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Stone Lined Graves – Tennessee

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A mound in which were many intrusive stone graves, and therefore resembling the one examined on Swallow Bluff Island, stood on a high hill about 2 miles from Franklin, Williamson County, Tennessee. It was about 20 feet in height and 400 feet in circumference. The mound was examined and “about four feet from the top, we came to a layer of graves extending across the entire mound. The graves were constructed in the same manner as those found in the cemeteries, that is, of two wide parallel slabs, about two and one-half feet long for sides, and with the bottom, head, and foot stones of the same material, making when put together, a box or sarcophagus. Each of these coffins had bones in it, some of women and children together, and others of men.” Two classes of mounds containing stone-lined graves have now been described. The first had been made up of several tiers of such graves, reared one upon another, and the whole covered with a mass of earth; the second class included mounds in which such graves had later been prepared-intrusive burials in ancient mounds. Another class, though far less numerous than either of the others, each contained a single large grave. A most interesting example of this type was discovered and described by Moore. It stood on a high ridge, overlooking the valley of Green River, in Butler County, Kentucky. Here were four mounds within a short distance of one another; each bad contained a single large grave, all of which had, unfortunately, been previously excavated. One mound, which measured 21 feet in diameter, contained a grave which measured inside 7 feet 10 inches in length and 3 feet 5 inches in width, ” built of slabs and masses of sandstone and of limestone, the masses in nearly every case showing flat surfaces which had been utilized in the construction of the grave, giving it interiorly a comparatively regular surface.” The large block on the left had been displaced by the roots of the tree. This large grave “had been regularly built up from the yellow, undisturbed clay which served as a foundation, of slabs and blocks laid on their sides as in the case of walls, to a height of 2 feet 3 inches.” Many large slabs which lay scattered about were supposed to have served as the cover of the grave. A few fragments of human bones were found within the inclosure. This most interesting burial place is shown in plate 8, b. And how numerous the smaller graves were in the adjacent country may be learned from these references: In Warren County, “on the north bank of the river, near Bowling-Green, are a great many ancient graves, some of them with a row of stones set on edge around them. These graves, with a large mound on which large trees are growing, are included within the remains of an old fort built of earth. Some ancient relics were found here in 1838.” And of the adjoining county of Barren, when referring to a mound on Big Barren River, 12 miles from Glasgow, in which stone graves were found, he said: ” In the neighborhood, for half a mile or more, are found. many of these graves” Again, when writing of discoveries made in Bourbon County, many miles northeast of the preceding, he told that ” on all of the. principal water courses in the county, Indian graves are to be found, sometimes single, but most frequently several grouped together. Single graves are usually indicated by broad flat stones, set in the ground edgewise around the skeleton, but where a number have been deposited together, rude stone walls were erected around them, and these having fallen inwards, the rocks retain a vertical position, sometimes resembling a rought pavement” The latter must have resembled the burials encountered along the summits of the bluffs overlooking the Ohio, in Campbell County, Kentucky, and elsewhere. Although stone-lined graves are so numerous in the valleys south of the Ohio, and may be regarded the most characteristic form of burial practiced in that region, nevertheless many other types of graves are to be encountered. During the past few centuries the country in question was undoubtedly occupied, and possibly reoccupied, by various tribes belonging to different stocks and possessing unlike manners and customs in disposing of their dead. And here, as elsewhere east of the Mississippi, are found proofs of such tribal movements. Nor should all burials of a single type be attributed to one tribe or group of tribes, although there was undoubtedly a strong tendency to follow a traditional custom, and it is equally true that no one tribe practiced a single form of burial to the exclusion of all others. In addition to the forms of burial already described, others are found in the valleys of the streams flowing into the Ohio from the south, and of the cemeteries thus far discovered one of the most interesting, and one of unusual form, was encountered near the right bank of Green River, in Ohio County, Kentucky. Here an area of more than an acre had become somewhat more elevated than the surrounding surface as the result of long-continued occupancy, the accumulation of camp refuse, and natural causes. The site was partially examined and 298 burials were revealed. These included both adults and children. ” The graves at this place were in the main roughly circular or elliptical. Their size, as a rule, was somewhat limited, there being usually but little space in them beyond that needed to accommodate. the skeletons which, as a rule, were closely flexed, purposely, no doubt, for economy of space. In depth the burials ranged between one foot and eight feet five inches, many of them ending in the yellow sand (some being 2 feet, 3 feet, or exceptionally nearly 4 feet in it) on which rested the made-ground composing the Knoll.” The photograph of one burial, designated as No. 132, in the account, is shown in plate 8, a. The body had been closely folded and placed in a circular grave pit having a diameter of about 20 inches. This will suggest similar burials, some in Ohio, others as far east as the upper James River Valley, in Virginia. and decidedly different from any of the preceding was a great communal, or tribal, burial mound which stood on the lowlands of Buffalo Creek, near the Ohio, in Union County, Kentucky. The mound was partially examined and on the west side bodies were found covered with six feet of earth, forming there about five separate layers. The bones of the lowest layer were so tender that they could not be removed. . . . It would appear that the general plan of burial was to scrape the surface free from all vegetable matter, and deposit the body on its back, with the head turned to the left side. The bodies at the bottom of the heap, so far as could be ascertained by the examination, were buried without weapons, tools, or burial urns. . . . To the depth of three feet from the surface, some of the bodies had with them burial urns. . . . Three or four tiers of skeletons, of later burials, were covered with clay. It is probable that as many as three hundred bodies, infant and adult, were buried in this mound. . . . Adults and children were buried together.” This represented a type of burial mound encountered farther lip the valley of the Ohio, a good example of which formerly stood within the city of Cincinnati. It was ” in the center of the upper and lower town, on the edge of the upper bank. The principal street leading from the water is cut through the barrow, and exposes its strata and remains. . . . The dead repose in double horizontal tiers; between each tier are regular layers of sand, flat surface stones, gravel and earth. I counted seven tiers, and might have discovered more. . . . With the dead were buried their ornaments, arms and utensils.” In the extreme northeastern corner of Indiana, almost due north of the preceding, was another mound of this type. In the southwest corner of Steuben County, on the north shore of Little Turkey Lake, stood a group of 10 small mounds. One of the group was examined and six strata of human remains were revealed, “distinctly separated by thin strata of earth; the skeletons lay on their backs, extended full length” Neither pottery nor implements occurred with the remains.

