!

Archaeologists have several ways of differentiating prehistoric art from what came later.

If the images are patiently pecked with rocks rather than incised with metal tools, Charles tends to think they’re prehistoric.

If they show guns or clothes, he figures they came after the Europeans showed up.

Besides, he says, modern humans have a bent toward leaving names and initials, signaling to the world, “This is me.”

Nobody knows what the ancients were saying, except perhaps in the case of Judaculla. Some people think that rock might be a map of Judaculla’s mythical territory.

Though Charles has retired and Ashcraft says the N.C. Rock Art Survey is now focusing on conservation, they and the other volunteers continue to explore, and to make new discoveries..

They invite the public to be on the lookout, too, and to notify them if they find something: Charles at Tommy.charles601@gmail.com, and Ashcraft at sashcraft@fs.fed.us.

“I’ve got a feeling we haven’t scratched the surface yet,” said Charles.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service