Many groups of stone-lined graves have been discovered north of the Ohio. The majority of the groups are quite small and usually occupy a prominent point near a watercourse. It is a well-established fact that the Kaskaskia, and undoubtedly members of the other allied Illinois tribes, constructed stone-lined graves on the bluffs near the Mississippi, not far from the month of the Kaskaskia River, in Randolph County, Illinois, long after the removal of the Kaskaskia from their ancient village on the upper Illinois, very early in the eighteenth century. Some graves near the old French village of Prairie du Rocher, a short distance above the mouth of the Kaskaskia, were evidently made within a century, as “Mrs. Morude, an old Belgian lady who lives here, informed Mr. Middleton that when they were grading for the foundation of their house she saw skulls with the hair still hanging to them taken from these graves. It is therefore more than probable, and, in fact, is generally understood by the old settlers of this section, who derived the information from their parents, that these are the graves of the Kaskaskia and other Indians who resided here when this part of Illinois began to be settled by the whites.” The graves found here were of the usual forms, some containing skeletons extended at full length, others holding various bones which had been thus deposited after the removal of all flesh. With some were small earthenware vessels. but little else was associated with the fast crumbling remains. As the Algonquian tribes are known to have occupied both banks of the Mississippi along this part of its course it is reasonable to attribute the similar graves encountered on the right bank of the stream to the Illinois, who undoubtedly crossed back and forth as wants and desires made necessary. Across from Kaskaskia, a few miles northward, was the Saline River, a small stream along which were many salt springs, and these served to attract both Indians and French, who, by evaporating the brackish waters, secured a supply of salt. An extensive camp site stood near the mouth of the Saline, and stone-lined graves covered the summits of the surrounding hills. Four graves w e r e encountered o n t h e highest- point just south of the site and proved of more than ordinary interest. None of the small group contained an extended burial, but in one which measured 5 feet in length and 18 inches in width were seven skulls and a large quantity of separated bones, all in a greatly decomposed condition. Another of the graves presented several very interesting and unusual features. ” The pieces of limestone used in forming the walls and bottom were rather smaller than were often employed. The extreme length was just 6 feet, and the width at the widest point 15 inches. This was divided into two compartments, the larger being 4 feet 6 inches in length. In this were the bones of a single skeleton, disarticulated be fore burial. Near the skull lay a small earthen vessel which was saved. The smaller compartment was occupied solely by a skull, facing upward, and resting upon the stone which formed the bottom of the grave. It was quite evident that both sections were constructed at the same time, as stones on the bottom extended on both sides of the partition, and likewise the stone on the north wall. Another curious feature of this grave was the converging of the north and south walls to complete the inclosure at the eastern end. The grave is shown in figure 3. It was not possible to determine the extent of the ancient cemetery of -which these four graves formed a part, but originally it may have been quite large. From the high point occupied by this group of burials it was possible to obtain a wide view of the valley across the old bed of the Mississippi to the bluffs beyond the Kaskaskia, and to see the site of the Kaskaskia town, created soon after the tribe had left their older village on the banks of the Illinois.

MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David I. Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Volume 71. Washington: Government Printing Office. 1920. Web. 13 February 2016.
- Last updated on Dec 20th, 2012

This page is part of a larger collection. Access the full collection at Native Cemeteries and Forms of Burial East of the Mississippi.

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